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A Year After Hurricane Ida

September 7, 2022


Stalled NJ storm protection rules put people and property in harm’s way; Murphy administration fails to learn from Ida; Science demands using updated rainfall data and flood maps.


A year after the remnants of Hurricane Ida devastated New Jersey, destroying multiple Montgomery and Rocky Hill homes, 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, according to the Watershed Institute.

14 Camp Meeting Avenue in Skillman. When built in 1948, it may have been questionable to build so close to Rock Brook, but it was legal. The home now sits empty, after Hurricane Ida flooded the brook, and made it unsafe. Should the homeowner rebuild? How long will the vacant house and car remain?

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 August 11 joint Senate and 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 1990s.


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. Jim Waltman, executive director of The Watershed Institute in Pennington, says, “The rainfall data currently used to predict storms and design stormwater systems is terribly outdated, including old data only through 1999. 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.”


REMEMBERING IDA

On Sept. 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. One of those deaths was a Montgomery Township resident. Trains and motorists were stranded, and tornadoes and flooding wrecked homes and businesses across the state. About 10 Montgomery families lost their homes, and most of their possessions. Luckily, they escaped with their lives.


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, including Somerset County, as major disaster areas. In Montgomery, the Rocky Hill Fire Department made 16 water-related rescues in one day. “This included ... a victim clinging to a tree who was not able to garner the strength to grab hold of the rope thrown to him,” Rocky Hill Fire Chief Todd Harris told The Montgomery News. “The crew determined the victim was weak from hypothermia. One rescuer tethered to a safety line entered the water, swam over, and was able to grab hold of the victim returning him to the boat.” During Hurricane Irene, two Princeton First Aid (PFA) members were evaluating a flooded vehicle on Rosedale Road. RHFD rescued one, who was clinging to a tree. Tragically, the flood waters swept away the second, and he died. The RHFD crewmembers who performed the high-risk rescue were presented with distinguished service awards.


DEP Commissioner LaTourette asks: “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.”


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Significant rainfall in and around Rocky Hill and Montgomery now causes rising streams and rivers to catch residents and commuters off guard. Roads can become impassable due to the extreme flooding and water currents creating an islanding effect. 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 three other 2021 summer storms] Henri and Fred and Elsa. “We can expect… more extreme weather events,” Kopp said.


Delivering a response to the increasing death and property damage from more frequent severe storms, the 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. Gov Phil 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.”


New rules

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 storms 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 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 commonsense proposal to keep new homes and businesses out of places that we know flood.”

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