After decades of waiting floodwalls, levees and berms to be built in Union Beach, NJ

 Army Corps of Engineers diagram of flood-control measures to be used in Union Beach.

Army Corps of Engineers diagram of flood-control measures to be used in Union Beach.

Flooding is hardly a new problem in Union Beach, where water from the Raritan Bay and the nearby marshlands streams into parts of the town whenever there’s a full moon and a high tide.

And over the past 20 years, officials on both the state and the federal level have conducted studies and promised to do something to address the problems – but, while plans were made, funding has never been available.

After storm surges from Sandy destroyed hundreds of homes in the municipality, leaving a field of tornado-like wreckage in the storm’s wake, calls for action from homeowners became even more desperate.

“People are raising their homes, and the town is coming back, but as far as flood prevention, we haven’t received a dime,” said a Union Beach resident who called in to Gov. Chris Christie’s “Ask the Governor” radio show last month. “Nobody wants to tell me when it’s going to start, if it’s going to start, if we’re going to get any money. Cause we need flood gates and everything!”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Christie assured the caller that both his administration and the Army Corps of Engineers were considering possible solutions.

Ambitious construction plan

Yesterday, Christie followed through on that pledge, announcing a $202 million construction plan that he said “will finally give this close-knit community the protection they need and the sense of security they deserve to withstand future storms.”

The project — to be funded with federal, state and local money – calls for building a beach berm and dune system along the bayfront, constructing earthen levees and floodwalls along the outer perimeter of the borough, and installing tide gates and pump stations. Twenty-five acres of wetlands would be restored to serve as a natural buffer, and beaches would be rebuilt with jetty-like structures to slow erosion.

“This is probably the greatest news this town has ever received, cause this is something we need!” said Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith, Jr., reached by phone yesterday afternoon. “We’re an accident waiting to happen. We’re just like a funnel waiting for devastation. It’s not good.”

“I think this is also going to bring a lot of people back home once it’s done, cause a lot of folks are scared,” he added. “I mean, Sandy was scary!”

As Christie himself noted on the radio show, however, a project of this scope and size will not be done overnight. The final design and evaluation processes have yet to be completed, and after easements are filed, paperwork is completed and final plans are approved, the first bid to even start construction won’t be awarded until late next year.

And, if all goes according to schedule, the entire project won’t be completed until 2020.

Calls for broader approach

Environmentalists like NY/NJ Baykeeper Executive Director Debbie Mans worry that the Army Corps’ piecemeal approach — focusing on a solution just for Union Beach — might not be the best way to address the problem.

“You need to look holistically at what you’re doing,” she said, calling for a more comprehensive approach.

The plan, she noted, calls for floodwalls and levees.

“But that’s on creeks right adjacent to Keyport,” she said. “And so what does that mean for Keyport if you’re going to push the water out of Union Beach? We understand we need flood mitigation in the area. We totally understand that. But if you do it here and you don’t do it elsewhere, what does that mean for the other communities?”

So how much of a difference will this project make for Union Beach in the face of future storms?

“There’s always a risk, no matter what you build,” Mans said, noting many of the final details of the plan have yet to be made public.

“You have to go back and look and say, ‘What’s the height of the walls? And what was the height of the storm surge? And what are we predicting? And is this accounting for sea level rise? Cause you could be making Union Beach into a giant bathtub,” Mans said. “You know, it’s important that we’re protecting our community, but you want to make sure you’re not making the problem worse.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal