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The Deafness Before the Storm

Christie DEP Ignored Multiple Warnings on Imminent Coastal Storm Risks

homes built cheek to jowl along Long Beach Island, a highly vulnerable barrier island

Bin laden determined to strike in US”.

That was the headline of the warning the CIA presented to President George Bush on August 6, 2001, just weeks before 9/11.

The warning specifically mentioned airline hijackings and The World Trade Center as a target (read the declassified transcript).

The CIA’s warning was ignored – the rest is history.

A recent NY Times Op-Ed (whose title I shamelessly stole!) called it “perhaps the most famous presidential briefing in history”. No doubt (but I suspect that JFK, FDR, and Lincoln got similar consequential briefings).

Shifting gears from terrorism warnings to storm warnings, thus far, there has been virtually no mention of the fact that  NJ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin received similar warnings by DEP’s own Office of Coastal Management – and numerous other experts.

In a March 12, 2011 Report, Martin was told essentially that, like Bin Laden,  a “coastal storm is likely to hit the NJ coast, which is highly vulnerable and not prepared”. The March report warned of “imminent impacts”:

The scientific community has arrived at a strong consensus that global climate change is occurring and resulting in changes to shoreline dynamics. Climate change threatens to accelerate sea level rise and increase the frequency and intensity of coastal storms. As a result, citizens, development, and ecosystems will become more vulnerable to the impacts of coastal hazards, making it imperative to identify areas where special needs communities, vital public facilities and roads, and sensitive natural resources overlap areas of potential inundation.These issues need to be considered as New Jersey’s coastal communities plan to become more resilient. […]

Coastal communities need to improve efforts to adapt to climate change but face hindrances such as political will, resource scarcity, personnel availability or other institutional variables. To take action, resources, tools and science-based information are needed to adequately plan for and address imminent impacts, to make informed decisions to become resilient, and to collaborate for multi-disciplinary planning.

Martin ignored that warning – the DEP not only did nothing to respond in terms of DEP resources, programs, policies, or regulations. DEP didn’t even issue a press release on the Report. The Office of Coastal Zone Management merely quietly posted it on the program’s obscure website.

Perhaps even worse than merely ignoring the warnings, Martin took a series of specific management actions to bury the Report and the Coastal Management Program (including outsourcing essential work).

DEP Commissioner Martin - "Barnegat Bay Blitz" photo op

I guess Martin was too busy picking up garbage at “Barnegat Bay Blitz” PR stunts, media spin, and seeking to clearcut “killer trees”.

How are those priorities looking now?

Shortly after the March warning, in June, a Hurricane Irene storm damaged massive water line collapsed in Monmouth County, causing a water emergency for hundreds of thousands of people for over a week.

A reasonable person would have assumed that the Monmouth disaster would have sent a wake-up call to DEP and water companies about storm risks and vulnerabilities. But that event too was ignored and lessons were not learned.

Prior to the Monmouth disaster, for over a decade, the DEP Office of Coastal Management issued a series of warnings – on a biennial basis – of coastal hazards and vulnerabilities, known as the “309 Report”, which presciently warned:

Many parts of New Jersey’s densely populated coastal area are highly susceptible to the effects of the following coastal hazards: flooding, storm surge, episodic erosion, chronic erosion, sea level rise, and extra-tropical storms. Reconstruction of residential development and the conversion of single family dwellings into multi-unit dwellings continues in hazardous areas, the value of property at risk is increasing significantly. With anticipated accelerating sea level rise and increasing storm frequency and intensity, vulnerability to the risks of coastal hazards will not abate; it will only become more costly.

In 2005, Princeton Universtiy issued a very specific Report highlighting risks to the NJ shore and recommended a “gradual withdrawal of development” from high hazard areas : FUTURE SEA LEVEL RISE AND THE NEW JERSEY COAST

Increasing rates of sea level rise caused by global warming are expected to lead to permanent inundation, episodic flooding, beach erosion and saline intrusion in low-lying coastal areas. ..  Our findings suggest that where possible a gradual withdrawal of development from some areas of the New Jersey coast may be the optimum management strategy for protecting natural ecosystems.

Commissioner Martin had to be aware of a 2010 Report “Climate Change and the Delaware Estuary”which identified similar risks and vulnerabilities, particularly to water infrastructure (warnings of direct relevance given massive sewage and drinking water treatment plant outages caused by Sandy, which led to boil water advisories and a Gov.’s Emergency Declaration).

Other warnings came from experts within NJ – see a Report titled: NEW JERSEY SEA GRANT COLLEGE PROGRAM MANUAL FOR COASTAL HAZARD MITIGATION . If that is not an unheeded warning, I don’t know what is.

And  finally, in recent years, there were numerous scientific and technical warning reports issued by international institutions (IPC) and academic institutions about rising risks and vulnerabilities.

Of course, Martin had to know that prior Governor’s has declared multiple states of emergency at the shore.

(and it wasn’t just the Christie DEP that was deaf – the Legislature too had their heads in the sand – most recently the problem was ignored at their August annual shore meeting)

All ignored – The Deafness Before The Storm.

dunes eroded, Normandy Beach (photo prior to Sandy)

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  1. Bill Neil
    November 16th, 2012 at 13:42 | #1

    Bill, maybe this posting is the time I pay tribute to my old boss and the founder and long time leader of the American Littoral Society, Dery Bennett, who passed away not so long ago. I was unable to attend his services, so let me give him credit for long standing up to the forces for silly, and ultimately, dangerous building decisions at the coast.

    I had the honor – I won’t call it the pleasure (because we were always outnumbered and well aware of the inclinations of elected officials to respond to the most passionate and absolutist private property right defendants)- to attend a number of coastal conferences on the topic of storm dangers and official reponses. Dery, and then me, following his lead, always saw the issue of the “guaranteed right to rebuild” as a crucial one, an intellectual hinge that could swing to obstinate denial of science and facts on the ground, or to a graceful acceptance that the power of nature in the form of coastal storms was going have the final word on the wisdom of human building choices.

    We knew that in the immediate wake of a coastal disaster that the politics would pretty much follow the path taken by Governor Christie. This was a quarter of a century ago, when Dery and I based our arguments not on the threat of global warming and massive increases in sea level, but on the long recorded history of coastal storms on the Atlantic seaboard, and the nature of the geology of the coast, especially that of the very mobile barrier islands, that man seems to want to pin down, whether by sea walls, groins or sand pumping (this being the most fluid defensive response, but futile over time) to meet the needs of protecting hard real estate.

    That was when I first heard of Orrin H. Pilkey, the nation’s most famous coastal geologist, who just posted a classic Op-Ed at the New York Times on November 15, 2012, entitled “We Need to Retreat from the Beach.” (Here at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/15/opinion/a-beachfront-retreat.html)

    I think the arguments Dery made back then, in the 1980’s were correct, and have only been butressed by the consensus science on global warming. Take away the absolute right to rebuild, open the debate on what to do, how, and where to full public participation since the public is going to be asked to defend the policies chosen with their money and in some cases their lives, and agree to let nature’s “mapping” process in the future strongly influence where we retreat and what we defend – that seems sensible and doable to me. The danger is, as you are pointing out, that the process seems to be closed to ideas and alternatives already, the new inlet near Mantaloking already filled with no debate according to a commentator at Naked Capitalism. Dery Bennett would be speaking out forcefully and loudly over that, in that manner that won him so many friends at the coast. And let’s not forget the courage he showed in doing this on this issue of coastal development, and on public access too: some of his largest financial donors and a good part of his membership base lived right along the coast. A high wire act indeed, one that he pulled off with grace and charm.

  2. November 16th, 2012 at 13:52 | #2

    @Bill Neil

    Thanks Bill, great post and tribute to Dery.

    Next week, we start the discussion here on going forward plans and solutions.

    Hopefully, by then we will at least have a schedule of the Legislative hearings and State Planning Commission’s announced “outreach” sessions.

    At this time, I am glad that shoes are beginning to drop on the accountability front.

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