CREDIT: Highlands, New Jersey.
After being smacked by Hurricane Sandy, the seaside town of Highlands, New Jersey is considering a dramatic solution to the problem of future floods: raise the entire downtown area at least 10 feet.
The working-class community of roughly 5,000 sits at the tip of a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic just southeast of Staten Island. Belying its name, the downtown area of Highlands is at or below sea level, squeezed into a small sliver between the peninsula’s northern shore and the hills in its center. When Hurricane Sandy arrived, the eastern half of the town flooded with about ten feet of water, destroying or badly damaging 1,250 homes and businesses. And for the moment, Highlands remains painfully vulnerable to further flooding.
City officials estimate the cost of elevating the town 8 to 11 feet would range from $150 to $200 million — in comparison to the $574 million the real estate is valued at post-Sandy, according to assessment records. Stephen Szulecki, head of the municipality’s Environmental Commission, thinks going several feet higher would be worthwhile, given the threat of sea-level rise from climate change. He and Highlands’ Mayor Frank Nolan came up with the project after Szulecki studied a similar project that lifted the town of Galveston, Texas 17 feet in the early 1900s, following a devastating hurricane that killed 6,000 people. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed to consider their plan, among other options, earlier this year. And according to Szulecki, Highlands’ topography also contains the area in well-defined natural boundaries that make the project feasible.
CREDIT: The Atlantic Cities
Highlands’ downtown would be elevated one 500-foot-wide section at a time. After each one is filled in with earth and concrete, a retaining wall would be built at its edge. Every last bit of infrastructure — buildings, roads, lawns, etc. — would be raised, and new utility connections installed along the way. Residents on the portion being raised would be relocated to a temporary camp for about a month. “Your degree of disruption would depend on whether you’re in that swath or near it,” said Szulecki, admitting some property owners might decide to rebuild once their section is complete. “Some bungalows may not be worth lifting.”
Without the federal dollars from the Corps, the plan likely won’t happen. And some officials are skeptical it would be the best use of resources, given how great the need is for assistance in flood preparation all along the East Coast. There are also doubts it would accomplish all that much in the long-run. “It may make them safer for the next few Noreasters,” said Rob Young, who runs the program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “But I’m not convinced it’s going to save them from another Hurricane Sandy.”
Other less costly options include reinforcing old berms and bulkheads and building new ones to protect the downtown area, and $4.4 million that’s already been allocated to provide Highlands with new pumps and a better drainage system. And of course, businesses and homes could raise themselves over time with new beams, ramps, and platforms — though Carla Cefalo-Braswell, president of the Highlands Business Partnership, fears that course would scare away economic activity.
Mayor Nolan, for one, is undaunted. “It’s the only real permanent solution that would release the town from the shackles of flooding and allow it to really flourish,” he said. The Army Corps of Engineers is due to deliver a draft of their study of the options in 2015.