Ordinarily, Jessica Nearhoof would love unearthing her sweaters and scarves from the back of her closet, signaling the oncoming blustery weather and an excuse to sit on the couch and drink tea. But this year is different. As she pulls out her sweaters before a crisp, early morning walk with one of the dozens of dogs she helps care for in town, she can’t help but wrinkle her nose at the smell.
“I feel like I’m constantly discovering that things I thought I had gotten clean are still just disgusting,” she said, sighing as she tossed another ruined sweater in a pile destined for the dump. “Especially now that I’m getting things out for the first time since then.”
“Then” was when Superstorm Sandy collided with the East coast almost exactly one year ago. At the time, Jessica was living in a basement apartment in Hoboken, NJ, just a few blocks west of the Hudson, which, on the evening of October 29, suddenly rose up over its banks and came rushing into the low lying city of nearly 50,000 people.
Jessica thought she was prepared. She bought bed risers so that her furniture was up off the floor. All her most valuable belongings were stacked in giant plastic storage bins. And she was going to spend the night at a friend’s fifth floor apartment.
“I got a foot of water in my place during Hurricane Irene the year before,” said Jessica, 33, who has lived in Hoboken for eight years. “I knew Sandy wasn’t something I could blow off.”
In the end, none of her efforts seemed to make much difference. Three days after the storm hit, when she was finally able to get back to her apartment, it looked like a bomb had gone off. The water mark on the walls came up to a foot shy of the ceiling. The whole basement apartment, which had been not only her home but also the office, where she ran her dog walking business and her Etsy store, was completely uninhabitable. It needed to be gutted before the mold took over and damaged the structural integrity of the entire building.
“What I remember most is that my mattress was so completely waterlogged that it took five guys just to drag it out to the curb,” said Jessica. “I thought for sure someone was going to get hurt trying to lift that thing.”
Jessica will also never forget setting up camp in a laundromat, where she and her mom spent 12 hours washing everything she owned with hot water and a toxic mixture of detergent, Pine-Sol and bleach. Only the hardiest of her things survived the cleaning. Most of her possessions — laptop, art supplies, paperwork for her business — were completely unsalvageable from the get-go.
Built on a swamp
What happened to Jessica’s apartment, is in many ways, a microcosm of what happened to all of Hoboken when Sandy came careening in. The people who love the city brag about it being the birthplace of baseball, the hometown of Frank Sinatra and the perfect distance from Manhattan — the best views of the Midtown skyline without the suicidal cab drivers and unearthly-sized subway rats.
But Hoboken residents and city officials are less eager to talk about one annoying detail: Much of the rapidly gentrifying old industrial port city, where apartment prices can rival those found across the Hudson in Manhattan, is built on a swamp.
For Jon Miller, an ocean engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, the fact that the floodwaters essentially made an island out of the city is not at all surprising.
“Historically, the area of land we now call Hoboken was an island.” said Miller. “All those new apartment buildings on the west side of town are built on marshland. Superstorm Sandy just returned the city to its natural state – a thin strip of land between a river and a tidal marshland.”
Even Mayor Dawn Zimmer, always eager to advertise the city’s nightlife, shopping and restaurants, referred to the city as a bathtub in a New York Times’ article in the days following the storm. While reluctant to voice a position on the causes of climate change, calling the issue “politically charged,” she has been resolute as to the need for Hoboken to prepare for rising waters.
New York Harbor, where the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, has risen by 15 inches over the last 150 years and is projected to rise another two to five inches by 2020 and anywhere from 12 to 55 inches by the end of the century, according to the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force.
And because much of Hoboken is at or below sea level, it doesn’t take a freak weather event like Sandy to make a soggy mess out of the city — any average thunderstorm passing through will reliably flood certain unfortunate blocks and close streets to traffic. Hoboken’s aging sewer system only exacerbates the problem — the system quickly becomes overwhelmed with rain water, backs-up and overflows.
Today, most of Hoboken looks the same as before the storm hit. Stores and restaurants are open, the PATH train to Manhattan is up and running again and the mountains of flood-damaged possessions and debris which lined the city streets for weeks have all been cleared away. It hasn’t been cheap or painless. Damage to private property totaled over $100 million, damage to city property cost an additional $10 million and the final price tag for the damage to the PATH system is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But if everything looks the same, does that mean nothing has changed? Is Hoboken, a low-lying city on the banks of a rising river, just as vulnerable as ever to the kinds of extreme weather that is only predicted to increase in frequency and severity as the Earth’s temperature climbs?
The next storm
If Hoboken takes no action to protect itself from climate change, the outlook is grim. The three foot rise in sea level predicted for New York Harbor by the end of the century, and that would mean parts of the city would be routinely flooded at high tide.
“Right now, the walkway in Hoboken along the Hudson is about five feet above the water – more like four at high tide.” explained Dr. Alan Blumberg, director of the Davidson Laboratory and Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens. “But down by the train station and PATH, that’s only about four feet. By 2100, the river and our transit system will be at about the same level and an especially high tide could flood it.”
And then of course, there are events like Sandy. If the Hudson had been three feet higher when the storm hit, the flood waters in Hoboken would have been, too. Jessica’s apartment would have filled to the ceiling with two feet of water to spare.
“When people hear that Sandy was a one in a hundred year storm and that the chance of it happening again is only one percent each year, I like to remind them that that there is only a one percent chance of a woman having twins,” said Blumberg. “Know any twins?”
Juan Melli, Communications Manager for the City of Hoboken says that if a storm like Sandy hit Hoboken today, the city would, in many ways, be just as vulnerable as it was nearly twelve months ago.
“We have definitely made progress in terms of getting people prepared with emergency supplies should another storm come through, and we now have a huge team of emergency volunteers assembled,” said Melli. “But other than that the only real, concrete improvements we’ve made have been to get a $9 million loan to build a second flood pump to help the town dry out a little bit faster and purchase an emergency high-water vehicle so our residents won’t get stranded.”
That said, Melli is quick to draw attention to all the grants Hoboken has applied for and won to help the city become more resilient to the threats posed by climate change.
“We’re not like places along the Jersey shore,” said Melli. “We can’t just raise whole city blocks up nine or ten feet, which is what FEMA thinks we should do. We have to come up with other solutions that work in an extremely dense city.”
A bathtub, or a sponge?
Perhaps the most ambitious plan is a proposed network of parks on the west side of Hoboken. This area was the hardest hit by the storm, when water flowed from the Hudson through the city and settled in these streets — the lowest point of town. Residents who lived on the west side of town were literally stranded in their apartments for days, trapped by floodwaters that stubbornly refused to recede. In the end, it took the National Guard to get west side residents out of their their cold, dark soggy homes.
Mayor Zimmer’s office is working to acquire eight acres of land in that same area. Just this month, she acquired a one-acre plot, in the southwest corner of the city through a hotly contested process of eminent domain. The acre is currently a crowded parking lot, but the city is partnering with New York City-based landscape architect firm Starr Whitehouse to transform the impermeable asphalt block into essentially a giant green sponge that could soak up floodwater and store it underground in a simple detention basin system. Hoboken is currently 80 percent impervious, meaning, right now, there’s nowhere for that floodwater to go.
The city is also constructing several demonstration curb extension projects which will serve as rain gardens to help keep water out of the combined sewer system. Currently, the two sites under construction just look like someone poured gravel around the curb, but the rain gardens are said to be on schedule and should be completed this fall.
CREDIT: Hoboken City Hall
“Clearly, two curbs with rain gardens are not going to save us from a flood,” said Melli. “But if they go over well we would definitely hope to build more, especially since they serve the dual purpose of prohibiting illegal parking right at the end of the block!”
Hoboken City Hall is also about to go under a major makeover to demonstrate how buildings can help mitigate flooding. The drainpipes on the back of City Hall will be connected to a cistern — basically a giant rain barrel — and the drainpipes on the front and sides of the building will, instead of shooting rainwater directly into the sewer system underground, flow into rain gardens on the lawn. There aren’t any current plans to plant a green roof on top of city hall, but the City Council is working toward mandating that all new construction in redevelopment areas in the city limits incorporate green space on their roofs to prevent that much more water from flooding the sewer system.
Where the water goes
While green infrastructure will help Hoboken perform a little bit less like a bathtub and a little bit more like a sponge, experts agree that on its own, it won’t be nearly enough.
“Even if every curb had a rain garden and every building had a green roof and a rain barrel and every inch of undeveloped land was converted to green space, a Superstorm Sandy would still be incredibly destructive,” said Blumberg.
Many engineers like Blumberg and the Mayor’s office, believe that Hoboken needs some kind of floodwall if the city is to stand a chance of weathering climate change.
CREDIT: Stevens Institute of Technology
“The Hudson River came into town at two distinct points,” explained Blumberg who has built a high-resolution model which shows block by block how Hoboken flooded last fall. “The city’s most vulnerable points are at the north and south end of town on the waterfront.”
Hoboken, along with Manhattan and Jersey City has been selected as a target sites for the HUD/Rockefeller Foundation-funded “Rebuild by Design” competition. The competition is soliciting flood-proofing designs for the area from ten finalist teams, who will present their concepts later this month. Designs include everything from creating a barrier all the way from Sandy Hook to the Rockaways to keep storm surge out of the New York Harbor altogether– a massively complex and expensive undertaking — to very targeted flood barriers at specific points in the north and south of Hoboken that would be almost invisible until a storm surge prompted them to automatically deploy.
While it sounds straightforward, building a floodwall would not only be extremely expensive, but also politically tricky.
“Water that doesn’t end up in Hoboken, has to go somewhere,” said Blumberg. “Hoboken would not be very popular if its floodwalls worsened flooding in the cities to the north and south. If one city decides to do this, it might mean that other cities will also need to build floodwalls. You definitely don’t want to be the one town on the Hudson that didn’t build a storm surge barrier.”
Hoboken has applied for $44 million in Flood Hazard Mitigation Funds from FEMA to build its flood walls, but, Melli at City Hall says that, realistically, Hoboken will probably only receive a small fraction of that. Just where the rest of the funds would come from is uncertain.
Three hundred fifty days post-Sandy, Jessica still hasn’t been able to move back into what she once considered her cozy basement home, where she could paint and sing along to her music as loudly as she wanted without anyone ever complaining. After four months of subletting an apartment on the top floor of a building a few blocks north, where the rent was double what she paid for her basement, Jessica now lives with a roommate on the first floor of her old building.
“I think a lot of people are surprised that I stayed,” said Jessica. “Sometimes I’m surprised. There were a couple of weeks when I was seriously considering cutting my losses and moving somewhere completely different. But it took me eight years to build the relationships I have with my clients here in Hoboken and this is where all my friends are.”
For those people who are surprised that she would move back to a flood-prone street, Jessica explained that it’s a more complicated equation.
“I don’t make the kind of income that most people in Hoboken do,” explained Jessica. “My building is one of the few rent controlled options in the city. Those few months after Sandy when I had to sublet another place, showed me pretty clearly that I just can’t afford to live other places around here. And yes, I know, Sandy could happen again, but I don’t think it will. I think Hoboken will probably always flood a bit, but Sandy was a freak coincidence of so many factors, when I do the math and look at the chance of another Sandy, versus the chances of me being able to build my business in another city or find another rent-controlled building in Hoboken, I’ll take my chances with the weather.”