Shifting shorelines: Climate mitigation in the NJ floodplains

Storm surge
Storm surges during Hurricane Sandy

Master Sgt. Mark Olsen/Flickr)

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Adaptation, Climate, Natural Disasters, Past Storyfest Entries

In 2010, an estimated 39% of the United States’ population resided in counties adjacent to the coastal shoreline—a figure which is projected to increase by 8% by 2020. Most major US cities and numerous smaller communities were founded on or near a major river system’s shores. This pattern reflects a longstanding reality: there are major benefits to be had by settling near water. But humanity’s propensity to thrive at the water’s edge has never been without risk—especially from flooding.

Today, the frequency of natural disasters that bring flooding to shoreline communities is predicted to increase alongside changes in global weather patterns. High-profile storms such as Hurricane Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Hurricanes Maria and Harvey this year, have thrust flood resilience and mitigation into the political spotlight in municipal and state governments across the country.

Inland communities aren’t excluded from the conversation, either; a 2013 Cornell University study estimated that the total riverine floodplain area susceptible to 100-year flood events in the United States could increase by as much as 45% due to climate change in the next 100 years.

As coastal and inland communities alike grapple with the implications of costlier floods and a lack of flood-proof infrastructure, governments at all levels have increasingly turned to purchasing and vacating flood-prone properties as a means of mitigating future flood losses. This practice holds promise for moving families and homes away from chronically flooded land—but raises questions about how shoreline communities will adapt to changing floodplain management regimes.

Floodplain reclamation on the Jersey shore

In New Jersey, the idea of government action against climate change and sea level rise is perhaps less controversial than in many parts of the country. The destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy (downgraded from hurricane status by the time it hit New Jersey’s shores) in 2012 electrified the state’s collective attitude towards climate change and sea level rise—so much so that both major party candidates in the state’s recent gubernatorial election cited Superstorm Sandy as impetus for aggressive mitigation and resiliency measures against climate change and future storms.

With an ocean economy regularly valued at several billion dollars and a substantial tourism industry around the “Jersey Shore,” New Jersey’s Atlantic coastline is vital to the state’s economy. Perhaps unsurprising, then, has been the state’s robust “Blue Acres” program, a state- and federal-funded program meant to mitigate flood damage in coastal communities by purchasing damaged flood-prone properties at market price and reserving them as open space.

The state impulse to acquire properties prone to flooding may seem counterintuitive at first, but is often quite favorable to state interests in the long term. Under the National Flood Insurance Program, participating property owners who sustain flood damage can make claims for government funds to aid recovery. But due to peculiarities of topography, drainage, or placement in a floodplain, certain homes and properties carry an elevated risk for repeated flooding, making reinvestment in that property a dubious use of government funds.

Even if owners of flood-prone properties wish to sell, doing so is often difficult in the wake of a natural disaster. Few buyers want to take on flood-damaged homes, leaving homeowners with few options but to rebuild and hope for the best.

In these cases, it is often in the state’s best interest to buy these properties and re-designate them as open space, preventing future floods from damaging homes there, and saving money on flood insurance payouts in the long term. The New Jersey government has thus invested heavily in floodplain property acquisitions, pledging after Superstorm Sandy alone to spend $300 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds on Blue Acres acquisitions.

The New Jersey government’s acquisition of coastal properties and subsequent reclassification as open space has not been without its critics. Blue Acres buyouts are only conducted with voluntary landowners—not invoking eminent domain—but nevertheless draw criticism from many coastal municipal governments. As residential and commercial properties are demolished and left undeveloped, shore towns may see their taxable base shrink, squeezing municipal budgets.

To many, though, Blue Acres buyouts are a lifeline, offering landowners a price for their property that they would be unlikely to receive on the private market. Blue Acres property buyouts generally purchase properties at their pre-flood market value, a hard bargain for homeowners confronting costly repairs to a property that may flood again.

Houston parallels

New Jersey’s Blue Acres program is far from the only floodplain property acquisition program in the nation. Much as Superstorm Sandy spurred state buyouts in New Jersey and New York in 2012, Hurricane Harvey and its associated flooding have fueled talk of aggressive buyout initiatives in Houston, Texas. In fact, much of the funding for New Jersey Blue Acres buyouts shares the same federal source as buyouts across the country, Houston included.

In Houston, FEMA officials are taking steps to preempt what is often a vicious cycle in post-flood communities. Due to delays in processing buyout claims, homeowners often end up rebuilding or repairing their homes before a buyout offer is made—frequently using different federal funds in the process.

This creates a system where federal funds repair properties that are later acquired as government buyouts anyway, with homes being demolished as properties are reclassified as open space. Roy Wright, Deputy Associate Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation with FEMA, charged with administering the National Flood Insurance Program, has publicly expressed his hope to process buyout claims faster in Houston.

“On these multiple-loss properties, I’m working with my team and lawyers on ways I can move that to the front…I’m not going to pay someone redo their house, then re-buy it,” said Wright.

As in New Jersey shore towns, however, the push to move communities out of the most at-risk areas of Houston’s floodplain has highlighted tensions between floodplain management and other community needs. Houston municipal officials have voiced concern over possible reductions in affordable housing availability as apartment buildings are bought out by floodplain reclamation programs. Other Houston locals balk at the prospective decline of cherished midcentury neighborhoods that find themselves most at risk of repeated flooding in years to come.

A changing of the guard

From New Jersey to Houston, extreme weather events tend to expose weaknesses in floodplain communities’ infrastructure—exerting even worse catastrophe on areas where flooding wasn’t incorporated into development plans. Weather pattern predictions indicate that such exclusion of flooding from the community planning process may already be a luxury governments can quite literally no longer afford. The resulting transition in sensibilities around flood adaptation is already changing how communities and governments respond to major flood events—buyout programs that encourage people to settle outside of a floodplain being an illustrative example.


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