Hurricane Sandy left New Jersey with an especially heart-wrenching question: Where do you draw the line in the sand? Where do you rebuild, and where do you pack it in and retreat from the shore?
Some say New Jersey hasn't pondered that question enough and hasn't taken rising sea levels into account. The rush to rebuild will leave residents vulnerable for the next storm, they say.
An exception is a program that is using some of the federal aid received after Sandy for voluntary buyouts of flood-prone homes. In May, Gov. Chris Christie announced that $300 million would be used to buy about 1,300 Sandy-damaged homes, converting the properties to open space. One of the first areas to be targeted was the Delaware Bay shore in Cumberland County, where the state plans to buy about 350 homes.
Last week, Cumberland County freeholders passed a resolution asking the state to rethink that plan. Instead, they want those millions to be redirected to a comprehensive plan to strengthen and protect the bay shore, including rebuilding damaged sewer infrastructure and wastewater-treatment facilities. The freeholders see this as a way to preserve the historic commercial fishing and clamming industries and the communities that grew up around them.
Unfortunately, that's not the way federal grants work. Department of Environmental Protection officials have already said the money for buyouts is not transferable to other uses.
The fact is the federal and state response to Sandy has to include buying properties and relocating some people out of flood-prone areas. And as unfortunate as it may be for Cumberland County - where freeholders are understandably trying to protect both ratables and a way of life - the Delaware Bay shore has been suffering severe, dangerous erosion for decades - long before Sandy, long before the latest reports about rising sea levels. Rebuilding there, particularly rebuilding expensive infrastructure, simply makes no sense.
The freeholders argue Cumberland County should be entitled to the same kind of resources being used to rebuild shore towns along the Atlantic Ocean. But the line has to be drawn somewhere. And the Cumberland County shore represents just the beginning of the hard choices that will need to be made along our coast.