Trenton — As New Jersey struggles to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, it does so without accurate gauges of future flooding risks, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). New federal maps underestimate the risks of coastal flooding while state inland flooding maps have not been updated for at least a generation.
Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) updated its 30-year old advisory flood maps for 10 New Jersey counties covering 194 municipalities in Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union Counties. While these new maps show heightened danger of floods and higher flood levels, these new maps understate the risk because they –
- Do not take the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, into account. A FEMA policy statement reflects that the agency is still coming to grips with how to quantify and display the effects of climate change on a consistent basis nationally;
- Do not factor in the horrendous storm surges from extreme weather, as the maps were composed before Hurricane Sandy revised what was known about storm surges; and
- Are restricted by FEMA regulations that expressly bar consideration of “future conditions” in revising base flood elevation determinations, hampering integration of changing weather patterns.
At the same time, new research from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates that extreme weather events such as Sandy will become more frequent.
“In deciding how to recoup from Sandy, New Jersey is still flying blind,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “We have little reliable guidance as to whether reconstruction plans will put more people and property in harm’s way.”
State maps for inland flooding from rivers are even less reliable, however. At a December 3, 2012 hearing, state Senator Gordon (D-Bergen) pinned Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Martin down concerning the failure to update inland flood maps. Sen. Gordon said he found current DEP maps were 30 years old and based on 40-year old data and exclaimed “We can't have maps that go back to the Jimmy Carter era.”
Sen. Gordon said he investigated several Bergen County projects currently pending before local planning boards that would make flooding worse. He has sponsored legislation to mandate update of the maps but DEP appears to oppose the measure based upon fiscal grounds.
“Sandy should have been a wake-up call that our planning must be updated to face harsh, new realities,” Wolfe added. “It is irresponsible for authorities to bury their heads in the sand, especially sand at risk of being washed away.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability