By Ron Hine | FBW | January 15, 2015
These comments were submitted in response to the Rebuild by Design component of NJ State Sandy Action Plan. There will also be a public hearing on Tuesday night, January 20 7:00 PM at the Multi-service Center, 124 Grand Street, Hoboken, NJ.
Hoboken is a densely populated urban waterfront community. Floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy did not impact most of Hoboken at the water’s edge due to its higher elevations. But the surge entered town at the lower elevations at its north and south ends. The floodwaters then filled up the town like a bathtub all the way to its western border along the Palisades Cliffs putting about 75 percent of the city under water. The deepest flooding occurred in the Shades neighborhood of Weehawken, just to the north of Hoboken. The Newport waterfront development in Jersey City to the south of Hoboken was also hard hit by the storm. The tide receded quickly but the floodwaters, having no means of escape, remained in Hoboken for days stranding much of its population without access to emergency services, without power and without transportation. The damage resulted from floodwaters filling up basements and ground floors, but not from the wave action from the surge that devastated homes along so many other coastal communities. There was actually little structural damage to buildings as a result of the storm. The flooding, of course, damaged sheet rock, destroyed boilers and what was stored in basements and required millions of dollars in repairs, but the total destruction of homes along the shorelines in FEMA’s Coastal High Hazard Zone was not what occurred in Hoboken. Nearly all of the flooding occurred in the “AE” zone away from the destructive force of powerful waves. The damage along the coastline was confined mostly to several of the waterfront parks. New residential and commercial development at the waterfront was spared due to the fact that they were built to a suitable elevation and appropriately set back behind the waterfront park and street.
The flood mitigation plan for Hoboken and elsewhere, of course, should not be based on what happened during the last major storm, Sandy, but all potential flooding events.
Analysis To provide meaningful input for the Rebuild by Design program in the Hoboken area requires a careful review of the data and analysis that went into program. I have studied all of the boards provided by the OMA team that were available on the Rebuild by Design website and also on exhibit at the Liberty Science Center. Last year, I requested and searched for the data and analysis that was the basis for developing this program but was not able to gain access to it. Thus, I am limited in how helpful I can be in providing public input. Most of the elements in the Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge program are common sense responses to the problem that have been utilized successfully elsewhere. But how they get implemented in the Hoboken area should be based on actual data of how Hoboken floods during various storm events. The location of flood pumps, retention basins, etc. would need to be strategically located based on the best data available.
What’s Missing There are several items that were not adequately addressed by the OMA comprehensive plan. (a) Sewer System Portions of Hoboken’s antiquated sewer system are still comprised of the original redwood sewer pipes. It is a combined sewer and stormwater system. During Sandy and for other flooding events, Hoboken homeowners have complained of sewerage backing up through floor drains. There are many questions about why the sewer system fails during storms. The information released by the OMA team thus far has not detailed how their comprehensive plan relates to the North Hudson Sewerage Authority system. It is also not clear what impact the proposed wet weather pump stations would have at the north end and western part of town. To solve the flooding problem, there needs to be a long-term strategy for building separate lines for stormwater and sewerage, but it is not clear that there is one. (b) Wet Flood Proofing Along the Jersey Shore and other coastlines, buildings need to be elevated to the required height in order to be protected from future storms. That does not apply to Hoboken’s existing housing stock which consists primarily of 3 to 5 story buildings, constructed of masonry materials. The solution for Hoboken is to develop a program to educate property owners and provide incentives for wet flood proofing the lower levels of buildings in the flood zone. No amount of flood walls, flood pumps, green roofs, etc. will guarantee that these buildings will not be subject to future flooding. Allowing flood waters to enter the building and leave without doing serious damage to walls, floors and mechanical equipment, is an essential part of a flood mitigation program. The OMA plan failed to address this issue. A major failure after Sandy was allowing buildings to be restored to original conditions without requiring new standards to be met to protect against future damage from floods.
The Wall Although it was not shown on the Rebuild by Design website or at the exhibit at the Liberty Science Center, an image later emerged in press stories showing an OMA rendering for a high wall along Hoboken’s South Waterfront. This part of the plan is alarming for several reasons. First, it was not presented as part of the publicly available documents when the OMA plan was unveiled. Secondly, the high wall is being proposed for a portion of the waterfront that was not seriously impacted by the surge that occurred during Superstorm Sandy nor is it in FEMA’s AE or VE flood zone between First to Fourth Street. It is also important to note that the surge that occurred during Sandy was an exceedingly rare event. Finally, the wall would completely block views of the waterfront park, Hudson River and New York City skyline from the ground floor retail, the sidewalk and Sinatra Drive having a severely negative impact on the carefully crafted street life that exists there today. One also has to consider the impact at either end of such a wall where water would be diverted. There are locations where some type of wall or revetment makes sense, but I fail to understand the rationale for locating it at this site.
Management A $230 million block grant will require personnel with experience in managing major infrastructure projects. My concerns are founded on knowledge and experience that to effectively manage all facets of this process (i.e. writing accurate specifications, job estimates and bid documents, accurate data collection and reporting, engineering and architectural oversight, close order project management during all phases etc.), requires a strong infrastructure, because without it, the management team will be vulnerable to unscrupulous contractors, significant cost-overruns, serious delays, and shoddy workmanship. If I understand it correctly, the funds will be managed through the state DEP. But at this stage, I have heard little about this, so again it is difficult to comment. So, is there a team in place to do this? This also raises questions about the decision making process moving forward and how the various levels of government will interface.
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