Jersey Shore's back bay areas continue to struggle with flooding as sea level rises

  • First Posted: February 17, 2014 - 11:00 am
    Last Updated: February 17, 2014 - 11:03 am

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, New Jersey — It doesn't take a superstorm, just a steady rain to flood Frank Santora's street.

Water runs down Bayside Terrace into the lagoon and when it rises above the stormwater valve, which it frequently does, it bubbles back into the street where it sits until it evaporates, he said.

"Even if they redo everything, the fact of the matter is there is too much water volume in that area," he told the Asbury Park Press ( "It's a big issue."

Outdated infrastructure and the limited protection offered by bulkheads have long contributed to frequent floods in many of Ocean County's back bay communities, even without storms as strong as Sandy.

And with sea-level rise, it will only get worse, says Kenneth Miller, a professor of earth and planetary sciences who has spent a career studying sea-level fluctuations over millennia.

He also has a summer home in Waretown that was nearly wrecked by the superstorm.

With sea level trends, Miller said he thinks house elevations should be two feet higher than the latest recommendations from government flood mappers, to prepare for mid-century conditions. It's not that far off, he warns: "My son will be paying a mortgage in 2050."

One foot of sea-level rise will inundate more than 10,000 acres along New Jersey's bayshores and could take 58,800 acres from the low-lying back bay sides of barrier islands, according to one research group working with the federally sponsored Rebuild by Design post-Sandy project.

In square miles, that's nearly equal to the entire northeast corner of Ocean County, from Point Pleasant to the Toms River.

Most at risk will be lands that a century ago were marginal swampland, but dredged and filled in the mid-20th century to create thriving bayside neighborhoods of summer and year-round homes enjoyed by generations.

They were hit hard by Sandy, and in late 2013 some 26,000 residents were still displaced, according to Ocean County officials. Local property taxes will be affected for at least the next three to five years, putting Toms River in a particularly difficult position because of the extent of damage, township administrator Paul Shives said last year.

Jason Hellendrung, a principal of Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates, which is part of Rebuild by Design, said with some sea level rise projections of 31 inches by 2050, a loss of property along the Jersey Shore could mean a $526.6 million in annual tax revenue for the entire state. That is, unless some changes are made.

Heading the Rebuild By Design group is Henk Ovink who served as the second in charge of a department in the Dutch government that deals with planning and water.

While it was largely Sandy that brought flood planning to the forefront here, the Netherlands, where Ovink hails, started it some 800 years ago. The Dutch are the go-to guys, also advising engineers and flood plain managers in Louisiana as they continue to raise defenses overrun by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Ovink says some 60 percent of the Netherlands is at risk from flooding.

A catastrophic storm in 1953 that killed more than 2,000 people around the North Sea in a single night launched the Dutch into a modern era of flood control engineering, from bigger dikes to massive moving floodgates that seal off harbors.

But in the Netherlands, they are also recognizing limits. After much controversy, there are decisions being made to buy out farmers and homeowners in high-risk areas, in preparation for what Dutch planners worry may come out of the North Sea in this century.

At the Jersey Shore, teams of scientists and experts have been exploring how to resolve some of the more immediate flooding problems that plague bayside homeowners as part of a state-commissioned study.

"They have had to struggle with flooding from low-lying areas around Barnegat Bay. It's going to get worse with rising sea level. We know that. We're anticipating that and there needs to be strategies put in place," said Michael Kennish, a Rutgers University research professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Science in New Brunswick.

Rutgers, Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stockton College and Monmouth University were tapped to evaluate flood mitigation strategies in the areas of the state hardest hit by Sandy. The state plans to incorporate these findings, due out around the spring, into its work with the Army Corps of Engineers on its $20 million comprehensive study of the coastal North Atlantic Region.

Kennish said the Rutgers team has been visiting municipalities, such as Seaside Heights, Toms River, Point Pleasant and Little Egg Harbor, to speak with officials, tour the areas and analyze what creates flooding so they can come up with affordable ways to plug the problem.

They hope to map out a variety of solutions, whether fixed or mobile, permanent or temporary, and fit for small floods or major storms, so they can be applied in any community, said George Guo, principal investigator for the Rutgers component.

Guo, a professor in civil engineering at Rutgers, said many factors, from a spike in development to inadequate drainage, explain why these communities are more prone to flooding.

Rising sea level and runoff have stressed stormwater infrastructure, such as storm sewer pipes and drainage ditches, which need to be improved or redesigned to continue to be effective, he said.

Some issues can and should be addressed in the short-term to help communities that are still vulnerable from mud- and silt-laden ditches, channels and drainage system and dune washouts, but sea level rise will demand long-term solutions, too, Guo said.

Last winter after Sandy, repeated high storm tides kept bayside residents on edge.

"We had two really serious high water events after Sandy and that really got to people," said William deCamp Jr. of Save Barnegat Bay, a local environmental group.

The changes also led many to wonder if the hurricane — with its bulldozer-like plowing of sand from ocean beaches into the bay — had changed the daily tidal dynamics, but scientists discounted that.

Looking at weather patterns it was apparent that late fall and winter 2012-2013 simply had a lot of weather and wind that tended to push tides higher, according to Robert Chant, a physical oceanographer at Rutgers' Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.

"Our analysis was that there was really no change in the tides," said Chant, who examined the question with scientist Neil Ganju from the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been charting Barnegat Bay before and after Sandy.

Other estuaries all along the coast were also affected by the storm, too, and have not seen big changes in their tidal regimes, Chant said.

Echoing Guo, Chant believes sea rise should have bayside residents thinking about their future.

A recent study by Rutgers scientists concluded sea level is rising faster than at any time in the past 4,300 years, and on the New Jersey Shore will exceed global averages by 11 to 15 inches by 2100. That's because of several regional factors, like subsiding land in the mid-Atlantic states and a possible slowdown of the offshore Gulf Stream current, they said.