Weaker than the storms

3 x 2 sunken NJ shore house
A house washed into a back bay in Cape May County during a nor'easter in October.

New Jersey's storm protection planning is neglecting a major facet of the problem, promising residents all the shelter of a house with a missing wall.

The state is rightly suing to seize property from holdouts along the Atlantic Ocean so it can complete a line of defensive dunes. But officials are barely addressing the threat of storm surges in the back bays.

A plan to fortify bay shores is expected, but it's not even in the preliminary stages. The state Department of Environmental Protection says it will work with the Army Corps of Engineers on a flood risk management study - next year. Beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much of a timetable.

That's too bad because winter storms won't wait, and they may be wetter than usual this year because of the influence of El Niño. That could mean more bay waters breaching causeways and bulkheads, flooding streets and damaging property.

It's been three years since Hurricane Sandy showed how rising sea levels can worsen coastal storm impacts, so it's baffling that New Jersey has not yet developed a comprehensive plan for coastal counties and towns.

A March report by the Army Corps noted that while oceanside dunes will likely help, "concerns should instead be focused on back bay flooding. Storm surge barriers are unlikely to be viable given the expected future frequency of flooding." The corps recommended raising quay walls, bulkheads, and homes as well as installing flaps on drain pipes.

Such measures would be most effective within the context of a comprehensive statewide plan. Incredibly, though, Trenton has left towns to their own devices. The results are predictably inconsistent.

Atlantic City is building a seawall stretching to a back bay area and reviving an underground canal to catch and control storm water. But that won't help as much as it could unless the neighboring town of Ventnor has an equally effective strategy. A gap in the defenses will allow water to find its way into both communities.

One little-discussed impediment is cost. Even if the state were considering raising all the bulkheads on the back bays, it would cost more than the beach fill projects on the ocean side. And because so many of the bay barriers are on private properties, it's hard to determine how much of the cost of strengthening them should be borne by the government.

These and many more questions need to be answered. The corps and the state should fast-track the planning process for the back bays and get to work fixing this weak link.