PIECEMEAL PLANNING

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, at the Baltic Avenue canal and floodgates. The city’s flood plans are worrying neighboring Ventnor.

ATLANTIC CITY - It was 1912, a century before Hurricane Sandy, and Atlantic City was engineering a brash future, both as a place that could tame floodwaters and a coastal town that could be something vaster.

"TEST OF BIG RAIN SHOWS DRAINAGE CANAL WILL WORK," the headline trumpeted. And it did, for decades. The city flourished.

Fast-forward a century, to Oct. 29, 2012, with old marvels like that Baltic Avenue Canal long dormant, chronic flooding a way of life. Atlantic City, like other Jersey Shore towns, was caught looking.

Now, three years after Sandy swamped, crushed, and traumatized towns along coastal New Jersey, what has changed?

If you went to the inlet end of Atlantic City during the nor'easter this month, you might think - incorrectly - not much. Again, sea waters flooded unimpeded, wooden debris spewed a block away. Again, residents like Alicia Casado, 55, peered out at rising waters and thought, "Am I protected?"

The truth is, infrastructure resiliency projects that languished unfunded and back-burnered for decades pre-Sandy, are now starting to be built. Many are years, and lengthy feasibility studies, away.

In Atlantic City, projects finally underway are the $6.4 million re-engineering of the underground Baltic Canal and floodgates, a $32.5 million inlet sea wall and an $8.8 million bulkhead project for flood-prone Chelsea Heights.

In Monmouth County, a $200 million state project will begin in 2016 to protect Union Beach with walls, levees and pumps.

But along much of the coast, solutions to basic resiliency issues are still years in the future.

The Christie administration pushes its vast dune beach project (an Army Corps of Engineers shore protection plan for the 127-mile coast), but the more thorny problem of the back bays is being dealt with town by town, even resident by resident.

Bill Dixon, coastal engineering chief with the Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has begun a study.

"Replacing every bulkhead in the state to a flood elevation, you'd have to configure a wall of the same elevation to make it a flood-control project," he said. "These cost exponentially more money than a beach-fill project."

Thousands of residents have either elevated, or are elevating, their homes. Once indifferent coastal towns are sending building officials to school to become flood plain managers.

But there remains a difficult truth about New Jersey: The nitty gritty of resilience planning and preparedness, ordinances and building codes, emergency management, falls mostly to municipalities.

And there are 565 of them in New Jersey - big, small, and tiny, some well-trained, some seat-of-the-pants, some farsighted, others waking up.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin acknowledged as much this month when he traveled to Atlantic City to launch the seawall project.

"In truth, it is all over the board," he said. "Some cities and towns are better prepared than others. It's up to municipalities to have to come forward."

Much to learn

Inside those borough halls, Sandy taught rank-and-file responders - code officials, deputy emergency managers, recycling heads turned preparedness specialists - much had to be learned.

"We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," Nick Fabiano, Matawan construction official told a full house at the N.J. Association for Floodplain Management conference at Bally's last week, in a talk called "Superstorm Sandy Municipal Failures and Administrative Disconnects."

"We showed up boots on the ground," he said. "We felt like first responders." He recalled people advising residents to pump out flooded basements, then seeing "secondary collapses" result.

They are only now getting up to speed, in some cases still untangling issues like sheltering. Nonprofits like New Jersey Future and the Jacque Cousteau Research Reserve send planners, but money for that help is drying up.

Jim Rutala, a grant writer and planner, has been a weapon for towns including Atlantic City and Ventnor, navigating post-Sandy pots of money from an alphabet of federal and state sources (EDA, EPA, HUD, CDBG, DEP, FEMA, EIT).

Monmouth County created a system to marry emergency planning with the work of code officials.

Towns such as Lower Township and West Wildwood are trying to get into the Community Rating System of the National Flood Insurance Program. The CRS gives a range of insurance discounts to residents of towns that meet resiliency goals.

Bayfront mainland towns including Absecon, Pleasantville, and Linwood enrolled after Sandy. Savvy towns such as Avalon, Longport, Brigantine, Margate, and Sea Isle have long participated, all with "5" ratings and 25 percent discounts for their (mostly affluent) homeowners.

In the middle is a town like Ventnor, with a new flood-plain manager, Dino Cavalieri, help from nonprofit resiliency groups, who have stressed sea level rise, and now with a 7 rating (15 percent off).

Many advocates say the Christie administration has backed away from sea-level rise as a guide for resiliency. Sea rise is mentioned in state documents, but not as a predictable planning guideline. Scientists at Rutgers University predict that sea levels at the Shore will rise about a foot by 2030, 11/2 to 2 feet by 2050, greatly increasing inundation from floods.

"It remains a difficult topic for local officials to wrestle with," said David Kutner, of New Jersey Future. "New Jersey isn't giving anyone any guidance."

At the municipal level, it's not a hard sell, and not only because bond raters now look at sea level rise.

"You see it all over. Places that didn't used to flood are flooding," said Cavalieri, who urged Ventnor to adopt higher than the state-set minimum elevation, and lower thresholds for a home to be declared substantially damaged (50 to 40 percent).

Ocean City engineer Arthur Chew pushed for stricter codes for years that were adopted only after Sandy. Ocean City homeowners pays more in flood insurance than any town in the state, he said.

"It was those sorts of things the storm brought to light," he said. Ocean City is building pumping stations and raised streets near 10th and Haven. (A neighbor no longer needs waders to go home at high tide, clinging to porches.)

In Sea Isle, construction official Cornelius Byrne issued 190 summonses non-compliant homeowners, pre-Sandy. Cape May County is raising the Sea Isle Causeway by 4.5 feet.

"It cost political capital and will to implement what's needed," he said. "Citizens get it after Sandy. I don't hear complaints from those people now." A speaker at the flood-plain conference advised electing mayors who live in a town's flood zone.

Heightened fear

But newly resilient homes have led to worries that those in elevated houses won't evacuate, believing themselves (and not just their homes) safe.

The state says 1,430 elevations have been completed with grants, with 4,880 in progress. Lisa Ryan, of the Department of Community Affairs, says rebuilding grants are signed with 7,600 of 8,000 homeowners. Of these, 1,800 have completed construction.

In flattened towns such as Ortley Beach - famously labeled "Ground Zero, Forever Changed" on a sign just taken down from its perch on Route 35 - the rebuilding has left locals feeling their hometowns have, in fact, changed forever.

Terri Cerillo, 75, bought on Second Avenue for $23,500 in 1972. She rebuilt inside after chest-high flooding during Sandy, but did not raised her bungalow. The house is now under contract to sell for $329,000 - in part because Cerillo us now surrounded by modern three-story houses that block sea breezes. Neighbors now peer down at her. It's unrecognizable. "I'm not happy here," she said. "Everything was bungalows. It was the Jersey Shore. Now it's the city."

A block away, the erratic state of Sandy rebuilding can be seen in one block of Fielder Avenue. Dolores Franco, 84, says she feels secure in a house built to recent standards, while next door, a vacant bungalow is still down to studs, marked uninhabitable. Across the street, the big homes built post-Sandy that now define Ortley and other towns - McBungalows - glisten.

Canal recovery

Mayor Don Guardian, in a bow tie, and his planning director, Elizabeth Terenik, in heels, paid a visit recently to Georgia Avenue at Atlantis, where the ruins of the Baltic Avenue canal will be resurrected.

"It's exciting that something that's been in place since 1913 can still work for us," Terenik said, standing by cracked concrete and giant screws for gates once manned by one guy at Georgia Avenue, another guy at Rhode Island.

The 9,600-foot canal runs under Baltic Avenue. During high tides, the gates close to keep tidal waters out of the city. Pump chambers can evacuate excess stormwater. The canal can be kept empty for use during storms. Guardian says it should eliminate two-thirds of chronic flooding in city back bay neighborhoods.

Atlantic City also hopes to raise West End Avenue, a coastal evacuation route that routinely floods and gets shut down. A couple of times a year, people in Ventnor Heights can find both their exit routes closed off by flooding - Dorset Avenue across the bridge, and West End to the Black Horse Pike.

But in true Jersey fashion, Atlantic City's plans have adjacent Ventnor, without similar funding, worried it will be the recipient of their neighbor's flood water. "Building a bulkhead, raising the road, where's that extra water going to go?" said Ventnor's Cavalieri. "They probably need a little more study on that."

arosenberg@phillynews.com

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@amysrosenberg

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