ATLANTIC CITY — Concrete blocks, blacktop and bags of lawn trimmings.
That has been Atlantic City’s makeshift solution to the growing number of foot-deep sinkholes that line the decades-old, bayside bulkheads on Sunset Avenue, residents say.
Julie Lawler said she and her neighbors call the city to complain about water that creeps from the bay onto her street through the holes. A few weeks later, public works employees fill the ditches with chunks of building material and grass clippings, she said.
“The water comes up from underneath,” Lawler said. “We call the city all the time about it, and eventually they come.”
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
But it’s only a Band-Aid.
For a city saddled with debt and decreased tax revenues, there are limited funds for flood mitigation projects, according to the city’s annual evaluation report for its Hazard Mitigation Plan.
On Monday, Absecon Island saw minor coastal flooding. Water hit the wooden barrier and crept up the sinkholes onto Lawler’s street.
It’s a common scene for homeowners across Atlantic City’s bayside, where a combination of poor storm drainage systems and aging bulkheads built decades ago no longer fight nuisance flooding and the threat of sea-level rise. Over decades, water has hit the wooden barriers and slipped through its cracks, causing slow deterioration and, in some cases, sinkholes.
The last time a large portion of Atlantic City’s bayside bulkheads were replaced was 2008, when the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority spent $10.7 million to construct an 8,000-foot-long bulkhead in Venice Park. State, local and federal officials in the past largely focused on protecting oceanfront properties, though the other side of the island sees the worst inundation.
Now, for the first time since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Atlantic City has received federal funding to replace bulkheads on a few streets. It comes five years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 15-page study on flood mitigation options for a one-mile stretch along the bay between the Atlantic City Expressway and Albany Avenue.
“The age of the bulkheads along the back bay varies significantly,” said the city’s grant writer, Jim Rutala. “They’re not watertight. So as they age, they leak and collapse.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing $217,500 this year to replace a crumbling barrier on Tallahassee Avenue in Lower Chelsea, where cones block pedestrians from a large sinkhole at the street’s end. Design proposals are being sought for bulkhead replacements on eight blocks in Chelsea while the city waits for approval of a $3.6 million FEMA grant, which takes about a year.
Another $572,500 FEMA grant was secured to construct a new barrier on a small portion of North Massachusetts Avenue leading up to Kammerman’s Marina, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is funding a $3.7 million seawall at Caspian Point on Absecon Inlet.
New bulkheads would be more resilient, built higher and with more airtight materials, like steel.
“Projects of this size take assistance,” Rutala said. “Atlantic City hasn’t had anything like this on the back bays recently.”
Other plans are pending.
The Army Corps is waiting to complete a feasibility study for a 1,900-foot steel sheet pile bulkhead from Brighton Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood to the expressway, where sinkholes line the wooden barrier. The approximate cost would be $6.8 million, according to the Army Corps’ 2014 study, though the agency is looking at other flood mitigation strategies there as well.
“We coordinated a draft project management plan, cost-sharing agreement and letter of intent with the city and are awaiting response on that,” said Army Corps spokesman Stephen Rochette.
But movement is slow.
Getting congressional approval to fund projects takes time. The Army Corps is releasing a tentative plan that looks at reducing flooding in the state’s back bays, but construction is at least a decade away.
In the meantime, residents want the city to upgrade drainage systems to better push water back into the bay during flooding. At a civic association meeting last month at Stockton University, Mayor Frank Gilliam said “simple maintenance” is needed on storm drains and outfall pipes throughout the city.
“Sand gets clogged up in those pipes. It’s simple maintenance,” he said.
Chris Macaluso, a 32-year-old living on Arizona Avenue, agrees that aging bulkheads are only part of the problem.
Water from the bay backs up through the drains, he said, and fills the street when there’s a heavy rain or full moon.
“These storm drains,” he said, “they just start spewing.”