After Sandy, a building debate at Shore

The downed roller coaster at a Seaside Heights amusement park could become a tourist attraction, the mayor said.
The downed roller coaster at a Seaside Heights amusement park could become a tourist attraction, the mayor said. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Promises to construct anew give way to questions on development.

Posted: November 26, 2012

Underneath its summer rental homes and saltwater taffy stands, the Jersey Shore is, geologically speaking, a chain of barrier islands - strips of sand built up over centuries that protect the mainland from the full impact of Atlantic storms.

As the islands were developed into resorts, particularly in the last 50 years, houses and roads were built atop the former dunes. Man-made seawalls were constructed to protect development.

In the weeks since Sandy wreaked nearly $30 billion in damage in New Jersey, most of it on the coastline, debate has grown over whether rising sea levels and a projected worsening of storms in decades to come mean it is time to begin pulling development back from the ocean's edge.

"We need to look at these islands geologically. Some islands you have to move back from; some you might not have to immediately," said Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. "It's so hard to enforce these things in the climate of sympathy for the victims, but that's when you have to do it."

While such arguments have been made in scientific circles for more than a decade, only now are they entering the political arena.

While proclaiming that the Jersey Shore will be rebuilt, Gov. Christie has emphasized that careful consideration is required. He has suggested that residents in flood-ravaged areas think twice about whether to rebuild their homes there.

In an interview last week, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who in the weeks since Sandy has been outspoken about not rebuilding in flood-prone areas, said consensus was growing.

"The governor understands this," said Sweeney. "Just to put a house back on blocks when you know you're getting flooded, none of that makes sense anymore. The New Jersey I'm living in today is not the New Jersey I grew up with. The storms are stronger and more frequent, and we need to adapt."

What shape New Jersey's reconstruction will take is unknown, according to state and federal officials. Building codes, which already had been strengthened to make new structures more storm resilient, could be readjusted to force homeowners to further elevate their structures. More dunes likely will be rehabilitated - especially after they reportedly helped save many areas during Sandy.

A more controversial option would be for the federal government to buy property in flood-prone areas to prevent development there at all.

Since 1989, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent close to $10 billion to purchase and relocate people's homes. That is what happened in Missouri in 1993 after the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flooded 30,000 square miles.

FEMA declined to make officials available to discuss whether similar action might be taken in areas most severely affected by Sandy.

The government-purchase option should be made available to those who want it, Sweeney said.

At issue is the cost of rebuilding properties flood after flood. FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program, which was almost $18 billion in debt before Sandy, has paid "a disproportionate share" of claims to properties that have flooded more than once, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service. Of the properties for which homeowners filed claims, less than 1 percent received 30 percent of FEMA's payments.

"The projections are the ocean will rise another two to three feet over the next century. And it's going to make it tougher and tougher to protect anything you rebuild," said Larry Larson, senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which represents local government planners.

"You have to look at this from an economic standpoint. Don't just blindly rebuild in places where you were destroyed," he said.

On the Jersey Shore, where closely packed homes and condos house millions of tourists, that will likely be a tough sell.

Towns are already in a dash to restore their beachfronts before Memorial Day. In Ocean County, the mayor of Seaside Heights said last week that a washed-out amusement pier's downed roller coaster - famously photographed sticking out of the ocean - might make for a good tourist attraction next year.

In Long Beach Township, where 62 properties have accounted for 190 federal flood insurance claims since 1978, Mayor Joe Mancini said the high value of oceanfront property made it unlikely any parcels would be abandoned.

"I don't think FEMA wants to pay a half-million dollars for a 40-foot lot," he said. "I'm not opposed to it; it's just never going to happen."

Buying out homeowners is a good option in some areas, such as along the Passaic River, but it's too soon to do so on the shore, said Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.).

"The dunes that were rebuilt by the Army Corps [of Engineers], they did a really good job of protecting houses," he said. "I think that's a better investment."

Compounding the dilemma is the attachment many in the Philadelphia area and North Jersey have to the Shore. Houses are passed down through generations. Year after year, people return to the same stretch of boardwalk to eat at the same seafood shacks.

Robert Snyder, who lives year-round on Long Beach Island and whose family lost a beachfront home in Harvey Cedars in 1962, said the possibility of catastrophic property loss was the trade-off for living close to the ocean.

"When you're a Shore person, a beach person, that's it, it's in you," he said. "Sandy was a 100-year storm. It was once in a lifetime . . . we hope."

Pilkey, 78, has listened to such wishful thinking for most of his career. From time to time, he said, governments and agencies have listened to his warnings.

He recounted how FEMA once purchased and destroyed homes about to fall into the ocean and how, after Hurricane Hugo, South Carolina mandated that houses more than 50 percent destroyed would not be rebuilt.

Both programs were abandoned, he said, in the case of the latter due to strong homeowner opposition.

This time, he said, things feel slightly different.

"We're not talking about replacing everything right the way it was, which is the usual response," Pilkey said. "But my feeling is they're probably going to go back to where they were. . . . It might take a few more storms to turn them around."

Contact James Osborne

at 856-779-3876 or or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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