Today is a weird day. I feel thankful, blessed, guilty and angry all at the same time. It is the year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. I rent an apartment on one of the Barrier Islands in New Jersey – a small shore town 3 miles long – called Sea Bright.
One year ago today I evacuated from Sea Bright back to my parents in North Jersey. Safe and sound, without power but among family and friends, I anxiously awaited my return to the shore. I had just moved to Sea Bright three weeks before the storm and was beginning to make the town my own. I had met a few locals who took me, The Benny, under their wings and showed me the ropes. I couldn’t wait to go back. I didn’t think Sandy would be that bad; all I did to ‘prepare’ was buy two bottles of wine.
Then Sandy hit.
Though the two bottles of wine did come in handy, in retrospect, a few other preparations, like filling my car with gas, would have been helpful. The house I rent out of took ten feet of water in the basement, but my landlord was able to fix what needed to be fixed and I moved back within three weeks of the storm.
I immediately began volunteering in town. I felt guilty that I was able to return to my apartment, while families who had lived and worked and owned businesses in Sea Bright for generations were displaced, their homes and livelihoods forever changed. And I was angry at the bureaucratic processes that my fellow New Jerseyans had to go through to get help.
I’m not sure what I expected volunteering in town to be like right after the storm, but what I experienced was unbelievable. The National Guard had posted up in Sea Bright, making the town look like a war zone. Trailers of supplies were in rows for folks to take what they needed or to drop off what they didn’t. Sea Bright was busy: police officers, the National Guard, volunteers from all over the US, locals trying to rebuild their lives, the press, and elected officials all attempting to navigate their way around town.
I learned that despite what aid comes in from the local, state and federal level; New Jerseyans and Sea Brighters take care of their own. Like my Sea Bright Rising sweatshirt says, we were “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” Even among the confusion, anger, and bewilderment of everyone in town, Sea Bright residents came together and formed their own support network through community. Tough times don’t last, tough people do. I felt good energy in town and I felt that slowly but surely Sea Bright would be okay.
A year later, 40% of Sea Bright residents still have not returned home after Superstorm Sandy. This holds true for many other towns throughout the coastal community up and down the Jersey Shore.
So what do we do now? What have we learned? How do we prepare for the next storm?
A lot of folks are talking about talking about rebuilding more resiliently and sustainably to keep New Jerseyans safe from the next storm. Many of these discussions focus on Barrier Island towns like Sea Bright. Do we retreat and let the land be reclaimed by nature? Did we have a right to build on Barrier Islands in the first place? Should we all migrate inland? Now, I am extremely biased because I love Sea Bright, but I think there are solid points on both sides of this controversial argument.
All folks should be able to make their own decision about where they choose to live, raise a family or own a business. However, I think in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it is vital for everyone to understand the risks of living in a flood plain and the vulnerabilities of the New Jersey coastline. It is especially important for folks to understand these risks as they relate to climate change and sea level rise. The climate system is changing and will continue to change as humans continue to interact with it.
A lot of these issues; climate change, sea level rise, responsible recovery, land use planning, resiliency and so on were raised at a conference I attended today.
The topic of buyouts came up in every session of the day. Regardless of your opinion on where folks should or should not live, state acquisitions of properties in certain floodways that are prone to flood or storm damage could help New Jersey prepare for the next storm. I’m certainly not saying that every resident on the Barrier Islands should retreat so that the land can return to nature or that we should all migrate inland tomorrow, I am merely entertaining the idea of buyouts because I know that climate change and sea level rise are occurring. As a 20-something environmentalist, it is important for me to keep track of these trends so that I can prepare myself for the years to come and to plan for my own future.
Moving on to a less controversial topic along the same lines…
More natural buffers, like marshlands, could help mitigate floodwater from future storm events. Increased plots of open space in North Jersey could help reduce pollution runoff into local waterways and ultimately the ocean. Less impervious surfaces could help rainwater to be absorbed back into the groundwater table and reduce local flooding from smaller storm events. Farmland and sustainable farming practices could also reduce soil compaction. Creating areas of open space that support native plants could help to filter runoff and slow down the rate of flooding events, all the while filtering toxins out of rainwater before it recharges the groundwater table, and therefore the water that we drink.
Sounds great, right? Except…New Jersey currently has no money for new projects like these. All of the open space funds from the last voter approved ballot measure in 2009 have been allocated completely. The Assembly has not held a hearing that would allow for voters to choose to renew funding for open space, farmland and historic preservation programs.
New Jerseyans: Call your two State Assembly representatives and tell them that open space, farmland, and historic preservation are important to you.
- Ask them to urge the Assembly Speaker to post the open space funding bill, ACR 205, for a vote before the end of this year so that you can have a chance to vote to renew open space funding in the November 2014 election.
- Then, please call Speaker Oliver directly and ask her to schedule the open space bill, ACR 205, for a vote this year. Find your legislators here.
For more information about the critical need for a stable source of open space funding and to keep the ‘garden’ in ‘Garden State,’ please check out New Jersey Keep It Green.