Sandy flooding

Flooding remains in the back bay area of Wildwood as Cape May County copes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 30, 2012.

Dale Gerhard

NEW BRUNSWICK - New Jersey is not doing enough to ensure rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy takes climate change into account, experts said Monday at Rutgers University.

And the most vulnerable places are the bay communities that suffered the most damage in the storm nearly one year ago, they said.

It was a key message at a conference where nearly two dozen experts spoke about the response to Sandy as well as what the recovery bodes for future storms as billions of recovery dollars flow into the state.

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"It is hard to spend a lot of money, it is hard to spend a lot of money quickly, and it is even harder to spend a lot of money quickly and well," said Joseph Seneca, a professor at the Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy. "It is important to get these decisions right. These expenditures will not get a do-over, given the deeply constrained fiscal situation we face."

Monday's conference brought together nearly two dozen Rutgers researchers from numerous disciplines. It was the inaugural event of the Rutgers Climate Institute, a universitywide effort to connect faculty to examine climate change and the human and natural effects.

Among the most significant challenges facing state and local planners will be finding ways to protect bayside communities, where the vast majority of flood damage occurred during the storm, researchers said.

It is estimated sea levels will rise between 2.5 and 6 feet by the end of the century. If those forecasts prove accurate, New Jersey's effort to require those rebuilding to elevate at least one foot above the current base flood mark is not enough, said Ken Miller, a geologist and sea level rise expert.

"If New Jersey wants to be moving forward to incorporate sea level rise, there needs to be a minimum of two feet above base flood elevation in the current maps," he said.

Sea level rise was responsible for an additional 38,000 homes to flood during Sandy, Miller said.

And homeowners, businesses and communities should take sea level rise into consideration as they move forward. Their needs, however, will differ based on how long they expect a house or an investment to last, said Bob Kopp, a Rutgers professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. For example, a homeowner's risk for the next 20 years is significantly different than a public utility investing billions of dollars in infrastructure that needs to last for more than 100 years, Kopp said.

One major effect on Barnegat Bay's communities could be large increases in range of water level rises with the twice daily tides, said Norbert Psuty, professor emeritus at Rutgers' Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

"If we were to double or triple this number, there would be far more impact during the normal exchange of water. Throw a storm on top of that and you would see that places like this would be extremely vulnerable to inundation."

While New Jersey and other states have put a major focus on building extensive dune systems following Sandy, those dunes will only protect the immediate oceanfront area, Psuty said. Communities on the bay side of barrier islands will see no protection from the dunes, he said.

"I'm afraid when I hear our local politicians talk about the dunes, they think the dunes solve everything and that is just not the case."

Another topic discussed centered on how frequent future storms with effects similar to Sandy's could occur due to climate change.

A warmer world means more energy in the ocean and atmosphere for storms, and air currents such as the jet stream could force future storms to take similar tracks as Sandy did, said Jennifer Francis, a Rutgers research professor who studies the effects of the warming Arctic on weather patterns. Francis said she thinks climate change played a role in how Sandy developed.

"The chances of something like Sandy happening again become higher," she said.

Sandy was the first time many coastal New Jersey residents saw the raw power of the ocean and the destruction a storm could bring to their community, Seneca said. "It was a power that took away the sense of being in control of your own welfare and your own well-being."

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

@acpresssarah on Twitter

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