Inquirer Editorial: After Sandy, rebuild smartly

Half of a house was left standing in Union Beach, N.J..
Half of a house was left standing in Union Beach, N.J.. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 03, 2012

The numbers describing Superstorm Sandy's toll on the Jersey Shore are coming in, but apparently they are not graphic enough to pull some political leaders out of a state of denial. Too many are rushing ahead with plans to rebuild the Shore that was, rather than think through what these communities - and taxpayers - need.

Thirty-nine people died. More than 30,000 businesses and homes were severely damaged or destroyed. An additional 42,000 homes were affected. More than 100 miles of beach was washed away. So far, 233,000 people have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, and FEMA has distributed more than $500 million to storm-struck Jerseyans. The damage estimates keep growing. Gov. Christie last week set the cost at $36.8 billion - up from a previous estimate of $29.4 billion.

Yet at the first of several legislative hearings into the storm's aftermath, most of the talk from coastal town officials was about getting money to rebuild; getting money to clear broken docks, boats, and houses out of the back bays; and getting utilities to share grid maps with townships to ease the restoration of power after the next storm. All this is necessary, but before some of this work proceeds, there also needs to be a discussion about how to rebuild - or whether it should even happen in some places. This discussion can't happen soon enough, as contractors are already swarming the barrier islands.

Charging ahead in the hopes that things can be like they were last summer may be soothing. But the smarter approach was voiced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester)to local officials: "Take a deep breath and slow down a little bit so we can rebuild properly."

Christie has adamantly said the state will rebuild, but that things won't be the same. They shouldn't be, especially not in the most flood-prone areas.

In Sayreville, homes were flooded for the third time in three years. Each flood brought more damage than the last. Some residents are now asking to be bought out, an idea that has to be considered for all the homes and businesses in the water's path.

It's an option that more homeowners and businesses should consider. But the current FEMA buyout program is inadequate. It doesn't cover the full cost of relocation, and it can take up to four years to complete a deal.

If politicians aren't willing to push this discussion, market forces might, as the cost of living so close to the water rises.

The federal flood insurance program, the taxpayer-funded bailouts that make such insurance possible in areas the private sector won't touch, is $18 billion in the red. Higher premiums are going into effect, and more property owners will be required to buy the insurance as flood maps are updated. In addition, tougher (and more expensive) building standards are needed to keep houses from popping off slabs and floating into roads, as they did in Seaside Heights.

Utilities and municipalities have decisions to make as well. Should green technologies that create more porous streets, and thus better drainage, be used? Should utility wires be buried?

New Jersey has an opportunity to show that the nation's most densely developed 127 miles of coastline can survive the next extreme weather event. But before diving in, local and state officials need to take a deep breath, think through the details, and then rebuild properly.

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