ATLANTIC CITY — Dutch flood control expert Edgar J. Westerhof stood in front of hundreds of floodplain managers at Bally’s Atlantic City on Wednesday and showed an aerial photo of an intensely developed Atlantic City, from the ocean to the bay.
“Is this a coastal calamity in slow motion?” he asked the crowd attending the 14th annual conference of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management. The group is made up of specialists in reducing loss of life and property damage from floods, many of whom work for municipalities.
In the face of rising sea levels and more frequent storms, such complete development of barrier islands is unsustainable, said the North America flood risk and resilience lead of Arcadis, the consultancy and design firm that is working with New York City on the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan. Hurricane Sandy caused $19 billion in damage just in Manhattan, according to Arcadis.
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“The future of this area is about tough decisions,” Westerhof said of Atlantic City, as coastal areas adjust to an expected 4-foot to 8-foot sea-level rise by 2100, and to regular nuisance flooding at every high tide by about 2030. “This is not going to be a pleasure cruise.”
The conference also included workshops on stormwater management, hazard mitigation planning and the National Flood Insurance Program.
Atlantic City and other barrier islands will have to identify the areas most important to protect — those with the greatest environmental, economic and cultural assets — and put financial resources into natural and constructed barriers that will allow people to live and work there.
And they must allow other parts of the islands to flood regularly, Westerhof said. That’s what has been done in his country of the Netherlands, where there have been large-scale buyout programs of homes to create parks, parking garages and amphitheaters that can hold vast amounts of water when needed.
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“We call it making room for water,” said Westerhof.
After his speech, former Department of Environmental Protection environmental scientist Dorina Frizzera and planner Jessica Sanchez, who work together in Central Jersey on resiliency projects, asked whether the Netherlands has climate skeptics, people who don’t believe there is a need to spend billions on flood protection and actively work against it.
The two collectively have 60 years of experience in planning and water resource management, said Frizzera, and often face opposition from those who refuse to see the planet is warming and water is rising.
Westerhof said there are people who oppose the spending, but they aren’t able to stop it. Several factors make it easier to do what is needed in the Netherlands.
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First, the coastline there is only 150 miles long, compared to thousands of miles of coastline here, he said. Finances and government practices are also simpler there.
“We pay 50 percent in taxes that pays for this,” he said. “And we have a top-down government that makes decisions.”
Frizzera said she is trying to help get funding for a project to build an artificial reef off the mouth of the Maurice River, to try to break down the force of water damaging the shoreline. But it is an uphill battle, she said.
Water management is the third most popular symbol for the Netherlands after tulips and bicycles. The country has invested about $17 billion in flood control in the past four decades, he said, largely spurred on by floods that killed 1,800 people in 1953.
Eighty percent of the work has been creation of natural dunes, while about 20 percent has been building of structures like floodgates that close off inlets and other areas.
“Without the levies, gates and dunes, we wouldn’t exist,” said Westerhof. “Fifty percent of the country would be under regular flooding.”
His firm has also worked with the city of Boston and the state of Connecticut to help develop resiliency plans and obtain federal funding, he said.
In Connecticut, Arcadis argued that special attention should be paid to protecting the Boston-to-New York City rail line along the coast, and helped the state get $60 million in federal funding for those projects, he said.
Bridgeport, Connecticut, is particularly important to that line, he said, and so is eligible for a higher level of protection. That’s because it provides energy to more than 1 million households, supporting commuters from Stamford into New York.
“The future will be worse. There is no question about it,” said Westerhof. “Sandy hit just south of New York City, maybe the next Florence will hit in New Jersey. And what would happen with a city like Atlantic City? We’d better be prepared to use our time to step up and identify where we want to be in 10 years from now, and start allocating capital resources to make that happen.”
The conference ends Thursday with workshops on flood hazard identification and mapping, and on climate change.