PISCATAWAY — Hurricane Sandy showed how vulnerable coastal communities are to storm-related destruction, and models of sea-level rise have made clear the vulnerability will only increase, said speakers at Rutgers University’s “Taking Chances” symposium Friday.
But politicians have not taken the long view, and they haven’t considered ways to deal with storms other than rebuilding, the speakers said. The symposium is one of many Sandy-related events this week, leading up to the fourth anniversary of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm.
Short-term pressure to rebuild “bigger and better” in the same places has dominated the discussion, a panel of policy experts stressed.
That pressure comes from the tourism industry and homeowners understandably desperate to get back into their homes, said Rutgers associate professor Karen M. O’Neill, co-editor of a book on the aftermath of Sandy called “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy.”
But increasingly, those owning coastal properties are the wealthy, and the panel predicted that trend will continue.
“My conclusion is the real choice is not between rebuilding or retreating, but between gentrification or retreating,” said Clinton J. Andrews, Rutgers professor of urban planning and policy development. “The people won’t be the same people who were living there who get to rebuild in most cases.”
Low- and moderate-income people are being priced out of rebuilding, he said, in some cases forced to sell damaged homes or empty lots at a deep discount, only to see wealthier people build much larger homes there.
Andrews said society needs to let the federal pendulum “swing back towards self-sufficiency” and stop thinking that simply elevating houses is a viable long-term solution.
“It gets us over the next storm, maybe, but not over the long-term sea-level rise,” said Andrews.
Rutgers scientists have predicted a likely 1.5-foot sea-level rise by 2050, effectively drowning many of the wetlands that provide buffering against storm surges and leaving roads and utilities underwater much of the time in some places.
People simply aren’t looking realistically at risk, said Daniel J. Van Abs, Rutgers associate professor of practice for water, society & environment.
“The most significant thing we have not done, we are still not doing, is a recognition of risk,” said Van Abs, the other co-editor of “Taking Chances.” “Unless you are willing to recognize risk, there is no particular incentive to take action.”
The panel recommended looking at ways to begin working collaboratively on a regional level to plan for moving residents out of the most vulnerable areas, including by consolidating municipalities east to west.
At the same time, many of those who are trying to rebuild in areas hard hit by Sandy are still not back in their homes, according to representatives of the New Jersey Organizing Project. The nonprofit was formed to help people negotiate the complex flood insurance and federal emergency funds systems.
They spoke at a state Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee hearing Thursday and at a Tuesday night Sierra Club of New Jersey forum in Brick Township called “Are We Stronger Than The Next Storm?”
“Forty thousand primary homeowners were impacted by the storm (with significant damage), and 15,000 applied for the RREM program,” Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said at the Sierra Club forum.
The state Department of Community Affairs administers the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program with $1.1 billion in federal funds.
Eligible homeowners whose primary homes were damaged by Sandy got up to $150,000 in grants to pay for construction projects such as raising homes that were not covered by other funding sources.
“Of them, 8,000 remain (in the program) today. What happened to the other 7,000, I don’t know,” she said. “Only 4,000 have completed construction and elevation projects. The other 50 percent are not finished. Obviously we need to do better.”
Devecka-Rinear said many have simply given up on negotiating the complex insurance and assistance programs or were inappropriately told they didn’t qualify. She is lobbying for legislation that would let people still caught in Sandy-related financial problems put off paying their mortgages on damaged properties for a time, instead extending the length of their mortgages.
“Our concern is that not only has the state not learned from Sandy, but that these policies will leave us at risk during the next storm,” said Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
He said the state has rolled back controls over development in environmentally sensitive coastal areas, in spite of models that predict a 1-3 foot sea-level rise by 2050.
When asked at the Sierra Club forum how anyone can justify rebuilding in highly vulnerable, exposed coastal areas, former Asbury Park Press reporter Kirk Moore said soon there will be strong financial pressure against doing so.
“People want to live near the water,” said Moore, who is now associate editor at WorkBoat magazine and field editor for National Fisherman magazine. “Banks and insurance companies will walk away, and only the super-wealthy who can self-insure will be able to live there.”