Ever since we ejected the original residents of New Jersey, we have been blowing up mountains, clear cutting forests, as well as filling wetlands and then shaking our fists to the heavens in anger when our basements flooded. It’s a never ending cycle of pressing the earth until it pushes back. Increasingly, as witnessed by Sandy and Ida, it’s been pushing back in an increasingly menacing fashion.
It was a year ago that NJ Advance reporter Rodrigo Torrejon wrote his poignant profile of the three family members who all died trapped together in their Union County apartment complex by the raging Elizabeth River swollen by the torrential rains brought in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
“Sometime between the night of Sept. 1 and the morning of Sept. 2, Jose Torres, 74, and Rosa Espinal, 72, who’d been together for 46 years, died in their apartment in Oakwood Plaza, in Elizabeth,” Torrejon reported. “Their 38-year-old son Jose Torres Jr., died with them. A neighbor, Shakia Garrett, 33, also died.”
“The Elizabeth River that abuts Oakwood Plaza overflowed and tore through the complex with terrifying force,” Torrejon recounted. “For Margarita Torres, the loss is so painful that she has yet to come to terms with it. In one day, she lost her father, the hard-working grocery store owner who drilled into her the importance of going to school and learning as much as she could. Her mother, the sweet and loving woman who’d welcome anyone into her home and feed them. And her little brother, a street-smart man who was ‘the life of the party.’’
In addition to the four deaths in that one complex, 600 people who lived there had to be put up in makeshift accommodations at three local schools and a shelter opened by the Red Cross at the Thomas G. Dunn Sports Center. And this kind of damage was just one spot in a target zone so vast you could see it from outer space.
In November, New Jersey DEP released two scientific reports that documented the increase in rain in New Jersey over the last 20 years and projected further increases through 2100 as a consequence of the climate crisis.
“As we saw late this summer with the remnants of Tropical Storms Henri and Ida, more frequent and intense storms are our reality today, and we can expect these extreme precipitation events to continue, even worsen, in the years ahead,” Commissioner LaTourette said at the time. “By building upon our scientific understanding, we can take the wise steps that the science demands: from planning more resilient development, to enhancing our stormwater and flood control infrastructure and beyond. We all have the power to ensure that what we build today will stand the test of time and a changing climate.”
Hurricane Ida took 90 lives in total when it inundated a nine state swath of the Northeast. Damage estimates for New Jersey ranged between $8 to $10 billion and in the $7.5 to $9 billion range in New York.
Just a few days before the first anniversary of the devastating 2021 storm, WPIX-TV’s James Ford reported from Manville and had no trouble finding frustrated homeowners like Yarzita Zapata, whose home was inundated by the swollen Raritan and Millstone Rivers submerging hundreds of homes on the eastern side of town.
Zapata explained that her home’s foundation was cracked under the pressure of the massive volume of floodwaters that now made her home inhabitable.
“This happened because the wall had collapsed,” the stressed homeowner told PIX11 News “The wall started dipping because there was nothing holding it up. Our flood insurance gave us $114,000. We got to fix the foundation, which cost us $70,000 to fix. The rest of the money that’s waiting for the fixing of the home is not enough.”
The WPIX report highlighted the advocacy work done on behalf of households like the Zapata family by the New Jersey Organizing Project , a non-profit advocacy group. Founded in 2014, after the devastation from Sandy, NJOP won passage of a special Rental Assistance Program for families facing the physical and economic toll of that catastrophic storm.
Noreen Staples, of Mendham Township, serves on NJOP’s Ida Task Force which not only looks to help residents victimized by the extreme weather events, but for ways to prevent the losses before they occur in the future. “There are other mitigation issues we can do because we can’t keep doing this. Floods are getting closer, they’re getting stronger, and people are getting kicked out.” Staples told WPIX-TV.
“New Jersey needs a plan for sea level rise and future storms, right now we’re the only state bordering an ocean without one,” maintains the New Jersey Organizing Project website. “Our communities need to begin mitigate and adapt. We also work with communities nationally to fight for disaster recovery systems that put families and communities first, not big insurance or politically connected contractors.”
GROUND HOG DAY
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which killed 40 in New Jersey, there were also calls for a reset for coastal land use regulations. Yet as New Jersey Monthly reported in June “ten years after Hurricane Sandy, the bay fronts and riverfronts of many of New Jersey’s Shore communities remain vulnerable to the twin terrors of sea-level rise and increasingly intense storms. Addressing this risk is in some ways more complicated than protecting the ocean beaches, but it is no less an issue that affects homeowners, seasonal tourism and natural habitat.”
In the weeks after Ida, Gov.Phil Murphy said when it came rising to the challenges of climate change, the state’s had to “update our playbook” and DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette said we had to face “a new reality”when it came to its inland flood plains that Ida overwhelmed.
“New Jersey developers have built thousands of new homes in flood-prone areas over the past decade, far more than any other state — mostly in Ocean and Monmouth counties,” New Jersey Spotlight’s Ian Shearn reported last year, just weeks after Ida hit. “Many of them were replacing homes that were leveled in Superstorm Sandy in 2012. DEP would not acknowledge if it tracks new construction in flood zones.”
In January 2020, well over a year and half before Ida hit, Gov. Murphy executed Executive Order 100, which Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Environmental Commission’s described as landmark. “It sure was monumental because it directed the NJ DEP to address all of the impacts of the climate crisis not just in the environment but the broader economy and since the NJ DEP has done their job, yet the Governor hasn’t followed up on his end,” Coffey said.
Gov. Murphy’s Executive Order 100 cited a 2019 report “New Jersey’s Rising Seas and Changing Coastal Storms” prepared by Rutgers University for the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) that showed “that sea-level rise projections in New Jersey are more than two times the global average and that the sea level in New Jersey could rise from 2000 levels by up to 1.1 feet by 2030, 2.1 feet by 2050, and 6.3 feet by 2100, underscoring the urgent need for action to protect the State from adverse climate change impacts.”
Murphy’s executive order raised environmentalists’ expectations by committing to have his NJPACT reset of the state’s environmental regulations, that dealt with things like prohibiting development in floodplains two years from when he issued the executive order in January of 2020.
January 2022 came and went with no action on the anxiously awaited reset of floodplain regulations.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
At a May press conference in Lambertville at the site of where Ida’s flood waters swept two houses into Swan Creek Gov. Murphy promoted the state’s $50 million Blue Acres Buyout Program that buys out vulnerable residential properties built in existing flood plains.
“As New Jersey continues to experience more extreme weather events, we must become proactive in our approach to protect the communities and businesses that continue to bear the brunt of flooding and damage from these storms,” said Governor Murphy. “This $50 million investment of federal Ida recovery funds in our nationally recognized Blue Acres program will allow homeowners in communities like Lambertville to facilitate market-rate purchases of properties which have experienced repetitive flood losses. Helping families relocate and turning these properties into open space will allow more flood waters to be absorbed or diverted so that we don’t see the kinds of catastrophic losses we did during Tropical Storm Ida.”
In June, NJ Advance Media’s Brent Johnson reported the Murphy administration was “preparing to implement emergency rules for new construction in flood-prone inland areas of New Jersey to help fortify the state as officials expect storms to become more frequent and volatile because of climate change.”
The newspaper continued. “Officials say the plan — expected to be introduced later this month — would modernize how the state Department of Environmental Protection regulates development in areas near rivers at risk of non-tidal flooding caused by stormwater runoff, as seen during Ida, as opposed to tidal flooding along the coast. The rules would use current and future rainfall rates instead of figures that are now two decades old and update how stormwater should be managed.”
But the momentum for the regulations stopped after a large coalition of business, labor, real estate development and local government groups wrote Gov. Murphy urging him to “delay the rule’s advancement”. They argued that he should reject “any finding by the DEP that an imminent peril exists to public health, safety, or welfare that would necessitate the filing of an emergency rule concerning flood design elevations and mapping in the state and change the basis for calculating future rainfall amounts.”
The letter warned “if adopted, this rule would adversely impact countless sorely needed development and infrastructure projects that are being planned or have already been designed and engineered at great cost to both the private and public sectors.”
The signatories included; Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey; Chemistry Council of New Jersey; Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey; Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative (ELEC 825); Innovating Commerce Serving Communities; NAIOP; New Jersey Marine Trades Association New Jersey’ Association of Counties; New Jersey Apartment Association; New Jersey Builders Association; New Jersey Business & Industry Association; New Jersey Concrete and Aggregate Association; New Jersey Farm Bureau ; New Jersey Society of Professional Land Surveyors; New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce; New Jersey Utilities Association; Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce; NJ SEED; Utility & Transportation Contractors Association.
The letter was first reported on by NJ Spotlight’s John Hurdle back in June.
“Significantly, projects in areas which were never part of a flood hazard area before, many of which have legal determinations that they were not in flood hazard areas, will now need flood hazard permits for the first time,” the letter continued. “While no maps or analysis have been provided by the DEP to show the areas or projects being impacted, this new area may encompass as much as 5 to 10 percent of the buildable area of the state (200,000 to 400,000 acres). This is a tremendous land area certainly subject to potentially thousands of planned or pending projects. Just as significant is the fact that no one will know if they are in a flood hazard area or not, thus putting a development question mark over the entire state.
The business coalition argued “that much of the flooding and deaths” from Ida “occurred in areas away from rivers and streams and were the result of inadequate stormwater facilities. This rule would do nothing to solve that problem. If adopted, this rule would adversely impact countless sorely needed development and infrastructure projects that are being planned or have already been designed and engineered at great cost to both the private and public sectors.”
The entire summer went by and no such emergency flood plain regulations were forthcoming.
FLOYD, IRENE, SANDY, IDA
At a recent press event to mark the anniversary of Ida in hard hit Hillsborough, Gov. Murphy updated the press on the state’s efforts to get aid to the families and businesses still trying to recover from Ida.
“We’re not yet done putting back together what Ida tore to shreds, but today we’re ready to move forward to complete the job of repairing and preparing,” Murphy said, according to NJ Advance. Murphy referenced “Floyd, Sandy, Irene, Ida” as “all names New Jersey would like to forget” predicting that if we did not take strong and decisive steps against climate change, we will unfortunately continue to live these realities.”
But when pressed to respond to the criticisms from environmentalists that he was not following through on his commitment on the emergency floodplain regulations he said it “was complicated.”
While the Murphy administration delays the promulgation of the emergency flooding regulations, proposals like a highly controversial warehouse complex in West Windsor advance over the strenuous objections of local environmentalists who say the site includes wetlands and is prone to flooding.
Local officials have signed off on a plan by a developer to build seven warehouses with a total of 5.5 million square feet set on a 650 acre site.
Tirza Wahrman of West Windsor is a former member of the West Windsor Environmental Commission and served in the Corzine and Christie administration as deputy attorney general in the Attorney General’s Environmental Practice Section.
“This is an ‘oh my God’ decision to build a complex of warehouses five times the size of the Quakerbridge Mall on mostly ecologically sensitive wetlands and former farmland,” Wahrman said during a phone interview. “In my opinion it should be preserved as open space. I provided photos to the Planning Board of heavy precipitation when the site flooded. If these new state emergency regulations were in place the builders would be required to follow the updated flood maps projecting the flood risks to 2100 instead of relying on the out of date flood maps that go back to 1999 or even earlier.”
STICKING IT TO THY NEIGHBOR
Historically, New Jersey’s local land use decisions are made by local municipalities who have their eye on the upside of the potential ratable revenues and not the regional impact from projects like flooding and traffic congestion on their surrounding neighbors.
Assemblyman Anthony S. Verrelli, whose district includes the West Windsor site, predicted in a recent op-ed the warehouse complex would “permanently change the dynamics of West Windsor and irreparably alter the character of neighboring Lawrence Township, whose citizens and government have no official say.”
“The project’s negative impacts go beyond increased traffic volume,” Verrelli wrote. “There’s a significant environmental cost the wider region will pay too. With climate change, flooding is steadily worsening in our region and the added stormwater runoff caused by this project will run beyond just my district. It will exacerbate the already dire situation in downstream communities along the Millstone River, including Princeton and significant parts of Somerset and Middlesex Counties.”