Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving a trail of devastation in her wake. While many New Jerseyans have experienced the ferocity of coastal storms before, the wrath of Sandy was unprecedented. In many areas, storm surge, flooding and wave damages were more extensive than anything we have encountered in recorded history. The resulting effects to people and property are heart-wrenching, and the thoughts and prayers of all New Jersey residents are with our coastal "family" during this dire time.
For those of us who study coastal processes and the impact of coastal storms in New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy was not a surprising event. Copious technical data from a range of sources demonstrate that New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to damages from coastal storms and hurricanes. Historical shoreline maps dating back to the 1850s illustrate the pattern of shoreline dynamics, beach erosion and storm damage that continues today. Studies conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection further document the significant level of development and public infrastructure at risk along the coast. More than 100 years of tide gauge data collected in Atlantic City and Sandy Hook confirm that relative sea level has risen one foot over the past century. The undeniable future of the New Jersey coast is one of rising tides, shifting sands, increasing storm vulnerability and increasing taxpayer liability.
As we move into the post-storm restoration phase, we have a unique opportunity to seriously rethink our recovery. The scope of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy provides a platform to consider alternatives to putting everything back exactly where it was prior to the storm. Where should we rebuild? How should we rebuild? What changes to our infrastructure should we consider? What actions must we take to enhance longterm protection of people and property and mitigate the human and financial burdens inflicted by future storm events? Perhaps most important, can we summon the political will to make the difficult decisions necessary to enact sensible redevelopment? These are just some of the questions that policymakers and communities need to address right now. One thing is certain: we cannot ignore lessons learned and repeat past mistakes as we redevelop our coast. We have to be smarter than that.
Some might suggest that federal assistance through the National Flood Insurance Program provides an adequate safety net to offset increased risk associated with post-storm redevelopment activities. NFIP is an important program, but with increasing frequency and intensity of storms and floods, the long-term solvency of the current NFIP structure is uncertain. Katrina and other 2005 hurricanes alone created almost $19 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury, increasing the public tax burden. And the financial losses from Sandy may be equally staggering. With 5.6 million policies and an insured exposure of $1.2 trillion, reliance on this program to hedge against increased risk from unwise redevelopment is simply irresponsible.
The good news is there are strategies that have proven to be effective in protecting lives and reducing storm damage and associated recovery costs in New Jersey. Coastal dunes buffer the shoreline from the direct impact of waves and storm surge, provided that we don't limit dune height to enhance ocean views. Development setbacks provide safe distance between structures and the ravages of coastal storms. Construction practices that exceed minimum regulatory requirements allow buildings to withstand storm and flood damages and increase community resilience. We must aggressively implement these and other mitigation techniques as we redevelop the coast to better protect our residents so that natural hazards don't continue to result in natural disasters.
So, as we chart a course for redevelopment along the New Jersey coast, it behooves us to learn from past experience. Time and tides have shaped the coastline for millions of years, and will continue to do so in the future, with little regard for the millions of public dollars we spend each year on beach nourishment and shore protection. This is not conjecture or politics, rather it is sound science that reflects a demonstrable and irrefutable historical record. We know that history repeats itself, and we cannot pretend that it won't continue to do so. The current administration has a rare opportunity to demonstrate, through sensible post-storm rebuilding efforts, that protecting lives and property is a benchmark of good government, as is protecting the taxpayer's pocketbook. The opportunity to rethink our recovery and rebuild wisely provides a chance for real leaders to lead. Current and future generations of New Jersey residents deserve nothing less.
Mark Mauriello is a geologist who worked in the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection for 30 years, specializing in shoreline processes and coastal zone management. He served as acting DEP commissioner from October 2008 to January 2010. His family has owned a home at the Jersey Shore since 1957.