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Flood-mapping tool provides a worrisome glimpse of Jersey Shore's future, based on sea-level projections

Water laps at the pavement at Albany and West End avenues in Atlantic City at high tide, even when there isn’t a strong wind coming off the ocean.

According to a new Rutgers University online map, if the average sea level rises 1 foot — something possible by 2050, according to multiple scientific projections — the water level will make travel along West End Avenue and Wellington Avenue all but impossible at high tide, unless the road is raised.

If the sea level rises 2 feet, it will put the lowest-lying sections of Ventnor Heights, Chelsea Heights, Ocean City and the north end of Brigantine under a foot of water during every high tide.

That’s what can be learned by playing with www.njfloodmapper.org, a new website that allows residents and community leaders to see how South Jersey could look based on a range of sea-level rise projections.

The glimpse into the future is sobering, “especially when people see their particular municipality, their neighborhoods,” said Richard Lathrop, a Rutgers University environmental science professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, which managed the project. “There’s no real easy decision and easy choices in terms of how to react to this information.”

The flood-mapping tool was developed through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant and built with input from local leaders throughout the state. It is the first of two websites that will be released this year to help communities plan for sea-level rise, said Randall Solomon, co-director of Sustainable Jersey. The mapping site shows the vulnerable areas and a second site, expected to be released in April, will give leaders specific planning guidelines and tools, he said.

“This is something that will be more in demand six months from now because the communities really concerned with sea-level rise and climate change are also the ones concerned with rebuilding right now,” Solomon said.

“Six months to a year, when most of the rebuilding is complete or well under way, then I think people will have time to take a deep breath and say, ‘How can we make sure we are prepared for the next event?’”

By 2050, according to NOAA and Rutgers University predictions, sea level rise is likely to add 1.2 feet. By 2100, well within the lifespan of most new houses and many older ones, the sea level could rise by 3 feet, those projections say. A storm surge would add several feet on top of that higher water level.

“What we need to look at in terms of rebuilding after Sandy is also looking at new construction 150 years out,” because that’s the general lifespan of many buildings, said John Miller, of the New Jersey Floodplain Managers Association. “A FEMA map created now is not going to show the risk in 150 years, and that’s what this tool is doing.”

The water level shown on the map is what would happen during the highest astronomical tide and does not calculate how wind and erosion may affect the tide or any specific location, said Lisa Auermuller, watershed coordinator for the Rutgers-managed Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and one of the organizers of the site. The site is not intended to illustrate storm effects, but rather the slow and steady rise of the sea, she said.

“We didn’t build this tool to scare people,” Auermuller said. “We built this tool so people have this information now to plan for the future.”

Still, the site can be fascinating — and frightening — to use. With a few clicks of a mouse, a visitor can innundate vast sections of the virtual New Jersey coastline, including neighborhoods, schools, roads and favorite beaches. The jarring illustrations show what can happen over decades, a timeframe beyond what most planning and political actions consider.

The site not only shows which evacuation routes, hospitals, schools, police stations and other important public buildings would be affected by sea-level rise at certain heights. The site also shows how the advisory base flood maps released by FEMA compare to Hurricane Sandy’s flooding. The state adopted those maps in January as the new elevation standard for Sandy-damaged properties.

New Jersey is directing residents to the FEMA advisory maps to know how high they should rebuild storm-damaged houses because the new flood elevations are the official engineering guidance, Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said. “But I think the Rutgers tool provides a really good way for the public to visualize why it’s so important to elevate to the highest possible standards.”

Making sure evacuation routes are above flooding levels and ensuring new infrastructure will stand up to storms are key details that Atlantic County considers when looking at future plans, Atlantic County Planner Joe Maher said. “This (site) will be great because it’s another tool in the box,” he said.

Recognizing sea-level rise is occurring and visualizing the potential effects will be a crucial part of rebuilding and planning for the future, said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future. Kasabach noted in a November editorial that Atlantic City, Ventnor and Brigantine were among the five communities with the most number of people at risk of being affected by sea-level rise.

“We’re going to be spending a lot of money on infrastructure and rebuilding properties,” he said “If we’re putting things in places where they’re likely to get wiped out again, or worse, putting people in harm’s way, that’s irresponsible.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

swatson@pressofac.com

Follow @acpresssarah on Twitter

 

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