THE IMAGES RESEMBLE THE aftermath of a war, after a fleet of B-52 bombers dropped their payload on a city, or as if Mother Nature went bowling and flattened
entire neighborhoods. Add to that flooding and infrastructure damage, with downed power lines and collapsed bridges, and today’s extreme weather events are demonstrating devastating destructive force with increasing frequency.
This dangerous trend begs the question: “Is New Jersey prepared for the next Sandy?” COMMERCE asked the experts to weigh in, and—until more action is taken to defend against future storms—the Garden State remains unnecessarily vulnerable to nature’s fury. Here are thoughts, insights and observations about how New Jersey can take
steps to mitigate the damage from future extreme weather events.
NJIT Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection
Michel Boufadel, Director
The Director of the NJIT Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, Michel Boufadel, has mixed feelings about how prepared the Garden State is for the next Sandy.
“No life should be lost due to hurricanes, considering the early warning systems that we have in place,” he says.
“However, some people believe that they can ride out the storm. For example [after
Hurricane Sandy], in the town of Laurence Harbor on Raritan Bay, some folks had to be rescued by emergency personnel, as they called for help when the water flooded the road by Cheesequake Creek. The State of New Jersey has organized various events
and issued pamphlets to explain about hurricanes.”
Boufadel notes that there is “no doubt” that areas like Cape May, Atlantic City and Sandy Hook will take the brunt of future hurricanes, but he worries that inland areas such as the Meadowlands “could be more vulnerable” since people do not expect a storm surge to move so far inland.
In addition, he reports that “there are concerns of contaminants moving from contaminated sites to residential areas, as the NJIT team discovered following Hurricane Sandy in Laurence Harbor. The measurements immediately after the storm revealed that the concentration of arsenic and lead was 1,000 times over the acceptable limit in the sediments.”
Boufadel says there are some steps that state and other officials could take to mitigate the effects of future superstorms. “Provide information sessions, ensure major roads remain open and ensure that electricity and water do not stay offline for more than 24 hours. Minimize the movement of chemicals into residential areas.”
He also recommends that state officials support more studies by engineering firms and universities to consider various scenarios to address flooding. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA should be the baseline, but more detailed studies highlighting flooding should be encouraged and undertaken.”
SPB Architecture, NJIT College of Architecture and Design
Susan Bristol, Owner, SPB Architecture, Adjunct Architecture Professor, NJIT
The spate of hurricanes and flooding that has rocked disparate parts of the nation should hammer home the need to “build lightly, with less of an impact on sensitive sites,” counsels Susan
Bristol, owner of SPB Architecture, and an adjunct architecture professor at NJIT’s College of Architecture and Design. “But a lot of people still just
don’t get it.”
She believes in taking a holistic approach, considering “how the landscape of a site can work with a built structure. The idea is to reduce the impact that building, parking lot or other structure has on the site’s ability to naturally absorb storm water and reduce the regional impact on neighboring properties.”
But in New Jersey, says Bristol, “many of our developments are poorly designed and are becoming economically irrelevant, such as shopping malls. They’re monoliths, surrounded by paving and empty parking lots—and prime candidates for redevelopment.”
She points to the Plaza 23 shopping center on Route 23 in Pequannock as a prime example. “The shopping mall is in the Passaic River Basin and has flooded three times within 10 years, rendering the buildings useless, requiring millions in renovat
ion funds and causing people to be unemployed for more than a year,” says Bristol. “The frequency of flooding and the storm water problem are directly related to our lack of attention to natural systems. It’s very clear that we shouldn’t have built so many
malls and parking lots in floodplains next to the Passaic River.”
Bristol and her NJIT students have proposed environmentally sensitive redevelopment plans for compromised sites in a variety of locations in New Jersey.
“The Pequannock project featured a redevelopment design for the strip mall, swapping out continuous slab and impervious paving “for an eco-friendly do-over,” she explains. “This would give the landowner the necessary amenities to operate a viable mixed-use property, while returning a sizable portion of the land back to the floodplain.”
The social and environmental benefits of this kind of development are abundant, she says, but there are obstacles to implementing the solutions. “
Cleaner air and water, more open space, a reduction in the heat island effect and flood mitigation and resiliency, to name a few, but people are reluctant to embrace ‘ecological urbanism.’ It’s perceived as more expensive to integrate greenery into construction.”
On top of that, many people haven’t really changed their behavior “because they think Hurricane Sandy was an oddity,” Bristol adds. “They don’t see that the damage was made worse by human behavior and the built environment, as well as public policy.”
She cites a pre-Sandy example, noting that one client, a landowner on a barrier island along the Jersey Shore, hoped to sell some of his land to the county or town under the Green Acres program, which would have prevented it from ever being developed. But he ran into roadblocks.
“The individual wanted to preserve the land as a bird sanctuary, which would have had the side benefit of helping to buffer the Shore against floods like we saw with Superstorm Sandy,” explains Bristol. “But the idea was rejected because it was a small parcel for the county, and the town didn’t want to lose the tax-ratable land. This is one reason why New Jersey needs to create some different incentives.”
Bristol hopes to use her academic position as a catalyst for environmentally friendly ideas that are becoming commercially and politically viable. “But it’s more than just me and my classes,” she says. “Educators at all levels need to teach geography and land use history, and elected officials need to marry open space preservation and historic preservation in flood plains in an integrated state plan. Flood plains should have
been removed from developable land use decades ago, but now the Green Acres, farmland and other preservation programs should be expanded.”
When new buildings go up, developers should attempt to exceed code requirements, not just follow minimal codes, adds Bristol. “Green infrastructure should become a best practice with every new road or highway project,” she explains. “It can slow the velocity
of storm water, ensuring that the ground has an opportunity to absorb water instead of creating runoff. It can also clean or filtrate the water going into our watersheds.”
Bristol also believes that municipalities should be able to limit new commercial construction if old nearby commercial structures are available for redevelopment. “Dead malls are a fantastic opportunity for re-development and for resilient design best practices,” she says. “My architecture students always learn the geographic conditions and history of the sites that we work with, but the general New Jersey public does not
seem to notice such things.”
Part of the challenge is that people just don’t know much about geography or natural landscapes these days, she says. “Farmers were dependent on that knowledge. My family has roots in New Jersey that go back for more than a century, and we still use geographic-based names rather than political boundaries for places in New Jersey.”
She notes that “it’s sad to see New Jersey high school students who are excited when they work in their school’s tiny garden, but they don’t know that, just two decades ago, the land their school sits on was itself a viable farm in a fertile valley.”
New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), An NJIT Corporation
Colette Santasieri, Executive Director, Policy and Planning Innovation for Civil Infrastructure and Environment
“The frequent occurrences and intensity of recent hurricanes and other storm events, as well as resulting storm surges and flooding, have been an eye-opener for many people across the country, as well as in New Jersey,” says Colette Santasieri, NJII’s executive director, Policy and Planning Innovation for Civil Infrastructure and Environment.
“The destruction of property and natural ecosystems and disruption of basic services such as electricity, running water, and transportation are leading researchers and professionals in the fields of civil infrastructure and the environment to seek more
innovative measures to safeguard people, to make our civil infrastructure more resilient, and to fortify the natural ecosystems that must bear the brunt of ever more powerful
storms,” she explains.
Santasieri has been involved in several initiatives to create more resilient and sustainable communities, including leading a research study that aims to develop
“a balanced approach toward protecting people,” property and nature in Greenwich Township, Cumberland County.
Although that community is protected by levees, the current flood protection levels are inadequate to protect against many of the storms hitting the Bayshore region, she explains. But the obvious solution—strengthening the levees—could cause other problems.
“While fortifying the levees would minimize the impacts from storm surge, that action would adversely impact the wetlands that border the town,” warns Santasieri. “Those wetlands are natural barriers that can absorb flooding; they also contribute to the unique ecosystem that is so valuable to the Bayshore region. Thus, the challenge is developing
a balanced approach for creating resilient communities and economies, as well as healthy coastal ecosystems, not just in Greenwich, but in other coastal communities.”
NJII’s Homeland Defense and Security iLab is also researching ways to recover faster in the wake of a hurricane impact, by working with communication providers and utility companies in states ravaged by recent hurricanes. “We are using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—otherwise referred to as drones—to inspect critical infrastructure,” Santasieri
“Unmanned Aerial System crews perform initial site assessments to determine accessibility to infrastructure so that telecommunications and utility companies can strategically assign repair crews,” she explains. “The advanced data acquisition is used to assess the condition of the infrastructure with up-to-date information to streamline
repair activities. Once repairs have been made, the UAS crews can return to the site and access the quality of the repairs.
“In hurricane-damaged areas, UAS crews are committed to safety and can perform video inspection to assess, for example, whether the site is safely accessible to repair crews; and if flooding would prevent them from reaching the infrastructure,” explains Santasieri.
Saint Peter’s Healthcare System
Interim CEO and President Leslie D. Hirsch, FACHE
New Jersey hospitals appear to be ready to ride out a natural disaster such as the hurricanes that recently whipsawed across Texas and Florida, “but you always have to be prepared,” explains Leslie D. Hirsch, FACHE, interim CEO and president of Saint Peter’s Healthcare System.
He should know—back in 2005, Hirsch had just become CEO of Touro Infirmary, a hospital in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit.
“We likely saved lives by being the first hospital in New Orleans to evacuate, four days after Katrina hit, and we were also the first to reopen, 27 days later,” says Hirsch. “We would have been able to reopen sooner, but we were interrupted by Hurricane Rita.”
Hospitals should have a “culture of preparedness,” he adds. “Hospitals and other emergency facilities should have plans in place beyond the strict government
and other regulatory requirements.
“For example, at Saint Peter’s University Medical Center, we regularly test our emergency generators, and we hold periodic drills,” says Hirsch. “We also have a command center chain established, and a plan in case we lose power. To be successful, the staff must get involved, up to and including senior leadership.”
Some of the details are common sense, such as keeping supplies on hand, including water, food, medicine and oxygen tanks, but the hospital staff and leadership must be creative, too.
“In New Orleans, Katrina knocked out all the communications systems,” Hirsch recalls. “One of the lessons we learned was to beef up communications by acquiring satellite phones and ham radios. Being prepared has to be ingrained into your institution’s culture. You must be prepared for extreme weather emergencies and invest in
training and education. People’s lives may depend on it.”