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Will Sandy Devastation Fundamentally Reorient Perspective on NJ Shore Development?

Legislative Hearings Start Tomorrow – Early Signals Are Not Good

Policymakers Pushing More Engineering and Rebuild Now!

NJ Press Corps Stuck in Cheerleader Mode

Environmentalists, Planners, and Scientists Hiding Under Their Desks

  • Christie said his most important priority was getting federal help to “engineer” the state’s beaches to better withstand future storms.” (Bergen Record, 11/25/12)
  • New Jersey was really a giant science experiment,” he’d told me.  “New Jersey was the home of some of the first vacation spots and one of the first places to arm their beaches.  Thanks to New Jersey we learned that any sort of hard stabilization—sea walls, groins, and jetties—was very damaging to the beach.  We learned that the damage occurs just by building something fixed by the beach—could be a highway, for instance. The problem of beaches is that they are eroding and always moving.  The beach tends to move toward that fixed thing and get narrower and narrower and narrower until it disappears altogether.” […]
  • What’s remarkable so far is how storms barely slow down coastal              development,” he told me. “I was down in Florida after hurricane Donna hit in 1960 and people said, ‘Well I guess this is the end of the Keys.’ Of course it was really just the beginning. They started building even bigger places. When the North Carolina coast started being developed heavily we coastal scientists used to say ‘What we need is a big storm.’ We figured that people would see what a storm did and heed its warning. But then Hurricane Hugo hit and we learned that people start building again as soon as the wind dies down. Hurricanes have actually become giant urban renewal projects. The buildings come back bigger than before. But of course the site they are building on is even more dangerous because the shoreline has retreated landward and the dunes have been damaged. But still they re-build. It’s really a form of societal madness. I can’t put it any more strongly.” (Salon, 11/3/12)


[Update – here is some exceptional reporting, by Sarah Watson of the Press of Atlantic City: Hurricane Sandy puts focus on climate change, flood protection, and future storm planning – end update]

For decades, many argued that we need to fundamentally reorient our perspective to shore development to recognize hazards, inherent instability, and the natural dynamics of barrier islands, beaches, dunes, and shore erosion. Global warming – which causes sea level rise and more severe coastal storms – only makes this case even more compelling.

Some call this “strategic retreat”, some call it “design with nature”, some simply call it sanity.

The idea of planning and working with nature versus trying to engineer nature is at the root of this debate.

I agree with Ian McHarg, Professors Pilkey and Oppenheimer, and others in the “strategic retreat” camp.

But Governor Christie? Not so much.

The Governor has stressed that going forward we need to do “better engineering” of the beaches. Here is Christie  making that point in the November 14 Wall Street Journal

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said statewide beaches must be better engineered to protect homes and defended his support for President Barack Obama in the days after superstorm Sandy.

During a series of radio interviews Wednesday morning, Christie said he will ask the federal government for money to pay the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for help remodeling the state’s beaches to protect seaside homes from tidal surges.

Seaside towns such as Avalon, N.J., that already had protection from “engineered” beaches fared well during Sandy, he said. Those without trucked-in sand and man-made dunes — most notably Seaside Heights, N.J. — were severely battered by Sandy.

Funny, just 2 days prior, I made exactly the opposite argument on a Nov. 12 Huffington Post Live Panel discussion: “Zoned for destruction”:

HuffPo Reporter: (time 17:08)

I think the question going forward is do you put money on the table and take these dramatic steps [engineering protections and rebuilding] just knowing that the next storm is coming down the pike?

[fellow panelist]

Bill, you want to jump in? (20:28)

Wolfe: (time 20:30)

Yeah, I want to say that what we have to learn is that the approach we’ve taken in the past – which are engineering approaches, e.g. “harden the coast” build seawalls, groins, jetties, flood proof structures – that is a failed approach.

I think we have to acknowledge that.

Until we face up to that engineering failure and lack of planning, then we can’t move forward.

So it takes more than political leadership, it takes acknowledgement of the mistakes that got us to this point.

If you just listen to the remarks of Governor Christie and compare them with Governor Cuomo you see the leadership, but you also see the acknowledgement on Cuomo’s part that  we need to change the way we’ve done things in the past.

Whereas our Governor in NJ has not gotten there.

For example, in 2006 [correction: 2010] there was a Pilot Study done in the Delaware Bayshore that looked at how to do adaptation at the local level.

The NJ DEP themselves, earlier in March of this year, released a vulnerability protocol and handbook or cookbook for local governments to use. And again, the tools are all out there, but they’re just totally being ignored for political and economic reasons.

But now I think that the devastation is going to change that perspective.

The Senate will hold a series of hearings which start tomorrow in Toms River at 11 am (see:  Meeting – the L.M. Hirshblond Room, 2nd Floor, at the Toms River Municipal Complex, 33 Washington Street, Toms River, NJ 08753 – agenda here).

The early signs are not good – the focus is on rebuilding; the guests are by invitation only, with a stress on local Mayors and the Budget and Appropriations Committee is in charge.

That is not a formula for enlightened policymaking.

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