Because of climate change, Ida's watery wrath is no longer an aberration for the Northeast
A drone view of Lincoln Park, NJ on Thursday, Sept. 2, a day after Ida flooded many parts of the northeast. NorthJersey.com
More frequent, more intense, more deadly.
That’s how climate experts expect extreme weather events to continue harming the Northeast, as warmer air and ocean temperatures bring catastrophic damage such as what the remnants of Hurricane Ida wrought, pummeling the Northeast on Wednesday, leaving at least close to 30 people dead in New Jersey and 16 in New York.
The storm unleashed flash floods that flipped cars and swept people away, spawned tornadoes that ripped houses apart like matchsticks, turned New York subways into underground waterfalls and caused widespread power outages.
It was the deadliest storm since Superstorm Sandy and the full toll is not yet known, with several people still missing. Late Saturday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy added two more to the official death toll, bringing it to 27.
While Sandy generated a flurry of projects to shore up the region’s key infrastructure such as elevating key components of the electric grid, much of the Northeast’s aging transportation systems — from airports to roadway storm drains and subways — were not designed to handle this “new normal” with more frequent rain events that dump larger volumes of water.
Governments need to step up investment in mitigation projects rather than just taking reactionary measures, and recognize that towns cannot continue to develop as they have been, experts say.
“New Jersey is ground zero for the worst impacts of climate change — period,” said Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “There is no single project or array of projects that will protect this state from the ravages of climate change. What we can do is try to lessen the damage.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Ida should be a wake-up call. “We’re not treating this as if it’s not going to happen again for 500 years,” Hochul said Thursday, citing record-breaking rainfall totals tallied at New York’s airports and in Central Park. “Records were broken but what is fascinating is that the records that were broken were literally set a week before. That’s what we’re dealing with now, my friends.”
The warnings had been out there — and were dire. By 2050, the Garden State can expect to see an 11% increase in precipitation, a likely one foot rise in sea level, and double the number of summer heat-related deaths, according to the state DEP’s 2020 scientific report on climate change.
“New Jersey is warming faster than the rest of the Northeast region and the world,” the report says. Warmer air and ocean temperatures in turn fuel larger volumes of rain, and sea level rise translates into more potent storm surges.
The vast majority of scientists and government agencies, including NASA, have concluded that the planet is warming due in large part to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and gasoline. That has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which prevents heat from escaping into space, creating a greenhouse effect.
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No single weather event can be tied directly to climate change, scientists say. There are records of massive storms hitting the Northeast dating back almost 400 years, long before the Industrial Revolution introduced massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the formation and direction of an Atlantic storm such as Ida are tied to many factors, from wind direction to ocean temperatures in the Pacific.
But sea surface temperatures across the globe have risen almost one degree in the past 40 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The East Coast is no exception, with some fish and shellfish species migrating north in search of cooler waters.
“The future is going to be a different animal,” said Dave Rosenblatt, chief resilience officer for the New Jersey DEP. “Too often we plan for last year’s or last decade’s storm. We have to do a better job finding our future vulnerabilities and engineer as best as we can.”
New Jersey municipalities must now identify potential effects of climate change and include in their master plans efforts to combat or prevent damage, such as zoning to ban building in future flood zones, or funding new stormwater drainage, after Murphy signed S2607, amending municipal land use law in February.
“As it relates to our infrastructure, our resiliency, our whole mindset, the playbook that we use, we have got to leap forward and get out ahead of this,” Murphy said in Mullica Hill on Thursday, standing in front of wreckage caused by a tornado.
'Biggest investment we make'
Janis Simmons found herself stranded at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday night as Ida swept through. Simmons ended up sleeping on the ground outside of the gate where she works security.
Level One of Terminal B at the airport was inundated with ankle-high water that rushed into the lobby from the roadway, and people were directed to stay on higher ground until the next morning.
Even if Simmons had been able to leave, she would have had trouble getting home on her usual bus routebecause the roads were flooded, too.
People were stuck on an Amtrak train outside of Metropark for 12 hours, buses and cars drifted along roads that began to look like rivers and Manhattan subway stations gushed with water.
Now, as the region cleans up the mess and tries to return service to normal, residents are left to wonder why this is happening again.
Metro-North, the commuter rail that ferries thousands of riders each day from the suburbs of the lower Hudson Valley and Connecticut into Manhattan, was forced to shut down Thursday.
Stations and parking lots were under water. Sidewalks leading up to them had crumbled. Rail lines came loose from their moorings when dirt and grass beneath gave way. And rail crossings were submerged.
“I think it should serve as a wake-up call that, yes, we’ve done a lot — still not enough — but a lot in the wake of a storm like Sandy, which sent water in from the coast, but we’ve only just begun how to manage extreme amounts of water that come from the sky,” said Rob Freudenberg, the vice president for energy and environment issues with the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group focused on New York.
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Flash floods hit New York City as the remnants of Hurricane Ida battered the region with rain and subway stations were flooded. Storyful
In recent years, the RPA has pushed the state and city to plan ahead for the stress that climate change will have on the region’s transit infrastructure.
A July report cited the need to address flooding in the New York City subways, where “on a dry day, about 14 million gallons of water are pumped out of the subway system.”
MTA planners will need to address these challenges in the coming years or risk seeing their entire systems knocked out by massive downpours that will come with greater frequency.
“This might be the biggest investment we make in our generation, adapting to climate change, and we haven’t even begun to figure out where those funds are going to come from,” Freudenberg said. “It’s going to be a significant cost, but it can be done.”
Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., said the cost-benefit analysis used to decide whether to spend to invest against future storms must factor in their new frequency and intensity.
“The intensity of the rain from these hurricanes is much worse than they used to be, and the reality is you have to design infrastructure for the 21st century,” Ekwurzel said. “The major hurricanes are reaching farther north with their load of precipitation.”
But, Ekwurzel said, often decision makers choose the cheapest way out, forgoing large investments in infrastructure in favor of paying for the cleanup when the damage hits.
That may not be the best solution in high-density areas such as New York and New Jersey, where shutting down train lines can cost millions of dollars in revenue.
“In an area of high traffic, I would be willing to bet that it’s worth protecting every mile to deal with the flood and avoid the damage,” Ekwurzel said. “In areas of less traffic and less revenue stream probably you say ‘Ok, we’ll deal with the damage as it comes.’ ”
'We need to catch up'
Meanwhile, decades-old storm drains, pipes and other roadway infrastructure have proved to be even less effective in recent years as heavy rains become more common.
Plans to deal with increased inland flooding abound — at both the state and municipal levels. But infrastructure is expensive, so replacing old stormwater systems is slow going in cash-strapped communities where such projects are a lower priority.
New Jersey’s standards for the size of stormwater infrastructure on any new state-funded projects were upgraded in the years after Superstorm Sandy, so some newer stormwater pipes can handle greater volumes of water. But many older roadways have smaller storm drains that can't accommodate the larger volumes of water from today's storms.
More than 300,000 New Jerseyans live in areas with elevated risk of inland flooding, and 352,000 at risk of coastal flooding, according to States at Risk, a project of nonprofit Climate Central that researches climate change. An estimated 110,000 more people could be at risk for flooding by 2050 due to a rise in sea levels.
In New York, more than 240,000 people live in areas at elevated risk of inland flooding, 431,000 people are at risk of coastal flooding, and an estimated 228,000 more could be at risk due to sea level rise, according to States at Risk.
In March 2019, Murphy signed a law authorizing local and county governments to create their own stormwater utility that could charge fees and use those funds on improved infrastructure to control flooding and reduce polluted runoff from entering bodies of water.
While 1,800 such utilities exist in 41 states, New Jersey has not established any, according to Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. He estimates about $16 billion is needed to help reduce flooding.
“We need to catch up,” Potosnak said. “People often talk about the cost of investing in clean energy, but we need to reflect on the cost of not investing. How much are people spending getting water out of their basements, rebuilding their businesses, remediating mold? How much is lost when a business has to close due to flooding? Those are real costs we could prevent.”
Between 2010 and 2020, New Jersey experienced 24 climate-related events that each caused more than $1 billion worth of damage, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Metropolitan New York and New Jersey’s dense concrete and pavement driveways, roads and parking lots don’t absorb rainwater the way soil and tree roots do, causing the water to rush into rivers and streams, which in turn overflow and flood homes and businesses, turning streets into rivers.
Innovative plans could combine traditional flood mitigation engineering, such as pumps, levees and bulkheads, with more “innovative nature-based solutions,” like installing large storage tanks under green spaces, so more stormwater is drained into the ground than would normally be possible, said Vanessa Tropiano, coastal training program coordinator for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in southeastern New Jersey.
Tropiano pointed to Rebuild by Design projects in progress in the Meadowlands, Hoboken, Jersey City and Weehawken, part of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development competition in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to come up with infrastructure ideas to prevent or mitigate such damage in the future.
Towns can consider building “pervious” roads or driveways that let water pass through down to the soil, or constructing green infrastructure like rain gardens or swales, said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future.
Restoring natural ecosystems is also important to both reduce damage and mitigate the effects of climate change.
“Nature does better than any engineer,” Potosnak said.
During Superstorm Sandy, the wetlands in New Jersey and New York absorbed rainfall runoff, reducing storm damage in surrounding areas by 11%, and prevented $625 million worth of destruction, according to a study from scientists working for risk-modeling firm Risk Management Solutions.
What’s more, the coastal wetlands absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, reducing the release of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming.
Localities need to change the equation so it’s not profitable or desirable to build in high-risk settings, Kasabach said, but also remember low-income communities are more likely to live in flood zones, and make sure they are helped and safely housed.
“There’s a tendency for local officials to expect everything to look the same as it is today, but they are going to really have to change the way a community looks,” said Rosenblatt, chief resilience officer for the DEP.
Billions of federal dollars became available after Superstorm Sandy, especially for transportation agencies, to fix damaged assets and improve resiliency.
While projects funded from this money may have helped limit some of the flood effects from Ida, additional investment is needed to adequately protect the region’s still fragile infrastructure and travel network, experts say.
Joshua DeFlorio, chief of resilience and sustainability at the Port Authority, said it's impossible to know what would have happened during Ida without the measures put in place after Sandy.
"Mitigation measures we put in place post-Sandy certainly alleviated the effects of the storm on our facilities," DeFlorio said.
But the challenges of rapid rainfall events such as Ida, compared to storm surge and coastal inundation, which occurred during Sandy, make it harder to predict.
"When you have street level flooding that manifests in a matter of minutes, then really deploying those resources, ensuring that you have adequate labor, adequate pumping, that you’re actually able to deploy your mitigation measures in a timely fashion — that becomes far more challenging," DeFlorio said.
Here are some flood and resiliency projects completed in the post-Sandy years:
- The New Jersey Department of Transportation reconstructed nearly 13 miles of Route 35 and improved the drainage system with more pump stations and road thickness to withstand a 25-year storm, as opposed to the 2-year storm the old system could handle.
- About $3 million was spent to upgrade 150 traffic light intersections in 14 counties across New Jersey so they could operate on gas-powered generators if power went out.
- The MTA has invested $2.6 billion in resiliency projects, including fortifying 3,500 subway openings such as vents, staircases, and elevator shafts against flooding.
- A project to repair the tunnels connecting World Trade Center to Exchange Place for PATH trains was completed six months early last year after work was accelerated during the pandemic lull.
- A restored seawall, pavilion and sidewalks that were damaged in Glen Island, New Rochelle after Sandy were unveiled just weeks ago when the three-year project wrapped up.
- Thirty miles of damaged power, communication and signal infrastructure on Metro-North was repaired between 145th Street and Croton-Harmon station.
- About $1.6 billion was invested into the PATH system post-Sandy for improvements, like raising "bungalows" that house the signal power for the trains.
Several more projects are still underway or haven’t been started yet:
- After stalling under the Trump administration, the Biden team is moving the approval process for the Gateway projects that include more than $12 billion to rehabilitate and build two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River. The repairs needed for the 111-year-old tubes were accelerated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 when they flooded and the salt water corroded their interior.
- NJ Transit is working on the Long Slip Fill project at the Hoboken Terminal where an unused canal is being filled and new elevated platforms are being built to give the station flexibility if it floods.
- After suffering from lengthy power outages after Sandy, NJ Transit spearheaded a plan to build a microgrid to shore up its electricity reliability, but the project has stalled amid intense criticism from environmental advocates. NJ Transit engineers are currently seeking ideas for ways to make it more sustainable.
- Construction began last year on a new Raritan River Bridge, the Perth Amboy drawbridge damaged and out of alignment after Sandy that is expected to be completed in 2024.
Staff writer Scott Fallon contributed to this report.
Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.