Up and down the Jersey shore, residents are demolishing homes and starting to re-build after damage done by Superstorm Sandy.
But some environmental groups are urging officials to rebuild smarter, and in some cases, not rebuild at all.
The hum of clean-up
Ortley Beach, just south of Seaside Heights, was one of the towns hit hardest by Sandy. Now, the sounds of rebuilding fill the air during a typically quiet season: the hum of heavy truck traffic, buzz of circular saws and drone of industrial-sized heaters drying out soaked homes all crowd the air.
On a recent morning, a few blocks from the ocean, a residential street crawled with contractors and a handful of residents stripping their homes who all planned to fix up their homes and stick around.
“We love it down here, why would we move?” asked homeowner Pete Strumolo. “We’re a couple of blocks from the beach. Been here as kids together. Nobody’s going to move.”
Sandy seen as an opportunity
Mark Mauriello, former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the push for normalcy after a trauma like Sandy is understandable. But it might also be short-sighted.
“When you have such devastation, it does provide an opportunity to think a little bit about ‘Does it make sense to put everything back where it was?'” Mauriello said.
Mauriello has joined a host of environmental groups urging the state to think more strategically about how, and where, to rebuild. Some were talking about this even before Sandy, in light of climate scientist’s projections of rising sea levels.
“In many cases, it’s much more cost-effective to acquire a property, relocate the structure and never have it be damaged again than it is to just fix it up and have it damaged over and over again,” Mauriello said.
Mauriello is not suggesting people be kicked out of their shore homes. Rather, that the state should consider buying up the land of people who want out after Sandy. People like Janeen Fortunato. Her four-room Ortley Beach bungalow stands a block from the ocean.
“It was like a bath in here,” Fortunato said, standing in her living room on a recent morning. “Water’s up to the ceiling….the back wall was blown out from the force of the water.”
There are still four inches of sand on the floor, and Fortunato’s refrigerator is lying on its side in the living room, spilling bags of frozen vegetables. She said she hopes to knock down the house, one of the last original bungalows on her block, and sell the property.
“I don’t think that I can afford to rebuild,” she said.
Environmental advocates say buying up land like Fortunato’s would make room for bigger dunes, or provide more space for marshes, which absorb flood waters and can project adjacent properties.
“Along the New Jersey coat we’ve lost nearly 50 percent of the wetlands that were there historically,” said Tim Dillingham, of the American Littoral Society. “By putting them back in, we are giving ourselves one more line of defense from the waves and storms that are inevitably going to come back to the coast.”
Significant hurdles to implementation
On the ground level, however, the conversation about public land acquisition doesn’t seem to be happening.
“I haven’t head anything like that, from what I’ve seen of the governor on TV, the message is to rebuild,” said Toms River township engineer Robert Chankalian.
Chankalian said he has two issues with the idea. The first is cost: who would pay for all that beachfront property? And second, if homes on the barrier islands don’t take the beating from storms, Chankalian argues others farther inland may end up doing so instead.
“If every house was gone from (the barrier island), there might not even be a dune there, so then you might see wave action more frequently coming across that barrier island,” Chankalian said. “Now you’ve put in jeopardy all the houses that are on the back bays.”
The New Jersey program Blue Acres was created more than a decade ago to allow towns to buy up flood-prone land for buffer zones or to prevent future damage. But the program is out of money, and there is nothing currently budgeted for post-Sandy buyouts.
A New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said he expects a variety of rebuilding strategies will be discussed this year, and it is premature to guess where public acquisition of private land might be on that list.