SOMERVILLE – In the aftermath of Tropical Strom Ida, the issue you will absolutely not hear spoken about with depth or meaning in this election ironically inhabits, with particularly urgent and deadly consequences, the heart of the mangled state of New Jersey; in fact, the very town where Jack Ciattarelli served on the local township committee and where Phil Murphy amazingly hailed “one of New Jersey’s true gemstone communities.”
Maybe if you’re Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
In what’s left of another ungrammatical, impoverished campaign cycle disguised as a serious discussion about the future of real “folks”, you will hear New Jersey Democrats talk about climate change, and you will hear them act like Republicans are the main impediment to getting something done about the problem. You will also hear Republicans chasing woefully after the political base of a President – with his own scandalous history of development in this state – who this past Saturday night zestfully did the blow by blow beside a prizefight ring as 58-year-old Evander Holyfield nearly got his head taken off.
But you will not hear anyone on the campaign trail discuss – with substance or any institutional awareness or any sense of moral righteousness or real credibility – the issue of land use in New Jersey and how our unwise, clubby, greedy practices have intensified the hazards of our suicidal condition in the aftermath of a storm that killed 29 people in “the Garden State.”
We won’t hear that discussion because both political parties lie together, like Romulus and Remus, in the suckled manger of the same coffers-filling mangy wolf called corporate overdevelopment. That’s why the state specializes in giant box construction of the kind we saw in Camden, for example, courtesy of an $11.5 billion bipartisan state tax incentive package, which has nothing to do with improving the lives or opportunities of actual people already struggling on the ground.
Daphnne Francisca Lopez Del Bono of Santiago Chile, as she tried to get home from school in her car.
A voracious reader, according to her obituary, Ms. Lopez del Bono “enjoyed spending time at the library finding new and interesting things to read and widen her perspective. She also enjoyed walking and just being outside in nature where you could always find her sipping a cup of tea. Sitting at a café or a park with friends or dancing at a music club were also the source of many happy memories for Daphnne.
“Her travel around the world led her to discover many new and interesting places and cultures. On the top of her favorite list were Spain and Thailand. Always dreaming, it was her goal to someday live in Sydney, Australia.
“Though her life was tragically cut short, the light she gave to so many is surely not dimmed. Her fight for justice, strong work ethic, and compassionate heart will live on in all those whose hearts she touched.”
Now, we’re hearing a lot of vapid “crunch time” talk from politicians seeking a way to distance themselves from context, particularly in the Somerset vicinity of where Ms. Lopez Del Bono got killed, and the Lost Valley of Manville, where if you want, right now, you can see the humble precious contents of people’s lives piled up in the streets.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center, Somerset County experienced 143 flood events between 1950 and December 31, 2012.
There have been a few since the compilation of that data, of course, including the one that just killed five people in Somerset. Between 1954 and 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared that the State of New Jersey experienced 18 flood-related disasters (DR) or emergencies (EM) classified as one or a combination of the following disaster types: hurricane, severe storm, high tides, heavy rains, high winds, coastal storms, mudslides, tropical storm, and coastal flooding. ….Of those Somerset County, New Jersey 5.4.3-16 August 2013 events, the New Jersey HMP and other sources indicate that Somerset County has been declared as a disaster area as a result of seven flood events (FEMA, 2000).”
If one hangs around these parts for a little while, the history tells the story, and it’s not a good one.
After idiotic over-development drove me out of my own hometown, I saw Hillsborough, another farming community, develop too quickly and too recklessly in the 1990s as public officials made a case for “ratables”, with little care about the impact to a highly sensitive confluence of waters within the Raritan River Basin. I saw naked corruption, revealed by then-Courier News reporter Bill Bowman, who showed how the very occupants of the local Planning Board ramming a massive development project actually had a considerable interest in the project.
They were the project, in point of cold fact.
I watched giant box stores spring up on Route 206 in the name of lower taxes, with no careful planning, causing, yes, schools overcrowding of course, police department inflating and – yes – traffic, which resulted in officials ultimately requiring a multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded bypass to avert the mess they created with developers in the name of “the public good.” I watched more development and larger scale projects drop out of the heavens like pieces of Francisco Franco’s Valley of the Fallen. Ironically, just last week, I ran into Bowman as President Joe Biden’s helicopter landed at Central Jersey Regional Airport and the President prepared to tour the once again flood-ravaged vicinity. Bowman told me about local (no-doubt “luxury development) projects in his town where builders dropped massive concrete residential structures now almost comically – my word not Bowman’s – haunted by unfilled retail space on the round floors.
Different beat. Same story.
Go to any town in New Jersey that is supposedly “successful,” and “well-run,” and you will find the same giant luxury development projects afoot – oversized monstrosities on undersized lots, as the campaign coffers of enabling politicians flood with sustaining contributions.
But back to the bypass.
Anyone out on that night in Somerset County knows that was one of the worst storms of our lifetimes.
Driving on Route 22 toward the circle in Bridgewater, I found myself contending with walls of racing water and lagoons filled with already disabled cars in spastic postures of abandon. Every jug-handle contained pooled stormwater runoff that very nearly proved the final fatal leg of a frankly absurd journey from a suburban mall to the front door of a child’s suburban home.
In so many places, there was nowhere on that highway – at this moment and on the bubble intaking huge influxes of new development – for the water to go.
“In the grander scheme of Bridgewater, will the latest mall-parking lot-luxury residential extravaganza (with its share, of course, of state-mandated affordable housing units) merely add another squirting explosion of paint to a mad-capped canvas already riddled with similar jaggedly disconnected moon buggy-viable corporate craters? At the very least, “Traffic is going to be a serious problem,” resident Geraldine Staub said in a January TapInto piece. This is a town still dogged by the Somerville Circle, a name that amounts to Bridgewater’s nefarious little way of acting like its mile-square, within-its-own-means, self-contained and livable-walkable neighbor is responsible for the area’s routine bowling pin smash-ups at everybody’s favorite Russian Roulette roundabout. Routinely, a transport truck trying to get around the circle topples onto its side and leaves the place jammed. The highway nexus of a town built for wheels amid new development projects burped out annually, looks like it was built at a time when the Bay City Rollers dominated the pop charts.”
We’re in an election cycle, though, so we’re going to talk about this in a pointed and profound way at last with the expectation of real results, right?
No. We’re in an election cycle so we’re not going to talk about it in a relevant way, as NJ Democrats with a million more registered voters on the rolls want to run out the clock and Republicans want to run after Trump.
At the very least, Democrats in particular want to soberly talk about climate change, probably because they know it’s too big to do anything about, and so by keeping the discussion big they keep it in the area of unaccountability. Politicians in this state – Democrats and Republicans – don’t want to focus on land use, and how it vitally connects to climate change like the very key that starts the engine of death – and how we have collectively, lazily and thoughtlessly embraced a system killing our people.
I cannot speak on this issue dispassionately, hailing from a New Jersey town where the collusion of officialdom paved the one-time home of The Frogtown Frolic over in a span of ten years, where before the intensification of large-scale deadly flooding an obscene uptick in fatal automobile accidents kept our EMS crew running around on an almost nightly basis.
But if you want to see the precise point of the problem, take a drive to the wetlands of the Millstone River, the bridge that Ms. Lopez Del Bono presumably drove over on her way home from New Brunswick, and the stretch where the Royce Brook routinely floods, and then picture how she must have tried to get through those fast-flooding lowlands, where big suburban development backs to the edges, only to run into a massive-scale up-jut of man-made concrete, which stands across that stretch of road in a runway to the bypass. I think about the waters coming in behind her from the east, and down on her from the north, and in what must have been the one possible escape route west, away from the Millstone and the Millbrook, she might have faced instead the worst water running impossibly off those impervious structures.
A few days after the storm, I went over to see Jeff Tittel, former director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
He was morose, of course.
Then-Governor James McGreevey wisely put in place stormwater runoff rules curbing the grotesque excesses of the 1990’s, which Governor Chris Christie (who, incidentally, went into the real estate business after he left the governor’s office, and who is now preparing his next run for president) subsequently gleefully gutted, and which Murphy – who said he would restore in his first 100 days of office – never put back in place.
Now, think about that storm.
“Very sad but yes, the more pavement the more flooding,” said Tittel. “Every acre of pavement releases one million gallons of stormwater for every three inches of rain – failed policies and overdevelopment leads to higher water and deaths.” If Democrats who run the state truly wanted to alleviate car traffic caused by overdevelopment they would have built a rail line connecting Somerville to Hopewell, added the former Sierra Club chief.
Think about this:
“The severity of a flood depends not only on the amount of water that accumulates in a period of time, but also on the land’s ability to manage this water. One element is the size of rivers and streams in an area; but an equally important factor is the land’s absorbency. When it rains, soil acts as a sponge. When the land is saturated or frozen, infiltration into the ground slows and any more water that accumulates must flow as runoff (Harris, 2001).”
“The Raritan River Basin has persistent flooding problems when excessive rain from storms affects the river basin. Flooding is exacerbated throughout the communities that lie within the floodplains of the RRB as a result of increased improper development and utilization by man within those floodplains (or designated flood hazard areas) through the years (ANC, 1972-1975). Flooding problems within those municipalities of the County that lies within the RRB primarily originate from the Raritan and Millstone Rivers. According to the 2007 FEMA FIS for Somerset County, the North and South Branches of the Raritan River and Millstone River all have extensive flat floodplains up to 2,000 feet wide. Flood waters cover these floodplains several times a decade (FEMA, 2007). As indicated through a variety of sources, severe flooding has been known to create damage and losses throughout almost all municipalities within the RRB after prolonged heavy rainfall events, particularly from the floodwaters that originate from the Raritan River.”
These are old, mildewed sources.
They’ve been left to molder in our past, some of them probably in basements ruined by flooding over the years, because they don’t say anything we want to hear. They clash violently, in fact, with precisely the direction we have chosen to go in our public policy, which requires us to talk in an antiseptic macro way about climate change while carefully never treading on the landmine issue of land use.
As bulldozers trampled into the area once again in 2019 to create the mile-long stretch of $40 million (or more) concrete that would shield automobile drivers from the ravaged local eyesores of the past two decades, “My main concern is that there is a brook that runs in the back of my property,” said JoAnn Shuleski, who spoke with NJ DOT representatives on June 3of that year, according to NJ.com. Shuleski lives on Old Somerville Road, next to what was then the incoming bypass.
“I want to make sure that they are taking care of things so if we have a hurricane or something, my basement isn’t going to get flooded because that house has never flooded,” she said. “I grew up in the house that I live in, so I know that house has never flooded.”
If it didn’t flood, of course much of the rest of the area did, including points north and south.
Other issues dogged this area and the state that night. I didn’t receive a flash flood alert to my cellphone until the storm was raging. I had a kid at the local mall – and her friend – who I had to go pick up that evening, and I walked out into the storm with my phone beeping for the first time. Where was the Department of Transportation (DOT) that day? Did they go home from work as usual? Did they go home and get stuck there fighting the storm when, if we had all been on high alert, they would have been out there manning the pump stations?
Perhaps we will discuss this particular matter now – the specific alleged failure of the administration. Certainly Ciattarelli will. Said the Republican challenger for governor: “Here are the facts: after Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency had tracked the storm for several days, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf declared a state of emergency at 9:05 on the morning of Wednesday, September 1 – hours before the storm arrived. That proactive, advanced planning prompted Pennsylvania to mobilize first responders and to close campsites, parks, and roads in advance of the storm. Through his actions, Governor Wolf strongly conveyed a sense of urgency and seriousness that this storm clearly warranted.”
Ciattarelli and his running mate Diane Allen pointed to reports that heavy rain had already started falling in South Jersey around 4:00 p.m. and tornado alarms were ringing before 5:00 p.m., yet aside from retweeting the National Weather Service, Governor Murphy held off on an emergency declaration.
But while the Republican talks about “an expansion of the state’s Blue Acres program, which buys homes in flood-prone areas and converts the properties to open space,” according to Politico, Ciattarelli’s hometown tells a different and finally catastrophic story, one that Murphy is apparently eager to be a part of, complete with his own hardhat. “Let’s make no mistake,” the governor said in May as he christened the bypass. “It’s not just about laying new pavement. This plan has been a re-envisioning of how an arterial highway can breathe new life into a community and shows how the needs of smart development.”
You will hear the issues boiled down in this campaign to their most simplistic and least effectual parts.
But again the same complacent cord tightens around the carefully crafted messages of both parties, beholden to the same masters. From under the rubble and corporate high-rises equipped with helicopter pads, ugly New Jersey searches for answers.
“For aesthetic conservatives in the 20th and 21st centuries, the reign of the dissolution of form and the rise of the readymade have been seen as one long drawn-out diversion from classical values of proportion, harmony,” writes John Roberts in Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde. But of course we’re past all of that now. We’re not commenting urbanely on the late New Jerseyan Norman Mailer’s observation that contemporary architecture has settled on the landscape here “like an incubus.”
It’s all true, of course, but in the aftermath of the worst storm some of us have experienced, a storm that is connected to all the others that came before, as politicians traipse under the huge concrete legs of the landscape they enabled, glumly mumbling their resolve, without depth and really without meaning, to do something about “climate change,” or adding – in the face of the facts that gutted stormwater runoff rules – let’s put the bar at public safety.
Let’s just not kill anymore beautiful young people who are trying to get home from school.
Let’s start there in terms of priorities.
Maybe somewhere in the process, we can break the molds of concrete around our political institutions so that those who represent us do not merely prattle about the rain like powerless medicine men while we all get engulfed in the waters we sped, and lose the very best among us.