New Jersey and federal agencies have announced a joint study to examine ways to combat flooding on the state’s back bays, which were where some of the worst flooding happened four years when Superstorm Sandy barreled into the shore.
The pain continues for many communities that were pummeled by the historic storm. Shore towns have watched as government agencies rushed to build sand dunes along beaches but failed to construct similar flood protection measures along the bay shores, in the areas between the mainland and barrier islands.
To many communities, the announced study by the state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is welcome — if years too late.
“This isn’t the first disaster in America,” said George Kasimos, whose Toms River home flooded during Sandy, at a public meeting Thursday. “As soon as that disaster came, within that first year, there should’ve been a plan.”
How it will work
The New Jersey Back Bays Study actually started in April after spinning off of a larger study of the entire North Atlantic Coast, which the Corps of Engineers began a year and a half after Sandy, said J. Bailey Smith, the project manager who will oversee the back bay study.
DEP and Corps of Engineers will first analyze the physical features of the coast and compile flood probability data before identifying possible flood protection measures.
Those measures fall into four broad categories: changes to regional policies and the creation of new programs, structural measures such as bulkheads and levees, non-structural measures like buyouts and flood warning systems, and nature-based methods like reefs.
The study is expected to last three years and likely would not result in the construction of any new projects before its completion, officials said.
“This is a more complex issue and problem to address than, say, beach erosion. And it took a very long time to get where we are with beach erosion,” said Bill Dixon, the DEP’s director of coastal engineering.
“I see different methods being used in different areas” for the back bay study, he said.
Nonetheless, the Corps of Engineers’ Bailey said that does not mean that the state’s bay shores will remain completely vulnerable to flooding in the short term.
“We have a lot of similar, smaller projects that are ongoing and may be constructed in the next three to five years,” said Bailey.
The study will encompass 3,500 miles of bay shoreline in Burlington, Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May, and Monmouth Counties.
‘Caught with our pants down’
For Lacey Township resident Pat Doyle, back bay flooding is old hat. She welcomed the announcement but said the problem of bay flooding was nothing novel to residents who regularly cope with encroaching waters.
“We were caught with our pants down badly during Sandy,” said Doyle, “and we shouldn’t have been.”
Others in the audience during a public meeting Thursday night at Stockton University argued that the long delay in starting the three-year study will now be followed by another delay in starting construction on the flood protection projects recommended by the study.
“So, the true answer for most of the people in my neighborhood is this is being built for your children, because they won’t live long enough to see it?” asked Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association. “That’s sad.”
Dixon, with DEP, said it would have been difficult for the state to embark on such an undertaking on its own. DEP and Corps of Engineers are splitting the costs of the back bay study.
He also claimed that authorities have not been ignoring the needs of back bay communities by largely focusing on flood protection projects on the oceanfront beaches. The reason for that, according to Dixon, was because the state identified oceanfront flooding as a major problem long before it realized back bay flooding also required attention.
“Studies like this [for ocean flooding] were implemented back in the 90s. So the reason why these projects are being implemented now on the oceanfront is we’ve gotten through all this process.”
Dixon also said the state was actively trying to minimize the effect of bay shore flooding by, for example, buying out residents living on the Delaware and Raritan Bays through the Green Acres program.
Kasimos, the Toms River homeowner who also founded the group Stop FEMA Now after Sandy, said the announcement was another in a long line of government failures on this issue.
“If there were lobbyists in here and there were big funders in here, this would’ve gotten done already,” said Kasimos.
“Look, government is inefficient by nature, I get that. But the response since Sandy — state and federal — is piss-poor.”