Flooding in Atlantic City

Arizona Avenue resident Jose Valdez, 16, looks over flooding on his street in Atlantic City, Friday Sep. 30, 2016. This week's storm dumped two inches of rain onto the barrier island. (Michael Ein/Staff Photographer)

Michael Ein / Staff Photographer

Storm watch is familiar to shore residents. When they hear of a tropical storm in the Caribbean, they start paying attention for a couple of weeks. Most of the time the storm misses the Jersey Shore, but occasionally a hurricane becomes likely enough that residents must protect themselves and their properties.

There is a transformation of coastal living coming that will change the Jersey Shore more than the most powerful storm. It will take a long time to get here and it will be felt for decades, but unlike a hurricane it is sure to happen.

So-called Superstorm Sandy four years ago provided the wakeup call to society that something must be done. Barely a hurricane when it made landfall in southern Ocean County, it caused $71 billion in damage.

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With the National Flood Insurance Program already $28 billion in debt, and the insured value of coastal properties along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico at $64 trillion when Sandy hit, U.S. coastal development clearly had already become unsustainable.

Nature will produce storms and floods frequently and indefinitely. But society’s ability to repair their damage is limited. Just one southern Ocean town, Little Egg Harbor Township, has received $198 million in flood insurance payments since 1978, more than received in each of 29 U.S. states. The federal government appropriated $48 billion for Sandy relief after a considerable political fight. The fight will get harder with each storm, and the aid will diminish.

Properties in coastal zones can’t be fully protected from storms. Buildings can be raised above typical flood waters, but infrastructure such as roads and utilities can’t. And there’s no escaping the wind.

That leaves one option — reducing the amount of future storm damage by reducing the number of properties at risk.

Frankly, that task is so daunting that there is zero chance the painful increase in storm damage costs can be halted. It can only be slowed through a long, challenging process. Making matters worse is the sinking of New Jersey coastal land and an expected rise in sea levels.

The process has begun, with a nonprofit planning organization, New Jersey Future, studying the conditions and issues, and sounding out coastal residents on their views. By year’s end, it will make recommendations to state government for changes to the Coastal Areas Facilities Review Act.

There’s no appealing way to discourage or reduce coastal development. People love living at the shore. They don’t want to pay added fees or taxes to do so. They don’t want to be prevented from rebuilding after a storm. They don’t want their property values to fall. They fear that a buyout program couldn’t possibly give them what their properties are worth.

Yet some combination of such things must happen if the bill for future storm and flood damage is to be tolerable. Whatever the ongoing costs turn out to be, rest assured much will continue to be paid by taxpayers regardless of where they live.

We urge everyone in New Jersey — property owners, renters, business people, service organizations, public officials at all levels — to start paying attention to this transformation and playing a role in the process. There will be plenty of news stories and public hearings, and those with a strong interest might want to get on the New Jersey Future mailing list by emailing dkutner@njfuture.org.

There’s no question New Jersey would be better off today if coastal development had been better planned. But we think there is still time for a reasonable transition to a sustainable future if everyone works together with more than the usual effectiveness.

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