Towns recovering from Hurricane Sandy should plan for a future likely to include more extreme weather, more frequent flooding and higher water levels, emergency planners and climate experts said Friday.
Municipal officials are advised to use the lessons they learned about what didn’t work or what failed during Sandy to set a benchmark for what’s next, those experts said during a forum hosted by the Atlantic County Utilities Authority.
The forum, organized by Sustainable Jersey, brought together climate adaptation experts and municipal officials to discuss how towns should begin the process of becoming more resilient to flooding storms.
The organization also announced two new websites that will help municipalities identify problem areas and how to fix them. The two sites, which contain mapping and worksheets, will become public in a few weeks, said Lisa Auermuller, watershed coordinator for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Randy Solomon, co-director of Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit organization that helps municipalities become more environmentally friendly, said the group has worked to develop climate adaptation guidelines for several years. But, he said, municipalities had little interest prior to Sandy.
“I think (the storm) has taken something as abstract as climate change and made it very real and immediate to the extent that it’s focused people’s attention,” Solomon said.
Among the key lessons Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther said his city learned during Sandy was that the municipality-required bulkhead height along the bay was not high enough.
Guenther said the city undertook multiple projects to fortify weak spots along the oceanfront and to build better stormwater systems to drain low-lying sections after the December 1992 northeaster.
“A number of them have worked well for your normal elevation storms,” he said, but after Sandy, the city will need to revisit those measures.
Another pressing concern, Guenther said, was how proposed Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone data released last month will affect residents and the overall community.
The changes “make it virtually impossible for homeowners to sustain flood insurance in the future if they don’t raise their homes,” Guenther said. “Some of the homeowners may be in a catch-22 situation: They can’t afford to raise it, can’t afford not to.”
Todd Steiner, a flood insurance and mitigation expert with FEMA, said the advisory base flood elevation maps released last month do not determine flood insurance rates but are the draft for what new flood insurance maps could look like. The advisory maps are considered the most recent data when it comes to FEMA approving grants, Steiner said.
In Maurice River Township, there has been a renewed focus on restoring marshes and oyster reefs at the mouth of the Maurice River as a way to protect the fishing ports around the bend from the open Delaware Bay, said Ben Stowman, chairman of the township’s land use board. Stowman discussed how the township is trying to restore a salt marsh to protect one bank of the river that has a major marina and fishing port.
Stowman also said the township is trying to develop a berm across a low-lying section of the flood plain as a way to reduce salt water intrusion and keep trees along the edges of the marsh from dying.
“Our plan is to adapt. We’re not giving up. We really want that history and industry to survive,” Stowman said.
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