Residents resist tidal flooding, an increasing threat to the Jersey Shore

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Published November 24, 2015 by the Asbury Park Press

Worse yet to come

They left before the flood. Worried they might not make it, Maryann O’Neill and her husband hurried away from home by 5 a.m. for a 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment. The 74-year-olds had to leave before salt water blocked the road.

They live on Mallard Island, where resilient residents often make plans by the tide, not the time. The Stafford back bay neighborhood off Route 72 is plagued by tidal flooding.

Roads become impassable. Corrosive salt water douses forsaken cars. Mud covers everything. Children walk through the water to get to the bus stop.

Tidal flooding has been increasing along the Jersey Shore, and it’s expected to get worse. Flooding challenges the O’Neills’ access to doctors or repairmen or house guests.

Flooding has increased more than 600 percent in the last 60 years at Atlantic City and Sandy Hook, according to NOAA data from those two places, which have a long history of tidal gauge data compared to other points on the coast.

Atlantic City and Sandy Hook ranked third and fifth in a list of 45 sites in the nation for increased flooding in a 2014 NOAA study. While the exact number of floods might deviate above or below the trend in any given year, the trend for flooding has been increasing exponentially, according to William V. Sweet, the oceanographer who authored the study.

“Once impacts become noticed locally, they’re going to become chronic rather quickly,” Sweet said. “It’s not going to be a slow, gradual change. It’s already on an accelerating, upward sloping trajectory.”

Stafford is living the impact other communities fear.

“There’s no question that sea levels rise, and these flooding issues are going to continue,” said Stafford Township Administrator Jim Moran. “There are other towns — Brick has areas that will flood, Toms River does as well, Bayville, Lacey, Barnegat, Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton. All of those towns have areas that are prone to flooding.”

Sweet cited three main reasons flooding is growing worse at the Jersey Shore:

Sea levels have risen about 1.3 feet in the past 100 years, typical for the mid-Atlantic region.

Strong winds and storms off the Atlantic Ocean frequently hammer the area.

Tens of thousands of homes and infrastructure, like roads and offices, are near sea level, making it easier for floodwaters to cause widespread and costly damage.

El Niño, a winter warming of the Pacific Ocean which disrupts global weather patterns, is expected to make New Jersey floods this winter and spring worse. Sandy Hook might see about 40 flooding events, a record number, according to Sweet.

As sea levels rise, the Mallard Island woes will spread along the Shore, according to Lisa Auermuller, watershed and outreach coordinator for Rutgers’ Jacques Cousteau Coastal Education Center based in Tuckerton.

“So today’s nuisance flooding events, that we’re seeing more and more often and over longer durations of time, are really harbingers for the kind of increased nuisance flooding that is predicted to be seen along the Jersey Shore,” she said.

Salt water in the wrong place is expensive

Flooding costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, from federal insurance payouts to lost tax revenue.

Following superstorm Sandy in 2012, the state spent $345 million repairing and restoring 21 miles of beach in Monmouth County to mitigate flooding, according to Bob Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The state is working with the  Army Corps of Engineers on a $1 billion comprehensive shore protection system.

New Jersey Natural Gas launched a $102.5 million program to guard against major weather disruption. Spokesman Michael Kinney noted that most of their infrastructure is underground and pressurized, making it less susceptible to tidal flooding.

Jersey Central Power & Light Co. is fortifying 14 substations at risk of tidal flooding in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Spokesman Ron Morano didn’t have an estimated cost but said this work involved raising equipment, building barriers and installing pumps.

Back bay flooding, such as what Mallard Island sees, is more complicated and has been given less money and effort than flooding on the beaches, according to Auermuller. The Army Corps of Engineers noted New Jersey’s back bays as vulnerable to flooding and deserving of greater attention.

There’s less continuity in the back bay areas compared to the beaches, according to Auermuller. Some areas have bulkheads to hold back the tide, and some don’t. Yet one low point can weaken an entire protection system.

The larger number of property owners on the back bay makes it more difficult to organize protection efforts, according to Auermuller.

“As for back bay flooding, we typically wait for municipalities to come to us with projects,” Considine wrote in an email. “However, in January, we are starting a flood risk management study with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specific to New Jersey’s back bays. Study would identify possible strategies or projects in back bay areas.”

Flood-preparedness expense at the municipal level could run into the millions. The appendix of the most recent Ocean County hazard mitigation plan lists several projects to raise and improve homes, from about $1.4 million for 20 homes in Barnegat to about $38.2 million for 434 homes in Berkeley.

Outsiders might recognize Mallard Island as part an area bordering Manahawkin Bay known as Mud City. Residents prefer the prettier sounding term. The area is built on marsh and has long struggled with flooding. The land presently sits at or below sea level in some places, according to Moran. FEMA rates the neighborhood as an area at high flood risk.

It’s quiet. Homes vary, from raised multistory contemporaries to fisherman’s shacks. Many have views of the surrounding marsh, where the reeds glow golden at sunset.

But cars don’t last there. Since the O’Neills bought their house on East Mallard Drive in 1991, salt water burned through five trucks. The vehicles rust away, oil pans fall off and brake lines corrode. Even with an extra undercoating, they expect their Honda CRV to live only three, maybe four years.

$300,000 on roads

Bob and Marlene Longmore live nearby. On the ground floor of their home, a door is cut a couple inches high to allow floodwater to flow through. Blue Solo cups protect the legs of wooden furniture.

They deal with the water as it comes. Cleaning up the mud left behind is the price they pay for waterfront living.

“It comes in and it goes out,” Marlene Longmore said. “Then you get the bleach.”

Stafford is spending about $300,000 on road improvements to fight standing water on Mallard Island, according to Moran. The goal is to repave roads a few inches higher, slanting them so water runs off. He said the project is underway and should be completed soon.

Mayor John Spodofora estimated his administration examined the Mallard Island issue for about three years. The project was slowed because of weather delays and the township’s contractor working on other projects.

Storm drains in the neighborhood are a solution and a problem. When the bay rises, the drains run in reverse, regurgitating salt water onto the road.

There’s one in front of the O’Neills’ house. It too runs backward at high tide, but at least the water comes and goes.

“It’s gonna flood,” O’Neill said. “And we know it’s gonna flood. But it’s the idea of the standing water for months and months at a time that really annoys us.”

Beyond adjustments to the road, there’s little Stafford can do.

“The fact of the matter is, I don’t know that there’s anything we could do,” Moran said.

“So it depends on how high sea level goes,” Moran said. “If it continues to rise and it continues to inundate the area, there may come a point that it’s unlivable. But that’s certainly not now or in the foreseeable future.”

Limited options

John Pfeiffer said he felt the neighborhood is on the cusp. He has lived across the street from the O’Neills since 2008. He’s also frustrated by standing water on the roads, which restricts his ability to drive to and from his home. Or take a walk down the street.

“If nothing was done, the roadways weren’t repaired, the flooding continued and my taxes went up, then I would leave,” he said.

Ed Leonard has owned a house in the area since 1973. He has lived in his current home on East Mallard Drive since 2004.

He had a stroke about eight years ago, which limits his ability to walk or use the kayaks in his backyard.

When the area floods, he and other residents park their cars on the nearest high ground, a two-lane bridge at the entrance to the island. Then they walk home. But that’s tough for Leonard, who moves slowly, with a cane.

“If I had to walk out all the time to get to my car, I wouldn’t be able to live here,” he said.

O’Neill also has a limit. As she and her husband grow older, the repairs and the hassle caused by floods could become too much for them to keep up with.

Sinking land

Superstorm Sandy hit the place hard. Residents reported several feet of water flooding the ground floor of their homes and there are still bombed-out skeleton houses in the area.

But the more common threat at the shore isn’t the big storms.

“It’s really not the Hurricane Sandys that we’re looking at,” said Sweet, the NOAA oceanographer. “It’s the lesser extremes that are becoming more problematic.”

Flooding is increasing largely because of “relative sea level rise,” according to Sweet. That’s a two-part phenomenon meaning more water and less land.

About half the rise at the Jersey Shore is caused by added water – oceans getting warmer and expanding, and ice at the earth’s poles melting.

The other half is caused by the land sinking.

There was a huge ice sheet across North America about 20,000 years ago, according to Robert Kopp, associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute. It extended south, ending about where New York City is now.

That ice pushed down on the earth. Kopp compared it to pushing down on a mattress – the edges around your hand will bulge up.

New Jersey was in that bulge. But now the glacier is gone and the land is settling back down. Adding to that effect, the land in much of the New Jersey coast is not solid bedrock, but coastal sands and silts that can sink under their own weight, Kopp said. People exaggerate the sinking effect by drawing out ground water with wells.

Sea level rise causes a marked increase in days per year with nuisance flooding, according to Sweet.

Trouble comes down to inches, according to Dave Robinson, state climatologist at Rutgers University.

“When you think about it, there are areas that are just precariously above sea level — when you raise it up 6, 10, 12 inches — that’s the difference between having a dry road and a road that’s underwater,” he said.

There were 21 nuisance floods at both Sandy Hook and Atlantic City during the 2014 meteorological year, which runs May 2014 to April 2015.

Other cities have similar problems. Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami Beach installed water pumps to bail out the streets. A Unitarian church in Norfolk, Virginia, posts tide charts on its website, warning parishioners before they park nearby.

“At what point will changes need to occur?” Sweet asked. “That the impacts, due to their frequency, will become problematic? That change will wholeheartedly need to begin?”

View trumps risks

The government could buy coastal properties and let the neighborhood revert to wilderness. The state’s Blue Acres program purchases homes in flood-prone areas and tears them down.

“It just gets to a point where it only makes sense to cut the losses and change the way the land is being used,” said Robinson, the state climatologist.

“We haven’t faced that at the coast yet because of the real estate value and people’s attraction to the coast is so keen,” he said.

Local residents have learned to live with the mud. Jeff Gamble, a real estate manager who works around southern Ocean County, speculated the hassle might keep some people away and maintain the neighborhood’s character.

“It has that fisherman’s village feel to it,” he said. “And yet you’re five minutes from the beaches and quick access to the bay.”

Mallard Island remains a place where someone can have a waterfront home at a bargain rate – a house worth $150,000 on Mallard Island could cost up to three times as much on Long Beach Island, according to Gamble.

Gamble attributed the discounted prices to mainland location as opposed to tidal floods – it’s less popular to be on the other side of the causeway from the beach.

O’Neill watches the water from her third-story deck.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “We have a wonderful view. There’s nothing between my house and Barnegat Light but marshlands and water. It’s quiet and peaceful. We have good neighbors.”

She and her husband catch blue crab and snapper bluefish off their dock.

“We just like it here and would hate to have to move,” she said.

Leonard used to be excited to feel the northeast wind, it added to the seashore ambiance. Now it makes him worry he might have to move his car to higher ground.

“I think Mallard Island, it might be underwater sometime,” he said. “We’ll ride in on Jet Skis or something.”

At dusk, he stood outside his house and pointed to one of the island’s signature drains that reverse at high tide. He swatted away mosquitoes and looked to the horizon.

“But look at that sunset,” he said. “Look at them skies.”