Last August, Dawn Zimmer, mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, formally released the Hoboken Resiliency and Readiness Plan to address ongoing Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts. The plan marked an important milestone for the “Mile Square City” by establishing a strong set of science-informed policy objectives that would help protect citizens from future climate change impacts.
For the past few months, we’ve been looking into the history of coastal planning in Hoboken. Often, political and financial interests, rather than science-based advice, have guided development along low-lying, flood-prone parts of the city. The decade preceding Mayor Zimmer’s election saw particularly egregious transgressions in how the flow of money, rather than the advice of scientific and technical experts, influenced decisions the city is still paying for.
Of course, much public attention is currently focused on Mayor Zimmer’s recent allegation that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Sandy recovery funds if the mayor did not support a private development project. Without pre-judging the veracity of this evolving story, it is useful to look at how coastal development decisions in the city have played out before. A look back at Hoboken’s history shows just how much the city would benefit from a renewed focus on science-based policies.
Fixing a chronic problem made more difficult by sea level rise
Hoboken lies just across the Hudson River from New York City, and a large part of it sprawls across land that was a former tidal marsh. Built up during the mid-1800s with the housing, schools, and businesses that would serve the city’s growing population, this section of town lies at elevations less than five feet above the average high tide and has experienced routine flooding from storm tides—high tide combined with storm surge—ever since.
While early city leaders were aware of the flooding problems that would arise when they drained the marsh, they could not have predicted the increased vulnerability the city faces today due to sea level rise. Sea level rise now elevates the platform for water to enter the city, and Sandy’s 14-foot storm tide was unprecedented. Water poured into this especially low-lying area from the south—where it usually came from—but also from the usually dry north side of Hoboken. With nowhere for all this water to go, the former tidal marsh filled up, in Mayor Zimmer’s words, “like a bathtub.” An estimated 20,000 residents who had not evacuated found themselves completely surrounded by water.
Predictions by scientists suggest such events will be increasingly more likely as sea levels rise throughout the next century. City leaders need to deal with flooding as an increasingly urgent rather than chronic but static problem. A 2002 analysis performed by the North Hudson Sewer Authority had recommended installation of four “wet weather” pumps to deal with stormwater management, but at the time of Sandy only one had been installed.
Playing politics along the waterfront
Hoboken’s former marshlands are not its only vulnerability. During the 1990s, old docks and marinas no longer in use were turned into parks, walkways, and roads, but developers and politicians ignored the warnings of scientists and engineers about the risks of building on top of existing, aging structures, as well as risks from the coastal environment. As a consequence, the city experienced significant losses in this area well before Sandy. A series of road and walkway collapses beginning in 1998 have cost the city millions of dollars on top of the millions it had already spent to develop the area.
The collapses resulted from corrosion and from mollusks boring into 100-year-old wood support beams. Although engineers had alerted policy makers to this and other problems as early as 1995, politicians repeatedly made decisions that favored the short-term interests of developers over long-term, science-based policies. Mayor Zimmer’s predecessor, Peter J. Cammarano III, went to prison on corruption charges related to the unsustainable waterfront development shortly after taking office.
A sea of challenges ahead
The mayor’s plan addresses Hoboken’s long-term resilience. Instead of unstable, unsafe structures on the waterfront—including proposed commercial and residential development on Hoboken’s piers, Mayor Zimmer’s resiliency and recovery plan calls for hardening the infrastructure with flood walls and other barriers. The plan also calls for expediting installation of the remaining three pumps to address stormwater management as one action in a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach to combatting the mounting risk of flooding.
It will be long after Mayor Zimmer’s own administration before the plan can be fully realized. But, it is vital to start funding and implementing the plan now. As former Governor Whitman said at a recent UCS forum at Monmouth University on the anniversary of the storm, “we know that this will happen again.”
History teaches us that we are always at risk of repeating mistakes of the past. Hoboken’s history of unsustainable development should remind us that resilience in the face of sea level rise means rebuilding for the lasting future on a foundation of science.