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National Treasure For Sale
The New Jersey Palisades are a unique geologic formation along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River across from New York City. Sheer basalt cliffs that rise between 300 and 550 feet above the river, they stretch for nearly 20 miles. In 1983, the Palisades were listed as a National Natural Landmark, a designation that includes iconic places like Mount Shasta in California and Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. The natural beauty and the ecological value of the Palisades are protected by an interstate park that was created cooperatively by New York and New Jersey in 1900 pursuant to an agreement between the governor of New Jersey and the governor of New York-Theodore Roosevelt. Protection of the Palisades was visionary and a gift to future generations from people who understood the value of protecting a resource from degradation.
The Palisades Interstate Park was created to protect the cliffs from quarrying operations. Now the Palisades face a different threat. LG Electronics-the “Life is Good” people who manufacture cell phones and flat screen T.V.s wants to put its new North American headquarters in a 143 foot high office campus in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The project will undoubtedly bring jobs and economic investment to New Jersey (as well as significant property tax revenue to Englewood Cliffs). The problem is that this proposed building will rise above the tree line and intrude upon the vista that has been protected since the creation of the park and acknowledged as a valuable resource with the designation of the Palisades as a National Landmark. The magnitude of the intrusion into a scenic view is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. The import of enabling a governing ethic that embraces squandering protected resources in exchange for questionable short-term gains is not debatable. It is a dangerous and ominous precedent.
Answering The Wrong Questions
There is a great scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny is discussing with his girlfriend just what he should wear to go deer hunting. The answer was both priceless and obvious as well as extremely relevant to answering the questions surrounding LG’s proposal. The people in Englewood Cliff are busy discussing how high the new LG headquarters should be or how it should be designed. The correct answer is, who cares! It does not belong there. The arguments over how this building should look or how high it should be are seriously misplaced. It highlights how the battle for local tax revenue leads local officials to become deranged. Instead of asking the basic question-is this the right place for this building-the conversation centers on rationalization and justification to find a way to accommodate a project that was ill-conceived from the start. Most alarmingly, this debate is over how to convey benefits to a small group of people at the expense of compromising something of acknowledged national significance.
It seems to me that the General has his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be-Abraham Lincoln
There are real questions that need to be asked here. Are there no alternatives? Is the tax revenue to one town more valuable than the integrity of a national landmark? Has anyone involved in the project heard the news that suburban office campuses are a dying non-sustainable model of development? Do we have the political will to insist that economic development take place in an environmentally sustainable manner? Are we capable of viewing investment and development in a more regional fashion and end the destructive competition between communities? Why bring these jobs to a site that is not served by mass transit? Isn’t there a better way to meet LG’s needs, provide jobs and encourage investment in New Jersey without the environmental destruction?
The answer to the last question is easy. While the effort to pound a square peg into a round hole goes on in Englewood Cliffs, 18 miles away Newark, the state’s largest city, sits looking for economic investment. The City has all of the necessary infrastructure in place to support a large corporate headquarters. Its located at the hub of a network of highways. Newark is served by commuter and regional railroads, an international airport, an international seaport and is home to the acclaimed New Jersey Institute of Technology. NJIT’s high-tech campus attracts students and research professors from all over the world. Midtown Manhattan is a 15 minute train ride away. These are all assets that a technology company like LG just might be interested in. They could build their building however high they need it to be-without the need to compromise a national landmark. Yet, for whatever reason, locating this building in a far more appropriate place has never entered the conversation. Municipal and state officials are doing contortions to find a way to enable construction of a new building with absolutely no access to mass transit and that will duplicate countless existing empty corporate campuses that dot (or plague) the suburban landscape. Instead the debate centers on just how much the new headquarters will affect a national treasure. It’s an insane conversation driven by municipal finances. It’s hard to understand why.
If I Ask You To Jump….
Towns will sell their souls for the short buck. Englewood Cliffs is willing to hand the keys to the city to LG to keep them in town along with their tax revenues. They are willing to make a decision that will impact millions of people, affect multiple generations and unravel over a century of conservation policy to protect their parochial interests. Faced with push back, the mayor of Englewood Cliffs stated, “Time is of the essence! I fear if a fair compromise is not reached, LG will leave the state.” This line of reasoning would be laughable if it weren’t so destructive and ridiculous. LG will no doubt complain that the state is unfriendly to business and cite the obstacles to their plans-as if an ill-planned poorly located project was not itself an obstacle-as evidence of a hostile regulatory scheme. Never mind that there are perfectly reasonable and preferable alternatives that would meet their needs. Corporations have only one goal-maximizing their profits-and if they can co-opt a community into assisting with that effort; all the better. Meanwhile local governments will continue to perform tricks in an effort to out compete their neighbors and to please corporations with their promises of dubious rewards.
Protection of the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive goals. Jobs and economic growth are laudable and necessary aims. However, they do not trump protecting the environment. Finding ways to accommodate and enable investment in a manner, and in places, that minimize environmental impact and encourage sustainable outcomes is achievable. The saga of LG and Englewood Cliffs has a great deal of significance that goes beyond just this incident. Hydraulic fracturing, offshore oil drilling, and real estate deals all over the country pit the public interest against the quests of private and corporate interests to garner benefits, concessions and incentives on a daily basis. The ability of corporations to manipulate outcomes because local officials are susceptible to spurious arguments of economic gain and a reliance on the old rateable chase continues to lead us down an unsustainable path. Maybe it won’t be all that obvious today, but when the time comes that LG cuts a better deal somewhere else and the people of Englewood Cliffs are stuck with an empty office building in a bad location, it might just sink in.
So to the folks fighting the LG project-keep it up! If the mayor is talking compromise and LG is threatening to go elsewhere you must be making some headway. The issues in play here are important beyond Englewood Cliffs or the Palisades. Somewhere there’s a town offering a tax break or a state waiving an environmental regulation for a Super Wal-Mart at the highway exit or a new football stadium for a team that’s threatening to leave town. Somewhere somebody is willing to trade public trust assets for short-term gain. Every time it happens public officials need to be called out. Your efforts might stop the LG project, but more importantly, they might serve as an example to people elsewhere that the fight is worthwhile. Somewhere along the line this way of doing business has to stop and right now is as good a time as any. – Ben Spinelli
It Wasn’t My Fault!
With so much going on right now it seems a bit much to have to stick to New Jersey, but two days after I wrote Your Tax Dollars At Work….or Not, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held the first town hall meeting of his second term to discuss Hurricane Sandy recovery with the hard hit people of the Raritan Bayshore. In a performance reminiscent of Jake Blues plea for mercy in the Blues Brothers, the governor managed to lay the blame for the state’s poor performance in administering Sandy recovery on the Federal Government and the old stalking horse, red tape. “What happens when you deal with the federal government is the red tape is immeasurable,” he said. Christie went on to blame the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), anti-fraud regulations, President Obama and Congress. As a show stopper, he referred to the new “F” word- FEMA. Interesting words from a man who was preaching personal responsibility at a Republican Governor’s Association event just a few days before.
His denials of responsibility were tantamount to an admission that the recovery process was not going smoothly. However, finding fault with everybody else does little to make things better. Even worse, the lack of any self-critical analysis portends only continued failure as the core issues will never be addressed as long the focus is on blaming somebody outside of New Jersey for the poor performance. It wasn’t the Federal government that steered recovery money to housing projects in Belleville and New Brunswick that were unrelated to Sandy. The Federal government didn’t hire and spend tens of millions of recovery dollars on politically connected contractors to administer the homeowner’s aid programs that Christie complains are inefficient. One contractor, HGI, was fired for unspecified reasons and given an additional $10 million as a parting gift. The governor, who styles himself as a “straight shooter” dodged questions about the reasons for HGI’s firing at the town hall meeting. It is the NJ Department of Community Affairs that is responsible for distributing the various Federal aid dollars and where the most of the frustration for individuals originates. There was no mention of anything the state needs to do better. It’s all somebody else’s fault!
Failure to Plan…..
The problems with Sandy recovery didn’t just crop up overnight. First, the rules and regulations governing both the NFIP and the various homeowner’s assistance programs were in place at the outset of the recovery process. The inept handling of claims by the outside contractor certainly wasn’t in any way related to the Federal government. Complaining about measures to combat fraud or abuse is almost comical-particularly in light of the stories coming out of Hoboken and Belleville. The state’s problems originate with the state and its failure to put a rational and measured plan for recovery in place. As they say, the failure to plan is a plan for failure. We are now seeing the results of that failure.
We must remember not to judge any public servant by any one act, and especially should we beware of attacking the men who are merely the occasions and not the cause of disaster.-Theodore Roosevelt
If this were unforeseeable or a singular mistake these missteps could be excused. However, when this is viewed for what it is-a part of a greater pattern of behavior-its time for some accountability from the Christie administration. Trying to lay blame at the feet of everyone else is not only unseemly, it virtually guarantees that nothing will get fixed. Recovery from a disaster of the magnitude of Sandy is an enormous and incredibly complex undertaking. Governor Christie was obsessed with the opportunity for power and the chance to burnish his image as a strong leader that Sandy, and its billions in disaster aid, represented. However, he has proven that he and his administration were not up to the challenges posed in this recovery, either intellectually or morally. That may be a tough charge, but it has been earned.
Like any large complex undertaking, this job required vision and planning. Two essential elements that have been completely missing from New Jersey’s recovery efforts. The sin of it is that in anticipation of the enormous and monumental challenges our region was facing, the Federal government brought extraordinarily valuable resources to the area in addition to pledging billions of dollars. Smart, experienced and resourceful people dropped everything they were doing to come to our state to assist in the recovery efforts. They brought years spent assisting in the recovery from disasters all across the country as well as specialized expertise in the various disciplines necessary to effect a comprehensive and successful restoration of our devastated state. They came and worked tirelessly to help New Jersey in its darkest hour. Many of these people represented the agency that Governor Christie derogatorily referred to as the new “F” word. Because of their positions, most of these individuals are people who can’t respond. Perfect targets for a bully looking to deflect blame from his own failings.
Not A Gratuitous Charge
This is not idle criticism. The Christie administration resisted all efforts to guide or assist with recovery efforts. They fought to remove all mentions of climate change from the recovery strategy documents. They forbid recovery planners from working with any towns where the administration did not give prior permission. They failed completely in creating a unified and comprehensive vision for either how to recover or what the state should look like in the future. They ignored recommendations contained in the report from the Hurricane Sandy Task Force. Disturbingly, they allowed politics to creep into every aspect of the state’s recovery efforts.
Rebuilding from Sandy is about more than just cleaning up debris and re-constructing demolished homes. Its more than just photo opportunities in a fleece. Proper planning for infrastructure-how it is designed and where it should go-is a basic step. Identification of places that are appropriate for re-building , appropriate for re-building in a modified manner or where we just shouldn’t rebuild at all are essential elements of any intelligent recovery strategy. Identifying innovative measures that include better building codes, the use of natural systems to complement engineered solutions for protection from future storms and the effects of sea-level rise are just common sense approaches that have largely been ignored. Understanding that a coastal state with substantial development in vulnerable areas needs to fundamentally rethink its footprint in places exposed to storm surge and flooding isn’t a radical idea, it’s a foundational building block of responsible government policy. Is it any wonder that an administration that has ignored these essential elements for recovery has also been mishandling the immediate tasks of rebuilding.
It’s Not You-It’s Me
This isn’t about the details of what is missing from New Jersey’s recovery strategy, or more accurately the missing recovery strategy. This is about the failure to take responsibility for the proper administration of the complex and difficult task of disaster recovery. You also can’t address shortcomings if you don’t recognize they exist, or worse, try to lay blame for those shortcomings on others. It may make for good politics but it has the effect of visiting yet another disaster on a state that still suffering from the effects of Sandy. This one of man-made origins. Nothing will improve as long as long as the greatest effort goes into trying to show the blame for failure lies somewhere else.
The governor’s efforts to save face would have been better spent facing up to the tasks at hand and getting on with the hard work of recovery. The failure, and there is no other word that quite fits the bill, to rationally and intelligently approach the rebuilding of New Jersey after Sandy goes directly back to the governor’s office. The governor wanted control of the process and that’s what he got. Having taken control, when things go awry, there is no honor in ducking responsibility. It may be a way to divert attention from millions of wasted aid, aid spent on projects for the politically favored and mismanagement of the administration of vital recovery programs. However, it doesn’t solve one problem for one person still suffering after the storm. It may make good political theater or play well with the governor’s donor base, but it’s no way to lead. The governor needs to stop concentrating on his image and his political future and start concentrating on the lives of his affected constituents and the future of the state. Along the way he owes an apology to the people who gave their best efforts to help him do that job the best that he could-even if it didn’t fit in with his personal agenda.- Ben Spinelli
I Didn’t Want To Have To Write This
This is an article that I wish I didn’t have to write. I’m an optimist and I want to believe that given the opportunity, people in positions of authority will do their best. I want to believe that even when I disagree with someone and their approach to a problem, that they are acting in good faith and just see a different path to a solution than I do. I always keep open the possibility that I’m wrong. After all, I’m not the first person in the history of the world to never make a mistake or come to an incorrect conclusion. Nobody in public life ever takes a particular action convinced that its wrong. I’ve also been in positions of authority, so I have some empathy for public officials charged with difficult or complex jobs. I tend to be tolerant of differing points of view because intelligent discourse usually leads to better policies. I say all of this because I want to give the benefit of the doubt to the folks guiding New Jersey’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy-but I can’t.
I would like to be be discussing the progressive and forward thinking approach to rebuilding that New Jersey has taken in the aftermath of Sandy. But I can’t. I would like to describe the intelligent and measured plan to spend the billions of dollars in federal Sandy aid that has poured into the state. But I can’t. I would like to list the dozens of coordinated programs designed to re-shape the future of New Jersey as a place where vulnerability to future storms and the effects of climate change on a coastal state are being adequately addressed. But I can’t. I would like to say that in response to Sandy’s destruction New Jersey is fundamentally re-assessing how and where we occupy vulnerable areas of the coast. But I can’t. What I can say is that something has gone wrong, very wrong, with the state’s handling of Sandy recovery.
Keep Your Eye On The Ball
While the byzantine details of the George Washington Bridge lane closures capture the attention of the public and the media, the state faces issues that have the potential to negatively effect New Jersey residents for generations to come. The failure to adequately plan New Jersey’s recovery from Sandy and the inability to properly allocate the billions in recovery aid will be the real scandal. 16 months after Sandy, the state has managed to spend money on housing projects in Belleville and New Brunswick that were on the books before the storm and pay millions to outside, politically connected, contractors to help administer and distribute homeowner assistance. This includes a $10 million settlement to fired contractor HGI and $5 million more for a Christie family beach movie. Think about what that money alone could have done. There is no sign of a transparent coordinated plan that addresses the breadth of issues that the state is facing.
What New Jersey needs is a common sense approach to recovery that goes beyond the distribution of individual assistance that helps people rebuild homes damaged by Sandy’s flooding. An integrated and comprehensive plan that recognizes the threats of climate change and sea level rise in a densely populated coastal state should, at a minimum, provide the guiding principals for recovery. What it appears that we have gotten is a muddled and highly political system for distribution of Sandy money without a clear vision or discernible long-term goals. More disturbingly, it appears that aid may have been distributed (or not) based in part upon political considerations. There is nothing more corrupt than squandering the state’s long-term future in exchange for short-term political advantage.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Federal Hurricane Sandy Task Force set out a series of recommendations to guide recovery efforts. The report laid out principals for rebuilding in the wake of Sandy that included requirements for addressing resiliency, vulnerability and responses to future threats posed by climate change, including sea level rise. Properly undertaking recovery would necessitate addressing infrastructure, housing, the environment and every other issue area that climate change effects. However, the Christie administration apparently knows better and is following their own path. The amount of damage done by Sandy was so enormous and the task of reshaping New Jersey is so vital that every available penny in aid needed to be spent accomplishing as much as possible. The Chrisitie administration’s failure to keep that fact as their guiding principal is a far bigger breech of the public trust, and far more damaging (albeit less entertaining), than whatever was going on at the George Washington Bridge.
Be Careful What You Wish For…
Another New Jersey governor who got himself in too deep was General George B. McClellan. When he was tapped to replace Winfield Scott at the outset of the Civil War and concerns were expressed about his ability to be both an army commander and the general-in-chief he famously stated,”I can do it all!”. McClellan’s hubris eventually proved his undoing. The Christie administration wanted total control over the billions in Hurricane Sandy aid coming to the state. Never mind the accounting challenge that distribution of that much money would present, the policy challenges of spending the money appropriately or the incredibly complex issues that require innovative and thoughtful solutions-they could “do it all!” The temptation of controlling that much money along with the political power it brings and the sheer hubris that his administration needed no assistance or guidance was a toxic combination. They got what they wanted and it has led us to where we are now. New Jersey will be paying for this failure for a long time.
Across the river in New York, an innovative program called New York Rising was created to respond to the damages caused by Sandy and the flooding of Hurricane Irene the year before. Formulating sensible and targeted spending strategies for disaster aid, implementation of intelligent and effective policies, regional planning solutions for threats that have a regional basis and most importantly, a clear and cogent approach to recovery are all integral to the operation of this program. These are all approaches that were suggested to the people at the Governor’s Office of Rebuilding and Recovery (GORR) in New Jersey. The folks at the GORR are smart and earnest, but they are also apparently not calling the shots. That responsibility rests somewhere else in the administration where the difficult work of actual disaster recovery is secondary to using Sandy recovery to burnish the governor’s political image . The logical and measured approach taken by New York was seemingly not palatable, or useful enough, for Christie’s inner circle.
What has this obsession with control of the funding and politics gotten us? A number of things-and none of them good. First and foremost the refusal to plan for and implement recovery measures on a regional basis insures that there will never be regional solutions. That puts each town in competition with one another for limited funding, creates a series of winners and losers and results in a fragmented and ultimately ineffectual approach to threats that have a regional basis. It results in funding not being spent wisely or efficiently. It insures that politics, not careful calculation, guides how and where the funding is directed. It’s deprived the state of a unified vision for recovery, resilience and reduction of vulnerability that meets the diverse conditions in a state that needs to implement solutions that are appropriate from the urbanized New York Harbor area to the rural shores of Delaware Bay. These are all colossal failures with generational consequences.
Is It Too Late?
There were many members of Congress who were reticent to allocate billions in aid to our state after Sandy. Fears that the money would be squandered stood in the way of what seemingly should have been an easy and non-partisan vote to help our region recover from the storm’s devastation. Sadly, it seems that we have lived down to those expectations. Because of the approach that New Jersey has taken, especially in stark contrast to the approach taken in New York, the specter of ugly politics casts a shadow over all recovery efforts. Money given to projects unrelated to Sandy but championed by a political ally? Sandy money contingent on support for a project put forward by a close adviser? Aid flowing to towns with mayors who supported the governor and denied to those who didn’t? These questions have all arisen. They would be easily answered and dismissed (and probably wouldn’t have come up in the first place) if the state had taken a different tact. Instead, they all seem ominously credible.
There is still an awful lot of money that will come pouring into New Jersey. No matter where you live, you have a stake in this. Ensuring that tax dollars are appropriately and efficiently spent is important in its own right. However, making sure that recovery takes place in a manner that addresses the threats of climate change, that implements innovative solutions and takes the bold policy measures that are befitting forward thinking intelligent people has benefits that go beyond the borders of New Jersey. Getting politics out of the recovery process may be wishful thinking but providing intelligent guidance is not. Its a necessity. Perhaps now that the governor’s national political ambitions have taken a hit, attention can be directed towards visionary and effective rebuilding and political favoritism left behind. It doesn’t look too good right now, but as I started out, I am eternally an optimist.- Ben Spinelli
The Danger of Isolation
Immediately prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Benjamin Franklin famously told the delegates to the Continental Congress, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”. The notion of us all being in a situation together has many applications in the realm of environmental policy, not the least of which are policies governing coastal areas in an era of climate change and sea level rise. The acknowledgement of that fact could be our collective salvation as surely as the failure to recognize that our fates are all tied together will eventually lead to our individual demise. Not only do we have a common interest in addressing environmental threats, there is also a need for a concerted course of action to meet them.
Similarly, the story of the blind men and the elephant brings a related lesson to our approach to policy making. Making decisions based only on a limited perspective can lead to miscalculation and misunderstanding of the nature and scope of the problems or circumstances that we face resulting in a failure to appropriately address the threats that exist. After all, describing an elephant as a snake or a rope may be accurate based upon your limited view of the world, but it is hardly an appropriate description of what you’re facing. This proverb provides no more apt a lesson than for coastal communities that face hazards with systems-based origins but respond with solutions that are only focused on what is right in front of them.
The dangers that coastal communities are facing from the combination of a gradually increasing sea level and flooding and damage from strengthening storms requires a response that looks at the bigger picture. The problem is, that in many areas, our policies and actions are controlled at the local level. This leads to measures being taken that fail to look at real root causes of the hazards. Putting aside, for a moment, the global scale of climate change, the failure to address the expected effects on a regional or systems basis leads to ineffective or inappropriate response measure that continue to put people, property and infrastructure investments at risk. The inability (or unwillingness) to see that what we may be facing at any particular place or point in time is just part of a much larger picture and use that perspective to drive our response is a serious and dangerous shortcoming.
The Need To Act On A Regional Basis
In 1972, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act in an effort to manage the nation’s coastal resources and provide a balance between economic development and environmental protection. Section 307 of the Act encouraged coastal states to implement their own management programs by providing for integrated federal and state permitting in coastal areas for states that were deemed consistent with the CZMA. This led to the adoption of coastal management programs in every coastal state along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts as well as in the Great Lakes states. The theory was good. The practice-not so much.
States took different approaches to managing their coastal resources and the definition of what was deemed consistent with the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act had a fairly liberal interpretation. Some states, like California and North Carolina were very aggressive in managing growth in coastal areas and created powerful commissions with both regulatory authority and the technical capacity to support land use decision making. Other states, like New York and New Jersey, passed regulations, but left left much of the decision-making power in the hands of local government. Additionally, New Jersey’s regulations were written in a manner that saw the bulk of typical “Jersey Shore” development fall outside the purview of the restrictions. It’s interesting to note that when North Carolina’s governor signed that state’s coastal management regulations into law he made a statement to the effect that it was to prevent coastal North Carolina from becoming the New Jersey shore.
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning – Werner Heisenberg
The politics of regional authority and stronger land use regulations can be very difficult to navigate. However, we can no longer afford to approach coastal land use in the same manner, nor can we continue to manage land use in a piecemeal fashion. Whether its Dauphin Island, AL or Duck, NC or Ortley Beach, NJ, how we recover from the last weather event or prepare for the next storm must have some level of consistency. I’ll leave the methodologies that need to be applied for another day, but the underlying principals need to be based on reduction of vulnerability and hazard reduction and avoidance. Responses cannot be based solely on the interests of any single community or particular interest in isolation. A fragmented approach to a regional problem will never work.
A sea wall that protects one community at the expense of another, an expensive beach replenishment project for the benefit of a small number of people, or an infrastructure investment that supports an unsustainable or vulnerable community are just some examples of the results that a fragmented approach to coastal management can bring. It will not get any easier going forward as difficult decisions will need to be made. Just looking at Sandy recovery, it becomes obvious that there are places that can be re-built, there are places that can be re-built with modifications, but most importantly, there are places where we cannot or should not rebuild. Yet, I can almost guarantee that we will rebuild things right where they were before the storm, that we will favor one community over another, that we will use public funds for infrastructure that is unsustainable and that we will continue to make decisions on a local ad hoc basis. It doesn’t make Sandy recovery any different than Alabama after Frederic in 1979 or Louisiana after Katrina in 2005, but that’s the point; you’d think we would learn by now.
Before the next storm, and there will be a next one, coastal states need to assess their land use management and infrastructure investment practices. Dunes, wetlands, floodways and no-build or buy-out zones have to be a part of the equation and you will not achieve this on a town-by-town basis. The evaluation of vulnerability and resource protection needs to be done regionally. Engineered solutions like jetties, dikes or sea walls all have impacts beyond the project areas that must be assessed. If you don’t look at the big picture, it becomes the old arcade game whack-a-mole. Solve a problem here, it creates another someplace else, and the problems just keep coming. This doesn’t even touch on the resource limitations that individual towns face having to take on a tremendous effort to re-think their footprint without adequate support. Political will, resources and the right perspective are the elements necessary to succeed. Unfortunately, these seemingly simple ingredients are all in short supply. However, not taking the political risk or making the proper investments now will only result in real risk and unaffordable expenses in the future.-Ben Spinelli
The Hidden Damage of Coastal Storms
When Hurricane Irene headed north late in the Summer of 2011, there was a lot of talk about the effect the storm would have on the nation’s gas prices. Irene’s track put 10% of the country’s refining capacity directly in the bulls eye as the category 2 hurricane steamrolled towards landfall on the New Jersey coast. Disruption of gasoline production at refineries in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey was a major concern. Irene turned out to be more of a rain-maker for the mid-Atlantic region with modest winds and a storm surge between 6 and 8 feet. While the storm produced record inland flooding resulting from rainfall of up to 15 inches, much of the oil industry’s infrastructure in coastal locations was spared.
The economic damage and turmoil that coastal storms can cause are certainly noteworthy, however, temporary interference with gasoline production is a minor concern compared with the more lasting impacts of severe weather hitting our nation’s industrial production centers. The combination of a changing climate and rising sea-levels is creating the potential for a public health disaster anywhere a tropical cyclone or nor’easter affects the U.S. coastline from Texas to Maine. While the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster makes headlines and raises fears of a similar incident here in the U.S., a much different, but still highly dangerous, threat lurks below the radar. Oil refineries and petrol-chemical facilities dot the coast along this stretch. The anticipated onslaught of more frequent and more severe storms superimposed upon a higher base sea level places these installations at ever increasing risks of flooding. But the real damage isn’t to the economy or the infrastructure itself, it is to the environment and the population living in proximity to these locations. Additionally, a disproportionate number of the people living in these areas are economically disadvantaged raising issues of environmental justice.
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, a little over a year after Irene, it brought a storm surge of up to 16 feet to the New York metropolitan area. Unlike Irene, Sandy inundated refineries and chemical plants in New Jersey. There were an estimated 630 storm-related oil spills in New York City. However, New Jersey took the worst blow regarding oil contamination after a significant diesel fuel spill at the Motiva Refinery into the Arthur Kill. According to New Jersey environmental officials, 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the waterway after a storage tank ruptured from the storm surge. Major sewage treatment plants were disabled resulting in the discharge of an estimated 11 billion pounds of untreated effluent into the harbor and surrounding tidal rivers and bays. As the floodwaters spread inland, they carried large amounts of chemicals and petroleum products with them. When they receded they left behind a toxic residue that covered the ground, coated homes, and fouled the region’s wetlands and waterways.
In Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, an area of the city that hosts both industrial plants and a vibrant and ethnically diverse residential community, Sandy’s storm surge pushed the waters of Newark Bay and the Passaic River into areas that had never experienced tidal flooding before. The water carried, not only highly contaminated sediments from these waterways, but chemicals from Superfund sites and industrial plants located along the shoreline. Compounding this, the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission’s main treatment facility, the nearby Newark Bay Pumping Station that handles sewer effluent for much of northern New Jersey, was shut down after being overwhelmed by the storm’s tidal surge.This resulted in 3.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage being released into the water. This noxious brew poured into basements, homes and businesses.
Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.- Jacques Cousteau
Following the storm, once the flooding had receded, people were cleaning, trying to get back into their homes, unaware that there was much more left behind than just water. Information on what people were being exposed to was very difficult to come by. New Jersey’s environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Protection, provided little or no information to residents. Meanwhile, folks were pumping water and cleaning muck that was laden with PCB’s, Dioxin and the residue of raw sewage including high levels of E.Coli and coliform bacteria. Similar issues arose in Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. Just as in Sandy, oil refineries, petrol-chemical installations and Superfund sites were flooded. Sewage treatment plants were knocked off-line and flooding was not just flooding. The damage to the environment and the threat to public health were not immediately recognized and under-reported until well after the storm and people had already been exposed. The National Academy of Engineering released a report in 2006 detailing many of the issues that arose.
The USGS is sampling water in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath to develop an understanding of the changes in water quality across impacted regions. Contaminants such as pesticides and E. coli in water affect both human and wildlife health. On a longer time scale, excessive nutrients introduced to waterways by increased runoff from the land due to Hurricane Sandy has the potential to cause algal blooms across the region leading to the degradation of ecosystems and increased costs to treat drinking water. Lower oxygen levels caused by bio-degradation of petroleum products can lead to fish kills. There is also the potential for many of these contaminants to become caught up in the food chain. The New York Harbor region is a rich nursery for fish, shellfish and migratory birds and there is a strong likelihood that they will persist in the ecosystem for years. Many of these effects were observed in the Gulf Coast region following Katrina and are likely to be found in the mid-Atlantic now.
The real questions, however, aren’t about what happened. The important issue is what are we going to do to avoid a repeat of these conditions. Storms like Katrina and Sandy are going to happen again. With higher sea levels, even lesser storms may create similar conditions. The next one may make landfall in the Chesapeake region or perhaps along the New England coast. Wherever it may be, there will be sewage treatment plants, industrial facilities and contaminated sites in vulnerable locations. So, while a temporary spike in gas prices will dominate the news in advance of an impending storm, there are much higher costs to be paid in terms of public health and environmental damage.
We can’t make the argument that we didn’t know what could happen. We go to great lengths to protect against industrial accidents or terrorist attacks at many of these facilities. Yet we do little, if anything, to reduce or avoid vulnerability to the much more likely threats of extreme weather events. Requiring refineries and treatment plants to be retro-fitted and hardened against flooding hazards, putting stronger building codes for these installations in place or even moving them out of harm’s way is a relatively minor investment compared with the potential damage that will result from a failure to act. Further, these are not theoretical or perceived dangers. Something like this will occur again. We need to overcome our reticence to invest in infrastructure and prevention (and a significant portion of Sandy recovery money must be spent towards this end) because there is a much higher cost that will result from inaction. -Ben Spinelli
And oh yeah-don’t forget to listen to this!
One of These Days
On a warm spring day in April 2008 I checked in to the New Jersey State Police Disaster Response facility in West Trenton. The weather was about as nice as it gets around here with temperatures in the low 70’s, beautiful blue skies and a slight breeze. Inside the building, which as far as I could tell was built to withstand a simultaneous nuclear blast and asteroid impact, it was quiet. The command center, with its banks of desks and computer monitors, was dark and empty. The walls were ringed with high-tech data displays and HD television screens that were blank, save for a single T.V. tuned to the Golf Network showing one of the early rounds of the Master’s. This was not the kind of day this facility was built for.
I spent the afternoon meeting with the state’s disaster response coordinator as part of the background work for creating a new version of the New Jersey State Plan. A long-term assessment for the state, the State Plan was designed to steer decisions on land use, infrastructure investment, capital projects and resource conservation and protection. A large portion of the research involved meeting with each of the state’s agencies and departments to obtain their input and to try to align each agency’s programs with the State Plan to the greatest extent possible. This session focused on two aspects of disaster response: the vulnerability of infrastructure to potential disasters and the nature and direction of recovery efforts. No responsible long-term plan could ignore these issues.
If you want to make enemies-try to change something- Woodrow Wilson
The updated State Plan was going to contain a new section on Climate Change and recommendations for a comprehensive response, from the way we contributed to continued greenhouse gas emissions to preparation and response for the inevitable effects that climatologists, including the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist, warned we were facing. From hardening our infrastructure to handle the likely flooding, to protecting roads and bridges to, perhaps most importantly, planning to rebuild differently after any disaster, these issues were all explored and incorporated into the long-term outlook for the state. A plan that was eventually buried by the Corzine Administration and outright rejected by the Christie Administration because it contained some hard truths that may not have been politically expedient, it addressed getting ready for the inevitable. Four years later, on October 29, 2012 to be exact, the day the disaster response center was built for arrived. It really didn’t take a crystal ball to know this was coming.
Time for a Change
While the State Police were preparing for every sort of potential disaster from terrorist attacks to chemical spills to nuclear reactor accidents, we knew what the main threat to New Jersey was-the state’s vulnerability to coastal storms. Whether a nor’easter or a hurricane, a strong storm moving up the east coast or making landfall somewhere along the Jersey Shore was clearly the most likely danger facing the Garden State. Rising sea levels made damage from flooding more likely, even from ordinary storms. Bridges and causeways were prone to inundation, cutting off escape routes for residents along the shore. Infrastructure, such as water and sewage facilities, electrical transmission equipment and other necessities of modern life were at risk. Homes, businesses and people in the path of such a storm were in danger. Hurricane Sandy was the first of what will probably be many tests of the resiliency of our infrastructure and the communities it serves.
The effects of sea level rise have been studied. Mapping, like the interactive map that can be found here, clearly indicated where the largest risks existed and continue to exist. Yet we took little or no action. This is as much an environmental issue as it is an economic and social issue and, not the least, an issue of public health and safety. As shore towns undertake rebuilding efforts, the question becomes are we taking the necessary steps during this process to avoid being right back in the same predicament when the next major event occurs. In a rush back to “normalcy” and trying to recover economically will we make the same mistakes again? We never had the excuse that we didn’t know this would happen and we certainly can’t say it now. Sea level will continue to rise, storms will increase in intensity and frequency and the ocean will go where the ocean wants to go. Even though he didn’t really say it, we like to quote Einstein as saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Whether Einstein said it or not, its a good way to look at things.
The response to events like Hurricane Sandy will say a lot about us as a society. Our ability to make hard decisions. Our capacity to plan ahead. Our commitment to future generations. The nature and character of our political leadership. All of these things are subjects for consideration and evaluation. These are not abstract or theoretical issues. They have a real-world effect and we have a responsibility to demand that we cease senseless political debate and start to do things differently-and better. There is a lot on the table here. We’ll continue to come back to this topic because of its importance and because it says so much about how we operate as a society. My mission for 2013 is to motivate visitors to this site to take action and hold our leaders accountable. Come back and check in often for discussion of ways to accomplish that. We can make a difference. There are two ways to deal with hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer. The first is to put some ice on it after you hit it. The other is not hitting yourself in the first place. This was one shot on the thumb. Let’s try not to hit it again. -Ben Spinelli
Hello, This Is Your Wake-Up Call
One week after Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey coast, I’ve been exiled to the Center City Holiday Inn in Allentown, PA. Back in northwestern New Jersey my home is dark and cold. In rural areas no electricity means no heat, no lights, no water, no phone, no internet access and, since many cell towers in the region were knocked out of commission, there is spotty cell phone coverage at best. Electric wires are lying across the front lawn and the lines from the road to my house are hanging from branches in the woods; pulled from the poles by several of the many large trees that fell or were snapped in half by the storm’s fierce winds. Gas stations are mostly closed and the few that are open have long lines and limited supplies. Getting anywhere is an adventure as roads are blocked by downed trees, fallen wires and broken telephone poles.
So, after six days of finding inventive ways to cook everything that was left in the refrigerator on the barbecue grill, chainsawing my way to the road, sleeping in the cold and flushing the toilet with pots of water from the bathtub, it was time to get out-of-town. The closest available hotel rooms were in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania and a trip to a patch of high ground yielded the cell coverage necessary to make a reservation . We packed the car and headed west leaving our venture into the world of Little House on the Prairie behind. Arriving back in the 21st Century, with T.V., high-speed internet, heat, showers and actual modern plumbing, we were able to find that as difficult as our week had been, Sandy had been much harder on other parts of the region. The stunning video of the damage and the effects on the coastline of New Jersey and even in New York City were sobering.
The havoc and destruction that the nearly 90 mph wind gusts wreaked on inland NJ were mild compared with the effects that were visited upon coastal areas of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. by a record storm surge. My home is intact. My family and friends are well. The rainfall in our area was modest, so flooding was not a problem. Eventually, the electric lines will be rebuilt or repaired. I spent Saturday afternoon at a college football game watching Muhlenberg pull out an exciting 24-17 overtime victory over Ursinus. I then went to a nice warm hotel room where I could enjoy what, after a week in the cold and dark, were the modern marvels of a hot shower, television and, free wi-fi internet access. I’m writing from the relative comfort of a hotel room hanging out with utility workers from Ohio and Indiana who have come to help repair the storm’s damage to the power grid. My interaction with Sandy was annoying and distressing, but at its worst, an inconvenience. I was lucky.
I will skip over the technical analysis of the storm. That’s better left for meteorologists and climatologists, you know, the people who actually know what they’re talking about. We do know that record high tidal surges were recorded all along the east coast. The pictures of the Hudson River pouring into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in Manhattan or of swaths of shore homes wiped from the barrier islands speak for themselves. The sight of the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, NJ sitting in the ocean will likely be an iconic image for generations. But the real lessons from this storm won’t be found in the damage. They won’t be found in the words of politicians reassuring victims. They won’t be found in the empty arguments of right-wing talk show hosts. The lessons won’t even come from the deaths of over 100 people in the storm’s path. No, the lessons will be in how we react as a society and whether or not we start to take planning for a changing climate, and a changing world, seriously, rationally and intelligently.
History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes-Mark Twain
So, what does this have to do with politics and the environment? For starters, we better start paying more attention to reality with our policy-making and less to political considerations. Last week when the long-range forecasts first started showing Sandy making landfall along the New Jersey coast I started writing an article about the last great storm to batter the mid-Atlantic in March 1962. 50 years ago, the Ash Wednesday storm lashed the east coast from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Maine. Although there was serious damage all along the storm’s path, like Sandy, it reserved its biggest impacts for New Jersey’s barrier islands. However, the 1962 storm was much different in character. That storm was a more typical Nor’easter that sat off the coast and caused onshore winds to drive water landward for three days. This was the mid-Atlantic’s storm of record for over half a century. As it became more and more evident that Sandy, along with its storm surge, would indeed make landfall somewhere along the New Jersey coast I put the article aside to await the actual results. While there are many similarities between the 1962 storm and Sandy, there are also significant differences. Those differences are where we need to direct our attention.
After more than 100 years without a land falling hurricane striking the New Jersey coast, there have now been two in two years. We can quibble that Irene, in 2010, fell to just below hurricane strength before coming ashore or that Sandy may or may have not become extra-tropical just before hitting the coast, but the distinctions are only important to the weathermen. Sea level is at least a half-foot higher along the east coast today than it was in 1962 and it continues to rise at a rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year. Summertime ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic off the northeast coast are rising and remain warmer into the Autumn months. Increased melting of Arctic sea ice has contributed to warmer Arctic air temperatures and the strengthening of high pressure systems in the far north Atlantic that act as blocks for northward traveling weather systems. Theses blocks force the storm track closer to, or actually back towards the East coast of the United States. The intensity and frequency of storms will continue to increase over historic norms and they will affect populated areas again and again. With the higher sea levels, even storms that in the past were ordinary, will begin to have increased effects on coastal areas. We can have all the political arguments we want about whether or not climate change is occurring or if it is the result of man-made activities. Those disagreements will ultimately be resolved, with certainty, by Mother Nature.
When I get back home and things get settled I will return to this subject for a more detailed analysis. Until then, consider the implications from this event for our policies at the national, state and local levels. Our land use practices, infrastructure investments, and the resiliency or redundancy of the structures we rely upon for our modern society all need to be re-assessed. There are an incredible number of cascading consequences from food supplies to adequate drinking water supplies that we must respond to. One storm drove the most densely populated portion of the nation, and our country’s biggest city, back to the 19th Century in a matter of hours. What will happen next time? (And there will be a next time) Before we even begin to address the root causes of climate change and our answers for them, we need to have a day of reckoning where we acknowledge that something is happening and we need to react. That is how rational and intelligent people respond to challenges. One thing that should be clear however is that both time and our luck have run out. Its time to demand that political leaders respond to the reality that we are facing serious and growing threats that we can no longer afford to ignore or treat as just another political issue. The power to make this change lies with us. It’s high time we used that power.- Ben Spinelli