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Five years after Sandy, locals torn on flood protection

Five years ago, Hurricane Sandy decimated the East Coast, killing at least 60 people and causing an estimated $70 billion in property damage. It’s forced residents in Sea Bright, New Jersey to decide whether to support pricey taxpayer projects to protect vulnerable property or encourage property owners to take federal buy-outs. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    Five years after superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey coastal town of Sea Bright, it has been rebuilt. Many residents, including the Mayor, Dina Long, had to reconstruct their homes from scratch.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    My first floor is now 13 feet off the ground.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    New homes are elevated to meet local post-Sandy flood zone guidelines.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    After the storm, when we started rebuilding, we kind of adopted this mindset of I call it ‘never again.’ We’re going to do everything we can to mitigate our risk.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Property values have rebounded.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    I would say about 95 percent of the people are back.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A new community center and beach pavilion is being erected. And seaside shops and restaurants are open for business in a county that generates nearly two-and-a-half billion dollars a year for New Jersey’s 44-billion dollar tourism industry.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, in some ways, Sea Bright is newer and fresher and more beautiful than it was before Sandy.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    Yep, it is.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But look closer, and there are reminders of the destruction sandy wrought on this sliver of a town squeezed between the Navesink River and the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Brian Mcmullin:

    There was nothing left. We were actually shocked.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It took a year-and-a-half for Brian McMullin to rebuild his ice cream shop. In Frank Bain’s hardware store, you can see the watermark left by Sandy’s storm surge, which peaked at 10 feet.

  • Frank Bain:

    It was terrible. It was like a rogue wave came through and just washed out the town.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Five years after Sandy, many New Jersey residents stayed put with support from the state government. It invested federal disaster recovery funds to safeguard residents and property from future storms, including dredging 31 million cubic yards of sand to restore beaches.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    And, see that’s our high water mark.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ten feet.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And reinforcing metal bulkheads meant to contain river flooding caused by typical storms.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What’ll that do if another Sandy type storm comes ashore?

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    If another Sandy type storm comes ashore, bulkheads really aren’t going to do much because the water is going to overtop the bulkhead.

  • Stephanie Sy:, there’s one more line of defense:

    In Sea Bright a 5-mile-long seawall that dates back to the 1870s and stretches to the neighboring town of Monmouth Beach. It’s 18 feet high, with the top 6 to 8 feet above ground.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The parts of Sea Bright that were shielded by the old sea wall were better protected when superstorm Sandy blew ashore here five years ago. Construction recently began to fill gaps in the sea wall and make it a uniform height. The Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA approved the 35 million dollar project, 90-percent of the tab paid for by federal taxpayers. Erick Doyle oversees the division of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, which designed the wall.

  • Erick Doyle:

    From FEMA’s perspective there were significant vulnerabilities within Sea Bright itself. We did our economic analyses and came up with a cost-justifiable project that would close those gaps and provide one contiguous structure.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While it can’t prevent flooding from the river or heavy rains, it can blunt the force of ocean waves.

  • Erick Doyle:

    The seawall is there to break the wave energy. You know this is kind of a secondary line of defense for you know the Sandy level events.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But Jeff Tittel, the President of the New Jersey Sierra Club thinks reinforcing a sea wall to block out water is an unwinnable proposition.

  • Jeff Tittel:

    It’s sort of the hubris of man that we think we can overcome nature. Nature wins in the end.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tittel argues seawalls and beach replenishment not only fail to account for rising sea levels, but are also a waste of tax dollars because a 10-foot storm surge like Sandy would go right over it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What do you say to people that have lived in these shore towns for a long time and that’s home. They don’t want to leave.

  • Jeff Tittel:

    I say to them that, you know, then the taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize your community every time you have a storm or it rains. And every time that happens they get millions of dollars in public money to either rebuild their homes, to fix the infrastructure, or to repave the roads.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The frequency and intensity of major storms and hurricanes like Sandy, Harvey, and Irma have increased since the early 1980s. And the stronger storms coincide with another global warming-driven trend, higher sea levels. A Rutgers University study last year forecast New Jersey’s coast could see a one-to-two foot rise in sea levels by the year 2050. By the end of the century, the study predicts a five or six foot rise is possible. But climate models vary widely and depend on future levels of the carbon emissions which cause global warming.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    In this community, acknowledging that the five foot sea level rise map could come true means acknowledging that your city is no longer a livable place. You know, so it’s a, it’s a difficult, it’s a difficult conversation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But it is a conversation Mayor Long had with Sea Bright residents after Sandy with the help of Steve Nelson, who was a recovery planning manager for the nonprofit “New Jersey Future.”

  • Steve Nelson:

    It’s very low lying. It’s very vulnerable to the ocean where the seawall doesn’t exist and to the river even though there are bulkheads there. So Sea Bright is really in the crosshairs of the sea level rise dilemma and issue. It will be severely impacted by sea level rise if the scientists’ estimations are true.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sea Bright doesn’t require a major storm to flood. Even typical rainy days can leave pools of water on its low-lying streets. Nelson advocates a policy of “managed retreat” which means identifying properties most vulnerable to flooding and encouraging people to move to places that don’t frequently flood.

  • Steve Nelson:

    It’s a very hard thing for me to say to someone you shouldn’t live here anymore. But in the long term, rebuilding the seawall, building up the bulkheads, razing homes. They were not the longer term sustainable solutions that I think is needed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Which is to leave?

  • Steve Nelson:

    Which is for some people to leave.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One factor working against that is the National Flood Insurance Program, run by FEMA. It offers homeowners in flood zones affordable insurance and continues coverage no matter how many times their home is damaged.

  • Steve Nelson:

    There is an incentive to rebuild, there’s a disincentive not to rebuild. And the way the flood insurance policies work now is counterproductive to long-term resiliency and sustainability.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What do you say to critics that say why should we be putting taxpayer money toward building a wall for Sea Bright, when we know sea levels are going to rise and the place is going to flood again the next time there’s a big storm?

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    Well, the investment that we make today pays off in terms of not having to pay for repairing of damages in the future. There are numerous communities up and down the coast, not only in New Jersey, but in the USA. I mean do you want to talk about the Florida Keys? There are lots of places that are vulnerable. And I think anybody who’s not doing everything they can to protect themselves from future storms probably deserves criticism.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Unlike in the tourism-generating coastal towns. After Sandy, hundreds of New Jersey residents along the state’s rivers and back bays did leave their flood-prone homes. In the town of South River, 30-miles inland from Sea Bright.

  • Jim Hutchison:

    This spot actually was the former location of my house that I bought.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jim Hutchison is among the dozens of residents who were enticed into managed retreat by a state-run, federally-funded home buyout program called “Blue Acres.” Hutchison’s home, which flooded with 4 feet of water during Sandy, once stood on this empty lot. Under Blue Acres, the state bought his house at its pre-Sandy market price, demolished it, and banned new development on the lot.

  • Jim Hutchison:

    It definitely was a loss to the town, without question. It was a financial impact it’s, you felt, every year, you felt that way in perpetuity.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    While Hutchison moved to higher ground in South River, he says he was one of the exceptions who took the buyout and stayed.

  • Jim Hutchison:

    People on the other side of the house here, they moved out of town. So the only one out of the four that were taken down here that stayed in South River was my wife and myself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you regret the buyout?

  • Jim Hutchison:

    Do I regret it? Personally, no. Absolutely not. I’m, I’m thrilled by it, because, again it took us out of harm’s way and it gave myself a sense of ease with my family.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The buyouts are visible when driving through the town next to South River, Sayreville. The empty lots where homes once stood have been reclaimed by nature. They’re now overgrown green spaces that may act as a buffer the next time the river overflows. New Jersey has bought out more than 600 flood-prone homes since Sandy at a cost of 159 million dollars. With another 141 million in federal funds allocated for the program, the state has hundreds more buyout offers in the pipeline. But on New Jersey’s ocean coast, buyouts have been a tough-sell.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    They hurt a community in terms of taxes. Property taxes, right. Municipal governments run on property taxes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor Long acknowledges the ocean may one day swallow her town, but probably not during her lifetime, and as long as staying put is an option, she will.

  • Mayor Dina Long:

    When you look at 100 years from now, the five foot sea level rise projection, that’s troubling because it does show a large part of our area inundated by water. You know, that’s the one that makes you lose sleep at night.

    Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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