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Sandy Five Years Later – What Have We Learned?

31 Oct 2017, 4:21 pm


Five years ago, Post-tropical Cyclone Sandy struck at high tide, driving catastrophic storm surge into coastal New Jersey and New York unlike anything seen before. Thirty-four New Jersey residents lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, causing over $62 billion in damage.

Five years later some areas have recovered. Some have not.

“Nature is ferocious, and a major coastal storm can devastate a community in a matter of hours. Severely impacted communities need both patience and inspiration to recover: patience with the time it takes to repair the economic and social fabric that sustains communities, and inspiration to envision and plan for a future that is less vulnerable to coastal storms,” says Darlene Finch, Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator with NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management.

[A 2012 U.S. Air Force overflight image of damage along the New Jersey coast following Sandy.]

Many community leaders believe super storms are the new norm, and are increasing efforts to make communities more resilient—a critical component of all recovery efforts.

New Jersey’s Brigantine Island community used the recovery phase as an opportunity to elevate the road off the island, strengthen barriers along the oceanfront and bayside, improve zoning, floodplain ordinances and a comprehensive flood-resilience plan. Actions included elevating the only road on and off the island; improving zoning and floodplain ordinances; replacing a major city well; and building and strengthening barriers around the island’s bayside and oceanfront. Officials also increased freeboard requirements above and beyond what the state requires. (Freeboard refers to the mandated height above a structure’s high-water mark.) Houses where base flood elevation is nine feet are now required to have three feet of freeboard. Houses with base flood elevation of 10 or 11 feet must have two feet of freeboard.

These actions enabled the City of Brigantine Beach to upgrade their Community Resilience Rating from a 6 to a 5, qualifying for insurance rate reductions under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program. Future resilience steps will include an early-warning system for tidal flooding and a reverse 911 system to alert residents when their property is at risk from a storm.

NOAA played a role in these efforts. The “Getting to Resilience” self-evaluation process facilitated by the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve helped city officials understand their resilience strengths and weaknesses as well as their planning needs. Digital Coast sea level rise maps helped officials understand future flooding risks. Many post-Sandy grants from local, state, and federal sources also supported the resilience efforts.

New Jersey’s coastal management program developed a Getting to Resilience program to help communities improve hazard preparedness. As a result, many communities instituted new policies that keep people and infrastructure safer, and also resulted in cost reductions for flood insurance premiums.

In the wake of damages from Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy, coastal New Jersey communities are acutely aware of community vulnerability and looking for ways to increase hazard preparedness and reduce costs. Dozens of municipalities are using the Getting to Resilience self-assessment website, developed by the state’s coastal zone management program, and other tools to increase preparedness by linking planning, mitigation, and adaptation.

Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and experts from Rutgers University worked alongside municipal staff members in hands-on exercises using the reserve’s “Getting to Resilience” questionnaire, the New Jersey-specific Coastal Hazard Profiler and NOAA Digital Coast’s Coastal Flood Exposure Mapper. Following several public meetings, reserve staff members were able to produce customized community resilience recommendations, complete with digital and hard copy maps.

Many communities implementing the suggested actions are getting cheaper flood insurance rates through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Rating System. Some reduced their flood insurance premiums by between five percent and twenty percent, with greater reductions possible in the future. Similar actions taken nationwide would result in at least $92 million in savings for coastal communities, according to a data analysis of the Community Rating System.

So far, nearly 40 coastal communities have received detailed analyses and recommendations to lessen flooding vulnerability. Suggested improvements include producing a coastal hazard disclosure policy, creating a detailed mitigation plan for areas with repetitive losses, and collecting data on areas with dangerous erosion. Funding for this multi-partner project was made possible by a $424,000 grant (see “Superstorm Sandy NOAA Disaster Relief Appropriationspage). Additional funding was provided by NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the project was implemented by the reserve’s Coastal Training Program. (2017)


“Sandy’s devastation provided an opportunity to make impacted communities more resilient,” says Finch. “At NOAA, we are committed to providing data, tools, and information that help communities recover. Our resources enable them to work side-by-side with partners and community leaders. They can then transfer their ideas and lessons learned to other communities facing similar circumstances.”

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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