Written by Cathleen Kelly and Jackie Weidman
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to sign a bill into law on Monday that would put families, businesses, first responders and millions of taxpayer dollars at risk of future storm damage.
This dangerous waterfront development bill — S. 2680, passed by New Jersey Generally Assembly and Senate — would allow residential and commercial development, including hotels and motels, on highly vulnerable piers in Coastal High Hazard Areas throughout the State of New Jersey. This type of development is currently prohibited outside of Atlantic City.
The New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management (NJAFM) wrote a letter to the Governor, asking him to veto the bill given its “inconsistencies with building codes and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). [We are] greatly concerned that this legislation may very well result in noncompliant rebuilding, jeopardizing the eligibility of every New Jersey community to remain in the NFIP.”
The Association of State Floodplain Managers, (ASFPM) has also written a letter to the Governor on behalf of its 35 State Chapters and more than 15,000 members urging him to veto the bill. The ASFPM makes a strong appeal to the Governor to block this attempt to allow risky construction along New Jersey’s coasts.
“This unsafe practice is currently constrained to the jurisdiction of Atlantic City, subject to State safety review, and required to comply with all applicable laws, ordinances, rules, and regulations. ASFPM is very concerned that S. 2680 not only removes the requirement for safety review by the State, but also expands the scope of this unwise development activity to Coastal High Hazards Areas throughout the State of New Jersey.”
Both floodplain management organizations assert that if the bill passes, it will likely lead to infrastructure damage that will jeopardize public safety and put first responders who handle search and rescue at risk.
The hazardous waterfront development bill contradicts comments made by Gov. Christie at a June 13 Clinton Global Initiative. Gov. Christie endorsed the value of investing in resilient communities and said, “To invest $3 or 4 billion, to try to prevent another $39 billion in losses, or mitigate it? It seems to me to be, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a pretty smart investment to make for the country.”
This bill is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg when it comes to unwise use of federal disaster relief to rebuild in the garden state. New Jersey’s CDBG-DR action plan was critiqued by New Jersey Future, a nonprofit promoting responsible land management, for not adequately addressing flood risks tied to sea-level rise, as required by HUD. Yet HUD still approved New Jersey’s plan even though it did not address these issues.
There have also been some early indications that speeding up rebuilding efforts is a higher priority than increasing resilience to future storms. For example, state permit requirements for restoring roads and other public infrastructure have been removed by administrative order under the governor’s state-of-emergency authorities. Without the opportunity to revisit the design and location of roads and other infrastructure, which the state permitting process supports, these structures are at greater risk of being damaged yet again by the next storm. In addition, all land-use decisions are made by New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, many of which have little knowledge about flood-resilience best practices.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, also handed over to local officials some key rebuilding oversight responsibilities, including ensuring that certain reconstruction projects comply with the NFIP and the New Jersey Flood Hazard Area Control Act — a 2007 measure that set standards for rebuilding in flood hazard areas. This has put a lot of pressure on local officials, many of whom have not been trained on the NFIP’s flood-proofing requirements, some of which are more stringent than those adopted by the New Jersey DEP. In fact, DEP’s weaker flood-proofing rule is now in violation of the NFIP.
By stripping down NFIP compliance oversight, there is a risk that federal disaster assistance financed by taxpayers will support reconstruction in New Jersey that does not meet federal rules. If this occurs, some policyholders in New Jersey could face higher flood insurance premiums, or in the worst case, some communities could be suspended from the NFIP. Lastly, some state experts are concerned about the lack of transparency in planning the New Jersey rebuilding process, which has been centralized in the governor’s office, and the absence of state or regional climate preparedness and resilience plan.
Superstorm Sandy Recovery efforts in New Jersey provide a glimpse at how good intentions do not necessarily translate into real action without some level of oversight. Sandy wreaked havoc across New Jersey and New York, which together are home to roughly 9 percent of the American population and contribute more than 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. According to the New Jersey rebuilding action plan prepared for HUD, “Data suggest that businesses in 113 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities incurred a combined $382 million in commercial property losses and roughly $63.9 million in business interruption losses.”
Supporting local climate preparedness and resilience-building is an important aspect of President Obama’s new national Climate Action Plan. During a speech at Georgetown University announcing the plan, the president said: “Americans across the country are already paying the price of (climate) inaction — in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief … And what we’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we’ve got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses and withstand more powerful storms.”
His plan directs agencies to update their flood-risk reduction standards for federally funded projects to account for sea-level rise and other factors affecting flood risks. But more action is need at all levels of government to avoid needlessly spending taxpayer dollars on rebuilding the same vulnerable structures over and over again each time they are damaged by storms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Garden State of New Jersey.
We recommend that federal, state and local officials take the following actions to rebuild better after Sandy and future superstorms:
Without such steps, communities, businesses, and federal, state and local governments risk investing Sandy recovery funds and future disaster aid in projects that continue to expose people, critical infrastructure and local economies to the impacts of super storms and climate change.
This post was originally published at ThinkProgress.
Photo from Thinkstock