LTE: Stalled NJ storm protection rules put people and property in harm’s way

To the Editor:

A year after the remnants of Hurricane Ida devastated New Jersey, state officials have failed to better protect people and property from increasingly frequent and severe weather despite promises from Gov. Phil Murphy to make impactful change quickly. As a result, advocates, activists, scientists, and experts are increasingly sounding the alarm. 

“New Jersey is Ground Zero for some of the worst impacts of climate change. It’s the single greatest threat we face to our communities, our economies, and our way of life. We have no choice but to build our resilience,” NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said at an Aug. 11th joint Senate & Assembly hearing.

Environmentalists and municipal officials have launched a campaign calling on Murphy to fast-track long-promised and delayed critical stormwater and flood hazard rules. People and property need better protection given our climate, flooding, and rainfall patterns. Storm volumes are substantially different now from when the state last updated its data in the 1990’s. A new website www.njpactnow.org is collecting signatures calling for the release of the rules and has an Instagram feed to collect photographs and stories of the impact of flooding on local residents.

On September 1, 2021, Ida caused an estimated $95 billion in property damage, including $83 million of damages to New Jersey public schools, and 30 deaths in NJ. Trains and motorists were stranded, and tornadoes and flooding wrecked homes and businesses across the state. First responders conducted hundreds of water rescues at great personal risk, including three Mercer County police officers who were swept into flood waters. FEMA declared 11 counties major disaster areas.

At the time LaTourette noted: “Are we seeing flooding in areas where we haven’t seen it before? The answer is a resounding yes. Ida was a remnant of a tropical depression. A really bad thunderstorm wiped out communities. This is the new reality.” 

Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and UN expert on global warming, at same time called Ida a “direct impact” of climate change adding “it didn’t come out of nowhere, it came on top of [named summer of 2021 storms] Henri and Fred and Elsa… we can expect… more extreme weather events.”

The governor agreed in response to Henri: “I think … New Jersey … is going to have to tune up the playbook… It’s not just flooding… we’re going to see more of this and not less of it” and again a few weeks later in response to Ida: “We’ve gotta update our playbook for sure. We gotta turn it up” adding more must be done to address the persistent threat of flooding: “We need to take a quantum leap, as a state and a country. We have an infrastructure that is built for a different reality.”

Delivering in response to the increasing death and property damage from more frequent severe storms, DEP announced in May it would adopt rules in June to correct archaic flood maps and rainfall data that haven’t been updated since 1999 and include data ranging back to 1899 as a basis for regulatory decision-making. Murphy ordered these long-delayed rules in January 2020 due to the increasing threat of climate change.

However, three months after the last of many broken promises on these rules, the Murphy Administration has not released or even discussed them publicly. At the hearing earlier this month, LaTourette hinted at the cause: “We have to modernize our flood standards. We cannot accept developers telling falsehoods and running around with their hair on fire because DEP wants to change a rule.” 

Updating these rules calls for new buildings and roads to be built outside current flood plains or at least higher than current flooding levels – at least three feet above the currently mapped 100-year flood limit. It also calls for updating the standards for stormwater systems to hold back flood water and slowly release it after large rain events to minimize flooding.

The NJ Business and Industry Association (BIA) opposes the DEP proposal suggesting: 1) “no imminent peril exists” despite more Ida’s looming and the scientific consensus of a climate emergency; and 2) the rules would hurt the economically disadvantaged even though advocates for affordable housing have not raised these objections nor the injustice of siting affordable housing in floodplains. But advocates, experts, and officials disagree with BIA.

“New Jersey is surrounded by water on three sides. For many residents, urban and rural, coastal and inland, flooding is a serious disruption, resulting in billions of dollars of property damage, and deadly consequences. We need to ensure new development isn’t putting people in harm’s way and reflects the best science we have. Now is the time for the Murphy Administration to move forward with these rules,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey.

These new rules are especially important during a time of drought or limited rainfall. “Drought means the ground is like cement and the rainwater can’t be absorbed. As a result, when it does rain, flooding is worse. The combination of the two during hurricane season could be disastrous,” said Amy Goldsmith, NJ State Director of Clean Water Action. “And putting affordable housing in flood hazard areas is just unjust!”

“The rainfall data currently used to predict storms and design stormwater systems is terribly outdated, including old data only through 1999,” said Jim Waltman, Executive Director of The Watershed Institute. “In the last few decades, our storms have become larger and more dangerous, yet our current rules allow the builders to keep partying like it’s 1999. We need bold action to increase protections for the state’s residents, businesses, and environment.”

“These 100-year and 500-year floods are now happening less than every ten years. The climate has changed so significantly in the past few decades that our flood hazard rules and maps are significantly outdated,” said Jennifer Coffey, Executive Director of the Association of NJ Environmental Commissions. “We need Gov. Murphy to make good on his climate resiliency commitments and release the DEP’s common-sense proposal to keep new homes and businesses out of places that we know flood.”

“The patterns of inland flooding are drastically changing and New Jersey is no stranger to this with places that never used to flood before now suffering from flash floods. This change of patterns combined with the extreme drought conditions we are now experiencing gives us the unprecedented flooding we are seeing all over the world with the latest episodes in Kentucky and a few days ago in Texas,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, NJ State Director of the Sierra Club. “We need stormwater and flood hazard protection rules now. New Jersey cannot go through another super storm without the best possible protection and resiliency.”

“Flooding is affecting our families and businesses all too often, and we can’t wait any longer to make necessary changes to protect our communities,” said Ed Potosnak, Executive Director, New Jersey LCV. “This is exactly why we need the NJ Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) regulations, to stop the building industry from putting profits before public safety.”

“If the emergency flood hazard and stormwater rule provisions were in place when Ida struck, lives would have been saved,” said Elliott Ruga, Policy & Communications Director at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “If DEP had adopted them as planned under emergency rulemaking they would have been in place before the next Ida. But development interests prevailed with the governor, who derailed the emergency adoption. Now it is a gamble whether more lives will be lost.”

The rules are proposed through New Jersey’s Flood Hazard Area Control Act, which “empowers the DEP to delineate and mark flood hazard areas … in the interest of the safety, health, and general welfare of the people of the State.” Once the regulations are issued, the public can provide comments. 

“Whole neighborhoods were flooded during Ida. To see everyone’s possessions out on their lawns, knowing they could not afford to replace those items pains me,” said Fred Stine, Community Action Coordinator, Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It is often the poorest who are most at risk. No one should have to go through that financial loss and hardship. Anyone who wants to build homes in an area that floods – whether it is on a map or not – is inviting disaster and puts first responders at risk.”

“It’s not a matter of if our state will see another Ida-like storm — it’s a matter of when. Unless the Murphy administration acts soon, we will suffer billions more dollars in damages and lose more loved ones when the next big storm hits. Designating the safest places to build is a critical part of modernizing the state’s environmental policies and protecting the most vulnerable New Jerseyans from irresponsible developers looking to cut corners and make a quick buck. It’s time for Gov. Murphy to protect New Jersey families from the worst of the climate crisis by releasing the flood zone rules and the rest of the PACT regulations,” said Alex Ambrose, Transportation & Climate Policy Analyst, NJ Policy Perspective.

“Whether the shore or inland, one thing all New Jersey shares is the destructive effects of more frequent and more violent storms,” said Bill Kibler, Director of Policy for Raritan Headwaters. “This is already an emergency, and the governor can’t wait for the next life-threatening crisis to take action.  We must have new rules to protect us from climate change and we must have them now!”

Submitted by the Watershed Institute.
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