Promoting Regional Resilience

Today, RPA's Director of Environment and Energy Programs Rob Fruedenberg testified before the New Jersey Legislative Oversight Committee on the challenge that climate change poses for the New York metropolitan area and three key actions federal, state and local actors can take to protect communities from flooding, storm surge and sea level rise and promote a more resilient region. See his full testimony below. 

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Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts about the effects of flooding and sea level rise in New Jersey and the greater region. My name is Robert Freudenberg and I’m the Director for Energy & Environment at Regional Plan Association, an independent, non-profit research organization that plans for the long-range, sustainable development and economic competitiveness of the tri-state metropolitan region. One of the greatest challenges we face is climate change and its devastating effects on our communities. Rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, coastal and riverine flooding and extreme cold and heat are no longer things we brace for at some far off date. They are here now and hurting many of our residents far too often, too many of whom are poorly equipped to respond.

Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy were disturbing wakeup calls about just how underprepared our region is to handle the damaging flooding, storm surge and wave impacts of coastal storms. In their aftermath, ‘resilience’ has become a much-used – but important – term throughout our region.

The metropolitan region has developed in places and in ways that have put our residents and critical infrastructure at significant risk from storms and flooding, made increasingly worse by sea level rise.

Today, approximately one million of our region’s 23 million residents live within an area that is likely to face significant flooding into the future. By 2050, that number will double to more than million due to sea level rise and higher storm surges. Over 1/3 of that population is considered socially vulnerable. This future flood zone also will contain 59% of our region’s power-generating capacity, 45% of our wastewater treatment plants, 13% of our rail and subway stations and 21% of New York City’s public housing.

There is no consistent and comprehensive set of guidelines to improve development/redevelopment practices in flood-prone areas in ways that reduce risk and social vulnerability.

Despite the many actions around resilience in our region, there has been very little consistency in approaches, meaning some communities are well ahead of the curve in preparing for a future with more flooding, while many others remain very vulnerable.

Federal tax dollars as well as federal, state and local planning continue to encourage development and rebuilding in areas at risk to climate impacts.

Whether it’s artificially low premiums on NFIP insurance, FEMA mapping that doesn’t take into account sea level rise or local development plans and zoning that don’t factor in flooding hazards, our policies continue to put residents at risk for the foreseeable future.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO:

  1. Regionalize resilience
    The three states and municipalities of our region face similar threats from flooding resulting from storm surge, sea level rise and increased precipitation. We can no longer take a community-by-community approach that depends on recovery dollars from the federal government after each disaster. Instead, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut should form a Regional Flooding Hazards Reduction Program – modeled after the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program - to develop, disseminate and promote knowledge, tools and practices for flood risk reduction. At a minimum, each state should have a coordinated program that focuses specifically on the effects of climate change, adaptation and other resilience measures. 
  2. Move from a protection mentality to one of adaptation
    At all levels, we need to change our mindset from one of protecting against flooding and other climate impacts to one of adaptation. This means considering all options for adaptation from innovatively redesigning all of our waterfront communities - beyond federal minimums - to welcoming the concept of living with water. It also means taking the steps now to limit development in the most at-risk areas and working toward a future where some communities will return sections of town to nature through improved and comprehensive buyout programs. This shift will require public education, changes to state and local programs, policies and zoning codes, and a reshuffling of budgets to invest more in adaptation and less in traditional protection measures.
  3. Recognize that federal dollars will never be enough
    Even if New Jersey had received its full funding request from the NDRC program, it would still not have been nearly enough to complete the project in the Meadowlands, let alone make all of New Jersey’s at risk communities resilient. Federal funds will continue to play an important role in moving toward resilience, but we must find ways to better engage the private sector, including private insurers, in funding adaptation our region. Funding adaptation offers a tremendous opportunity for returns on investments.

Several years have passed since Sandy and Irene struck our region. These terrible storms launched an important conversation about resilience and resulted in measures being taken across the region. But there is much more to be done. We welcome this conversation in New Jersey and encourage more action to be taken to protect and enhance our communities and way of life.