Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Flood-Prone Cities Take Disaster Planning into Their Own Hands

Places like Hoboken, N.J., aren’t waiting for another Superstorm Sandy. But what’s best for one city may not be best for the region.

When Hoboken, N.J., resident Larry Henriques saw the paint can float by, he thought it odd. When he saw a car just down the street start floating away, he found it alarming.

As locals describe it, Hoboken “filled up like a bathtub” on Oct. 29, 2012, as Superstorm Sandy churned its way over the East Coast, pushing the Hudson River over its banks, breaching Hoboken to the north and the south, and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to the low-lying city of 50,000 residents just across the river from Manhattan.

The storm revealed long-predicted vulnerabilities to major population centers along much of the eastern seaboard. Sandy also revved up discussion about how those population centers might be protected in the future if, as forecast, such severe weather events -- exacerbated by rising ocean levels -- become more frequent. (In the past three years alone, New York City has experienced three of its top 10 flooding events.)

In the months since Sandy, experts from all over the world have been weighing in on how to protect the East Coast from further -- and almost inevitably more serious -- natural disasters. Ideas range from elaborate and ambitious mega-billion dollar projects such as vast seawalls, gates and dikes similar to the London/Thames Estuary Project, to deploying giant inflatable corks to plug New York and New Jersey’s extensive network of rail and road tunnels. At the same time, officials are considering massive buyouts and relocation efforts to turn development-clogged waterfronts back into natural coastal barriers that protect inland life and property from the full brunt of a storm.

Everything, it seems, is now on the table as politicians, emergency managers, planners, climatologists and other experts hash out how to keep the Atlantic Ocean out of places like Queens and Jersey City.

But there is one political leader directly affected by Sandy who doesn’t seem all that intrigued by the debate and the discussion. Three-year Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer says she’s not interested in massive regional solutions aimed at holding back the Hudson, or in plans to put her city on stilts, or even in returning her waterfront to wildlife-filled meadowlands. None of that, she says, is remotely practical. What she wants to do is to harden Hoboken.

“It’s just not physically possible,” says Zimmer, when Federal Emergency Management Agency officials say that either buildings or street entrances in Hoboken need to be raised by 13 feet. Nor does she think that it’s right for her city even if it could be done. Characterized by remarkably intact blocks of brick and brownstone row houses and commercial buildings constructed at the turn of the 20th century, lifting Hoboken isn’t likely. “Part of the concern is that you’re talking about protecting the character of Hoboken. When you take away the street life of Hoboken, you’re taking away the character of Hoboken and every other urban area.”

Slight with a ready smile, Zimmer doesn’t initially come across as a pit bull. But she’s clearly not kidding around when she lays out plans for how to flood-proof her city.

Zimmer has proposed “an integrated approach” to flood protection that includes walls and gates at the north and south ends of the city -- the two low-lying areas that allowed the bathtub to fill up. She wants to add pumps to help get water out of the city, and is already working to acquire vacant industrial property on which to establish rain-slurping parkland. She is also talking about converting some of this industrial land into holding tanks for errant H2O. At the same time, she’s advocating for a greener approach to development in general, an approach that includes construction elements like porous pavement and botanical roofs.

The price tag? In the neighborhood of $90 million, and Zimmer readily admits “it’s going to be a challenge” to get the state and feds to pony up. But part of her pitch is that Hoboken’s solution could be a positive model for how similarly situated cities up and down the East Coast might also protect themselves.

That’s one way to look at it. But Zimmer’s proposition also raises a deeper, more starkly practical question that’s not quite so rosy. When it comes to coastal cities and climate change, is it time to forget mega-scale fixes that involve regional or even interstate cooperation? Is it time for these cities to start looking out for themselves?

Help during the event from the National Guard, and a wish for millions in state and federal grant money, notwithstanding, Hoboken clearly has something of a “we-take-care-of-our-own” streak that served it well during Sandy. The mayor personally rode around the city with members of the National Guard trying to evacuate the city’s most vulnerable residents and get help to those who didn’t leave. Henriques -- who watched the paint can and the car float away -- has become vice chairman of a citywide Sandy relief fund that raised money locally and is now doling out grants to residents who need some extra cash for property repairs. This, while the city and homeowners still wait on Trenton and FEMA to figure out how federal assistance will be sprinkled around the New York and New Jersey oceanfronts and river coastlines.
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