NJ Senate Dems Rip FEMA and DEP Sandy Flood Maps
NJ Dems Blow Huge Climate Change Set Up
Democrats Playing Irresponsible Partisan Games In Effort to Undo FEMA Maps
Gov. Christie Blocks DEP & FEMA Testimony
Coastal Advocacy Groups AWOL
What the hell are the NJ Democrats doing?
The NJ Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee held another in their series of hearings on Sandy. Yesterday’s agenda was announced ”to hear testimony from invited witnesses on issues surrounding coastal planning and rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.”
The hearing comes at a time when people are finally connecting the dots betweeen climate change and extreme weather events, like Sandy.
Last week, Gov. Christie got hammered for calling climate change an “esoteric” issue that people “didn’t give a damn about”:
A day after Governor Christie dismissed questions about whether climate change fueled superstorm Sandy, scientists maintained Wednesday that global warming and sea level rise must be taken into account when rebuilding the Jersey Shore. (Rebuilding standards at Jersey Shore must reflect climate change, experts say Bergen Record 2/6/13)
Christie not only got hammered on climate change, but, due to an unfavorable comparison with NY Gov. Cuomo’s Sandy response, pledged to do more on aquisition of flood prone properties:
SEA BRIGHT — Gov. Chris Christie said today he wants the state to use a portion of the federal Sandy aid money coming to New Jersey to buy up whole neighborhoods prone to flooding. (Star Ledger 2/7/13)
But then, in another embarrassing move, Christie walked those comments back and said he was reluctant to aquire property, and would do so only if an entire neighborhood came to consensus (see: Christie says he’s reluctant to buy out flood-prone homes without neighborhood consensus (Bergen Record 2/7/13).
Meanwhile, as President Obama gears up for tonight’s State of the Union address and expectations rise about how he will flesh out his strong Inaugural remarks on climate change, [and reality pushed] Congressional Democrats are pushing to put climate change on the national agenda.
In fact, NJ Congressman Frank Pallone is playing a leading role, see House GOP Rejects Calls For Climate Hearings — But Democrats Will Keep Pressing.
A second defeated amendment, by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), called for hearings on climate-related coastal threats including sea-level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and ocean acidification. Both proposals called for witnesses including National Academy of Sciences members.
So, going into that NJ Senate Sandy hearing, the NJ Democrats should have been riding high and focused on climate change, science, and flaws in Gov. Christie’s “Rebuild Madness” (TM).
So what did they do with this tremendously favorable setup?
They attacked the science!
They ignored climate change!
They attacked the Gov. for applying the science in a DEP Emergency Rule which adopted the FEMA Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps.
They did not invite any coastal, environmental, or public interest advocates to testify.
Following last week’s move by US Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, it looks like the NJ Democrats are all in in a top down political attack on FEMA and climate science to undo the ABFE maps.
This obviously is exactly the opposite of good science and public policy.
Now, let’s get back to the NJ Senate Committee hearing.
The sparsely attended hearing was one long disaster – the only relief coming at the very end of the hearing in testimony by former DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello, not only a former Commissioner but a 30 year coastal expert.
Mauriello questioned Gov. Christie’s “neighborhood” approach to acquisition of flood prone property; supported the FEMA ABFE maps and disputed prior scientific testimony that claimed FEMA maps lacked “scientific validity”; recommended Legislative changes to eliminate the CAFRA right to rebuild provision, and provide state authority to condemn easements and consider recalcitrant easement property owners a hazard to others and public nuisance; and said DEP had failed to implement and enforce existing CAFRA public access requirements. Hello! That was a bombshell that will be ignored. It is not often that a former DEP Commissioner criticizes DEP’s failures.
But by that time, most of the Committee members and media were long gone.
Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Environment Committee, who is not even a member of the Budget & Appropriations Committee, was sitting in and lead this attack.
At one point, Smith suggested the need for uniform state legislation to make rebuilding “automatic”, by exempting rebuilding from local planning and zoning board reviews. That is consistent with and would go beyond DEP Commissioner Martin’s initial moves to deregulate rebuild from DEP permit reviews.
Smith laid it on thick, at one point calling the Governor’s adopton of the maps “insane”. Star Ledger:
Calling the requirements adopted last month by the Department of Environmental Protection “insane,” Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) asked scientists at a hearing in Toms River if the maps are “scientifically valid.”
At least two scientists — who testified before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee — declined to answer, but Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said the maps are flawed when taking wave action into account.
“So why did we adopt them … if they’re not scientifically valid?” asked Smith, who has a Shore house in Lavallette that flooded during Hurricane Sandy. “Doing it on partial and preliminary information is insane.”
[Note - here is Asbury Park Press story with the same "insane" Smith quote: Senate panel meets on flood maps.
What is really going on is people with an agenda or bias are using anecdotal site specific information to smear a larger effort. The same bullshit attack has suceeded before on FEMA maps, the Builders and developers did the same thing to DEP's Big Map project, and people are still doing it now to attempt to discredit the Highlands. Spatial data and models are never perfect or 100% ground truthed - It is easy to find mapping errors or anomalies, and use them to misrepresent the entire methodology. Shame on Smith, Sarlo, and Farrell].
While I have criticized the FEMA ABFE maps as flawed for failure to consider Sandy elevations and the effects of climate change and sea level rise as required by FEMA’s own Climate Change Adaptation Policy, I think Smith’s attack was cynical, opportunistic, and represents an insane policy of denial.
But it wasn’t only Senate Democrats who were playing partisan political games and not focusing on the science and public policy.
DEP Commissioner Martin was invited and expected to testify, but cancelled unexpectedly.
Chairman Sarlo, who again opened the hearing by repeating the subservient role he envisions for the Legislature to support the Gov. who was taking the lead on Sandy, merely said he was “disappointed” by this.
Amazingly, Gov. Christie blocked the testimony of FEMA.
I didn’t even know a Governor could do this, but in response to a harsh question by Senator O’Toole (R) asking why FEMA was not there to testify (presumably a set up to attack President Obama), Chairman Sarlo indicated that FEMA was blocked by the “NJ executive Branch”.
The US Army Corps of Engineers testified, but basically were evasive and said nothing. At times, getting a straight answer out of them was like nailing jello to a tree.
They were repeatedly asked what the best available science suggested was the most effective strategy (reply: “I can’t offer advice on that”) – whether they had conducted a damage assessment and analysis for the entire NJ coast (“No”) – and how much it would cost to do beach replenishment and dune construction along the entire NJ coast.
All they could say was that the recent bailout legislation provide money to study those questions and the Corps will issue a report in 2 years or so. In response, Chairman Sarlo sought to dampen public expectations on dunes and beach replenishment solutions, saying they were years away.
One important thing the USACE did make clear, however, was that their project engineering designs and cost benefit analysis are very flawed. Contrary to public perception, the Corps does not design for a specific storm interval (e.g. 100 year storm); and their projects are not designed to offer a level of protection. The projects merely reduce the harm and damage that would have occurred with out them, mostly due to wave action impacts on beachfront property, not flooding and back bay or inland property. Corps projects do not prevent harms, but merely reduce harms – what the Corps called “risk uncertainty analysis”. The cost benefit analyses that justify these projects and environmental reviews are similarly flawed.
A prominent academic cheerleader for beach replenishment testified. He not only defended that costly, ineffective, and unsustainble practice, he touted outdated structural engineering solutions. Stewart Farrell of Stockton went where other scientists would not go. He played along with Senator Smith and used a few Cape May county back bay FEMA V Zone designations to attack the scientific credibility of the entire FEMA ABFE mapping exercise based on this handful of designations.
That view was disputed by former DEP Commissioner Mauriello, while other witnesses testified that 90% of the FEMA maps were scientifically sound and peer reviewed, all but the wave action model. So it looks like a few technically unclear V zone bay front designations are being misused to discredit the entire FEMA effort.
While criticizing FEMA for failure to fully peer review the science and modeling behind the ABFE maps, this same professor revealed that he had met behind closed doors “at the Statehouse” with DEP Commisioner Martin.
That sounds a lot more like politics than science – so much for transparency and peer review.
Another academic from Rutgers testified on climate change research. His testimony was presented with such timidity, uncertainty caveats, and refusal to engage any policy issues that it actually undermined the case for climate change.
The most critical and important point made was obscured and legislators did not understand the implications.
All our statistical analysis of historical data used to support planning, engineering, policy, and decsion-making assumes that the future will be like the past.
But with climate change, “the future will not be like the past”. All bets are off!
When asked what was the best policy in light of this science, the Rutgers professor refused to engage any policy discussion.
I fear that Rutgers may have gagged their scientists from publicly speaking outside the science on public policy issues, perhaps in the wake of Professor Kennish’s courageous but politically controversial testimony about the “insidious ecological decline” of the Bay. Kennish explicitly criticized DEP’s science and Governor Christie’s Barnegat bay Management Plan. DEP attacked him and threatened Rutgers for that testimony.
The testimony of the final panel – the only “planners’ to testify – was not only weak and unfocused, but basically a formality before adjourning. NJ Future testified that “some have suggested a Coastal COmmission”, but then backed away from that quickly after Senator Smith asked whether this Commission should have land use planning and regulatory powers.
Last, no public interest advocates, critics, coastal groups, or environmentalists were even invited to testify.
None even attended the hearing to monitor it.
I find this very strange, because just last Monday, Tim Dillingham of American Littoral Society testified before the Senate Environment Committee that he was unable to even get a meeting with DEP Commisisoner Martin. This complaint prompted Senator Beck (R-Monmouth), who said she had met earlier that morning with The Rebuild Czar, to pledge to set up a meeting for Dillingham.
So, my guess is that coastal and environmental advocates were not invited to testify by the Democrats and they stayed away in a continuing sad posture of deference to the Christie Administration.
On a positive note, this was the Commttee’s first hearing – over 3 months after the storm – where serious policy issues were even broached.
But with every single issue that emerged all going in the wrong direction, the hearing was a huge setback to efforts to cultivate a broader conversation about moving towards seriously addressing either climate change, coastal land use, or coastal resilience.
Given these politics, I really don’t see much chance of making progress on either climate, adaptation, or coastal land use policy.
And while I do not support the Christie policy, I never thought I would have more respect for Gov. Christie and DEP Commissioner Martin’s policy – on any issue – than that of the Chairman of the Senate Environment Committee.