Public Safety & Justice

Flood-Prone Cities Try Disaster Planning on Their Own

Some places aren’t waiting for another Sandy. They're taking matters into their own hands. But what’s best for one city may not be best for the region.
April 2013

When Hoboken, N.J., resident Larry Henriques saw the paint can float by, he thought it odd. When he saw a car just down the street start floating away, he found it alarming.

As locals describe it, Hoboken “filled up like a bathtub” on Oct. 29, 2012, as Superstorm Sandy churned its way over the East Coast, pushing the Hudson River over its banks, breaching Hoboken to the north and the south, and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to the low-lying city of 50,000 residents just across the river from Manhattan.

Read the April issue of Governing magazine.

The storm revealed long-predicted vulnerabilities to major population centers along much of the eastern seaboard. Sandy also revved up discussion about how those population centers might be protected in the future if, as forecast, such severe weather events -- exacerbated by rising ocean levels -- become more frequent. (In the past three years alone, New York City has experienced three of its top 10 flooding events.)

In the months since Sandy, experts from all over the world have been weighing in on how to protect the East Coast from further -- and almost inevitably more serious -- natural disasters. Ideas range from elaborate and ambitious mega-billion dollar projects such as vast seawalls, gates and dikes similar to the London/Thames Estuary Project, to deploying giant inflatable corks to plug New York and New Jersey’s extensive network of rail and road tunnels. At the same time, officials are considering massive buyouts and relocation efforts to turn development-clogged waterfronts back into natural coastal barriers that protect inland life and property from the full brunt of a storm.

Everything, it seems, is now on the table as politicians, emergency managers, planners, climatologists and other experts hash out how to keep the Atlantic Ocean out of places like Queens and Jersey City.

But there is one political leader directly affected by Sandy who doesn’t seem all that intrigued by the debate and the discussion. Three-year Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer says she’s not interested in massive regional solutions aimed at holding back the Hudson, or in plans to put her city on stilts, or even in returning her waterfront to wildlife-filled meadowlands. None of that, she says, is remotely practical. What she wants to do is to harden Hoboken.

“It’s just not physically possible,” says Zimmer, when Federal Emergency Management Agency officials say that either buildings or street entrances in Hoboken need to be raised by 13 feet. Nor does she think that it’s right for her city even if it could be done. Characterized by remarkably intact blocks of brick and brownstone row houses and commercial buildings constructed at the turn of the 20th century, lifting Hoboken isn’t likely. “Part of the concern is that you’re talking about protecting the character of Hoboken. When you take away the street life of Hoboken, you’re taking away the character of Hoboken and every other urban area.”

Slight with a ready smile, Zimmer doesn’t initially come across as a pit bull. But she’s clearly not kidding around when she lays out plans for how to flood-proof her city.

Zimmer has proposed “an integrated approach” to flood protection that includes walls and gates at the north and south ends of the city -- the two low-lying areas that allowed the bathtub to fill up. She wants to add pumps to help get water out of the city, and is already working to acquire vacant industrial property on which to establish rain-slurping parkland. She is also talking about converting some of this industrial land into holding tanks for errant H2O. At the same time, she’s advocating for a greener approach to development in general, an approach that includes construction elements like porous pavement and botanical roofs.

The price tag? In the neighborhood of $90 million, and Zimmer readily admits “it’s going to be a challenge” to get the state and feds to pony up. But part of her pitch is that Hoboken’s solution could be a positive model for how similarly situated cities up and down the East Coast might also protect themselves.

That’s one way to look at it. But Zimmer’s proposition also raises a deeper, more starkly practical question that’s not quite so rosy. When it comes to coastal cities and climate change, is it time to forget mega-scale fixes that involve regional or even interstate cooperation? Is it time for these cities to start looking out for themselves?

Help during the event from the National Guard, and a wish for millions in state and federal grant money, notwithstanding, Hoboken clearly has something of a “we-take-care-of-our-own” streak that served it well during Sandy. The mayor personally rode around the city with members of the National Guard trying to evacuate the city’s most vulnerable residents and get help to those who didn’t leave. Henriques -- who watched the paint can and the car float away -- has become vice chairman of a citywide Sandy relief fund that raised money locally and is now doling out grants to residents who need some extra cash for property repairs. This, while the city and homeowners still wait on Trenton and FEMA to figure out how federal assistance will be sprinkled around the New York and New Jersey oceanfronts and river coastlines.

Taking care of your own isn’t an unprecedented approach for dealing with natural disasters in the U.S. In fact, it’s how emergency management used to work. Even after Hurricane Katrina, local emergency managers in places like Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes marveled at the hapless response in neighboring New Orleans, while they executed their own emergency management plans with cool efficiency -- and with no expectation that they’d be seeing anyone from the state or federal government arrive to help them for days.

Zimmer marvels in her own way at a certain level of, if not haplessness, certainly cumbersome and opaque state and federal bureaucracy. It’s the waiting part -- waiting on FEMA and waiting on the state -- that really inspired her to come up with her own plan for protecting the city. It is that impatience that lies at the heart of why other cities might want to consider their own disaster-proofing schemes: State and federal bureaucracies are flat-out too slow.

Meanwhile, ambitious regionwide plans for large-scale, dazzling flood-control plans don’t excite her. “I have reached out and have had discussions with the state and with the governor. I’ve heard discussions of a massive regional approach, like [a proposed gated seawall] at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but that could take 20 years. And quite frankly, I’ve been mayor for three years and we’ve seen major flooding again and again.”

Zimmer knows what she wants, and she wants it now. She has no intentions of sitting around waiting to get drowned by another Sandy while others try to figure things out. Take pumps, for instance. “The pump system has been part of a proposal for a long time, so we actually have construction documents.” In fact, the city is already working with a consultant to scope out the viability of the wall-and-gate plan. “We’re going to be going through a thorough evaluation process,” says Zimmer. “But saying to each property owner that we’ll raise your home up on pilings, that’s not possible.”

While it may seem selfish -- save Hoboken first and foremost -- in many ways the Hoboken approach makes sense, says Adam Zellner, an environmental and energy consultant with Brunswick, N.J.-based Greener by Design, which is working with Hoboken on disaster-proofing the city. “With FEMA you have to have all these requests in under very tight deadlines for all these different programs. So what the mayor has wisely done is to say to all her agencies -- fire, police, public works -- ‘Give me everything you’ve ever thought of or looked at because it has to be on a piece of paper and submitted.’ So you throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” The difference with Zimmer’s approach, he says, is that it’s an attempt to actually drive the action. “I think part of this is, ‘Hey, I’m going to lead by example and get in front, and if others aren’t looking at all this stuff that’s their choice. But I’ll be damned if I leave anything off the table.’”

Which doesn’t mean Zimmer isn’t serious about a seawall, says Zellner. “Oh, I think she’s serious. She was affected in a way that was truly profound. Hoboken had 10 feet of water running through places that had never been wet. Her own house was impacted. If I were in her shoes, I’d look at every possible option and think that I have to be the most aggressive person I can be.”

The politics of flooding can be fierce. In John Barry’s book “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America,” he describes how towns on either side of the Mississippi River would post armed guards to prevent across-the-river neighbors from blowing up each other’s levies in an attempt to take pressure off the earthen walls on their own side.

Nobody’s suggesting dynamite today. But the fact is that alluring “us first” fixes can have potentially unpopular consequences down the road. “I am, on the one hand, recommending decentralized solutions. So if Hoboken takes care of its own issues then that’s a step in the right direction,” says Klaus Jacob, an expert on climate change who teaches at Columbia University and who is intimately involved in the current debate and discussion around surge-proofing the greater New York and New Jersey metropolitan region. On the other hand, says Jacob, localized solutions like seawalls can be short-sighted. “It’s the typical political response: to protect the city now and push off the tough decisions to future generations.”

Hoboken may buy itself a few decades with walls and gates, Jacob says, but ultimately the city will be inundated again. Indeed, Jacob predicts that because of rising ocean levels, what are now considered 100-year flooding events will by 2080 be occurring every two years.

It may be a moot point, because Hoboken’s municipal neighbors have feelings about the city’s wall and gate plan and they’re not shy about airing them. When asked about Hoboken, Jersey City Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Greg Kierce is quick to point out that walls to the north and south of Hoboken could negatively impact neighbors -- Weehawken to the north and Jersey City to the south. (Kierce doesn’t like the Verrazano-Narrows gate plan either, because it could potentially exacerbate flooding along New Jersey’s ocean coast.) What Kierce doesn’t bring up, though, is that Hoboken’s function as a bathtub arguably helped neighbors, even if marginally, by taking billions of gallons of water away from Weehawken and Jersey City during Sandy at significant cost to Hoboken.

Kierce also notes that any walls or gates around Hoboken would have to pass muster with both the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers “before you could put one shovel in the dirt or the water.”

For his part, Kierce thinks that whatever happens around mitigation will have to be regional in nature and orchestrated by the feds. “Overall, this has to be dealt with by federal officials. They’re the experts. It’s beyond the scope of local officials.” Kierce suggests that if the feds can ultimately flood-proof New Orleans (which is obviously a tall order), they can figure something out for the greater New York-New Jersey waterfront as well.

While Kierce and Zimmer might have their differences on how to approach flood mitigation, Kierce does share Zimmer’s concern about one major variable in the whole mitigation equation: the speed of the federal government. “My biggest concern is with all that [nonsense] that took place in Washington. It took them three months to get off their [backsides] and pass Sandy relief.”

Kierce appears willing to give the feds the benefit of the doubt, though, arguing that if a regional plan for walls, levies, gates and breakwaters could be hammered out, regulators like the Army Corps of Engineers might be willing to expedite permitting processes. (If cities in the region do end up moving forward on their own, though, Kierce likes Jersey City’s chances over Hoboken’s. “You have 270,000 people in 14 square miles in Jersey City, and you have Hoboken with 60,000 people in two square miles,” he says. The opportunity to protect more people and land gives Jersey City a leg up, Kierce believes.)

Either way, the choice at the mouth of the Hudson River seems set: work together or go it alone. Working together sounds reasonable, but it raises the specter of that 20-year wait Zimmer worries about. Going it alone clearly has its own drawbacks. The cost and long-range viability of building walls and gates -- along with what would clearly be a very tough and contentious environmental impact review -- make the Hoboken hardening plan seem chimerical.

For Zimmer’s part, she’s focused on one job. “I have to try as hard as I can to protect the residents of Hoboken and the future of Hoboken, and so that’s what I’m going to do.”

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