In uptown Hoboken, a sailboat that was hurled ashore by Hurricane Sandy last October still sits on the riverfront, a glaring reminder of the wake-up call Mother Nature sent this city a little less than a year ago. Now, hurricane season is here again, and it’s nearly impossible to say specifically what Hoboken can expect. Nearly everyone involved, save for New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie, agrees that global climate change is causing storms to increase in frequency and intensity, but placing them on a timetable is a tricky business.
Dr. Alan Blumberg, a storm scientist and director of Stevens Institute for Technology’s Center for Maritime Systems, has been saying storms are getting more violent, more often, for years. He predicted Hurricane Sandy’s intensity 72 hours before it hit landfall, thanks to the state-of-the-art sensor system he and his colleagues have deployed throughout the area, from the Hudson River to the Jersey Shore. The systems allow scientists to use data to project the damage of a storm a few days before it hits, and according to Blumberg, the data rarely lies.
“Three days before Sandy, we were predicting that about 11 feet of water would hit Sinatra Drive,” he said in an interview this week. “And sure enough there were about 11 feet.”
“I think the people who talk about how this can happen just once in 100 years are totally wrong.” – Dr. Alan Blumberg
“The question becomes, well, what about tomorrow? What about next week? What about in a year?” he said.
In Sandy’s aftermath, the term “100 year storm” became a popular phrase used by skeptics and naysayers who believe that a storm like Sandy – half hurricane, half Nor’easter – could only occur once a century. That assertion isn’t necessarily wrong, says Blumberg, but it is flawed and misleading.
“We really need to do away with the phrase ‘100 year storm,’ because if we have a big Sandy-type event this fall, that doesn’t mean at all that we won’t have one for another 99 years,” he said. “I think the people who talk about how this can happen just once in 100 years are totally wrong.”
Instead, Blumberg likes to use the phrase “one percent storm,” which admits that weather events on par with Sandy are rare without dispelling the possibility that they can happen at any time.
“Calling Sandy a 1 percent storm is similar to calling it a 100-year storm, because one year out of 100 is 1 percent,” he said. “But the difference is that the 1 percent renews every year. Something like this can happen whenever, to the point where we can say there is a 1 percent chance that one will occur in any given year.”
Hoboken was hurt especially hard by Sandy because it is low-lying, because the storm hit at high tide, and because the storm made a rare direct hit on New Jersey.
Rare but still ‘a lot’
Those who use the phrase ‘100-year storm’ are typically reluctant to admit there could be another hurricane this year, or the next, and while ‘1 percent storm’ may sound similar, Blumberg says that it should be a call to action.
“We should be more prepared. Because it could happen,” he said. “Do you ignore 1 percent? I wouldn’t ignore 1 percent. One percent is a lot. It’s important to pay attention to, and we really do need to get ready.”
Blumberg said that harnessing Mother Nature is difficult, but that it is worth preparing.
“We need to try and be in charge of nature,” he said.
Is the city ready?
Since the city recovered from the immediate aftermath of Sandy, which involved the National Guard and assistance from various other state and federal agencies, it has engaged in a whirlwind of grant applications and public outreach in an effort to prepare for another possible disaster. The city’s approach is split between long-term and short-term plans, aimed at fortifying Hoboken physically and infrastructurally, but also educating residents on storm readiness and resiliency.
“I think a comprehensive solution offers us the best chance at getting funded for the infrastructure projects we want to do, but it also allows us to expand outreach so that residents know what to do when they get that call from the mayor’s office,” said Mayor Dawn Zimmer last week.
Zimmer has reached out to Blumberg in an effort to design Hoboken-specific protections, such as the flood walls she suggested building in her February State of the City address.
“We’re trying to get this funding every way we can,” she said, noting that the city has applied for grants from the private sector, such as one from the Rockefeller Foundation that will bring a team of engineers to Hoboken to rethink the city’s resiliency strategies. “Eventually someone’s got to give it to us.”
But what does Zimmer think about the varying opinions on global warming and its effects on storms? Gov. Christie has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t believe global warming was to blame for Sandy’s intensity.
“People have different opinions on climate change,” said Zimmer. “But the reality is that the temperature is getting hotter and the storms are becoming more frequent. My position is that we need to make some changes.”
In the meantime…
Zimmer said that help from the government is crucial, but won’t be given unless Hoboken demonstrates that it is trying to walk on its own two feet. After Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said during a visit to Hoboken that the city’s FEMA applications would be treated equally to applications by other New Jersey municipalities, Zimmer said she could not wait any longer and entered into a public-private partnership with United Water to build one of the pumps on Eleventh Street and the river.
“Like [Guadagno] said, this is going to take time, and the reality is that a lot of needs will be unmet because of limited funding,” said Zimmer. “We are demonstrating to the state and the federal government that we are willing to be partners.”
Hoboken not ready yet
Blumberg admitted that it could be more than a year before residents begin to see progress on the infrastructure projects, such as several new stormwater pumps aimed at combating flooding, but said that the city’s short term response has been good.
“I think that if this summer we have another big event, we’re going to have as much water in Hoboken as we did before,” he said. “We really haven’t made any progress in terms of keeping water out yet, but we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of what we’re going to do once it’s here.”
The city’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is indicative of such progress, said Zimmer. Trained in light first-aid, how to manage a disaster shelter and answer phones in the event of a disaster, the team relieves much of the load placed on the city’s emergency workers, such as police and firefighters.
“The CERT team was the backbone of our communication with residents during the storm,” said Zimmer. “With them manning the phones, the police and firefighters were free to do what they had to do.”
The city has graduated 65 members of the CERT team since its founding following Hurricane Irene in 2011 – 55 of them since Sandy – and is looking to expand the team further.
Other officials weighing in
State Assemblyman and Hoboken mayoral candidate Ruben Ramos joined in on the climate change discussion this past week, holding a press conference Tuesday to express support for a recent plan unveiled by President Barack Obama that Ramos said would “take major steps to protect New Jersey from damage caused by climate change.”
“We must embrace ways to help New Jersey communities deal with these problems and learn to prevent future damage caused by climate change and extreme weather,” said Ramos. “President Obama’s plan is a sound one.”
The plan, which Obama announced in June, would take major steps to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, amongst other measures.
Ramos discussed legislation in Trenton that he has sponsored or worked on, including those dealing with green infrastructure improvements, grant money for hazard mitigation, green roofs, and incentives for developers who want to use green technology in their projects.
Ramos will face off against incumbent Zimmer in a November mayoral election in which the city’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy is likely to be a central issue. Zimmer gained national notoriety the storm’s aftermath, but Ramos has been critical of what he called “failed leadership."
On Tuesday, Ramos refrained from criticizing the mayor personally, but said that protecting Hoboken from future weather disasters would be a centerpiece of his campaign.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com