Ten years after Sandy, Hoboken offers lessons in storm resilience

City officials say massive project will help it withstand future catastrophes

By: - Friday October 28, 2022 7:55 am

Ten years after Sandy, Hoboken offers lessons in storm resilience

City officials say massive project will help it withstand future catastrophes

By: - 7:55 am

Hoboken experienced widespread damage when Hurricane Sandy struck the region on October 29, 2012. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

Hoboken experienced widespread damage when Hurricane Sandy struck the region on October 29, 2012. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

Walking through the streets of Hoboken on a brisk October day, Mayor Ravi Bhalla recalled how Hurricane Sandy’s 14-foot storm surge left much of Mile Square City under water.

A flooded train station, leaving PATH trains out of commission for over a week. Piles of debris taller than people on the sidewalks. Kayakers rowing through alleyways.

The storm battered Hoboken, causing more than $100 million in private property damage and $10 million in public property damage. The topography of the city caused it to fill like a bathtub, with water sitting in Hoboken’s southwest area for days.

Mayor Ravi Bhalla was a councilman when Hurricane Sandy brought widespread flooding and property destruction to Hoboken ten years ago. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

“Ten years later, we’re back on our feet, stronger than we’ve ever been before,” Bhalla said. “But we’re trying to be more innovative in the way we think about how to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and one of those ways … is through breaking the cycle of destruction and rebuilding, destruction and rebuilding.”

Lessons learned from the Oct. 29, 2012, storm led to a massive citywide response: building parks with underground tanks that store up to 1 million gallons of water, elevating generators to avoid citywide power outages, and conceiving a flood wall snaking through the city, protecting it from future storm surges.

It’s all a part of Rebuild by Design, a multi-phase project aimed at addressing extreme flooding and rising sea levels attributed to worsening climate change. The city won a contest for funding for the project in 2014, and finally broke ground last year. The project, which also includes flood-prone areas in Weehawken and Jersey City, is expected to be completed by 2025.

HUD awarded Hoboken $230 million for the project, and the state budget signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in June included another $100 million.

So far, Bhalla said, Rebuild by Design is working, pointing to Hurricane Ida last year. While it was a storm with different circumstances — heavy rainfall in a short period of time but no storm surge — there was much less flooding, and everyone’s power was returned within 24 hours, he said.

“Flooding is not going to be eliminated in Hoboken altogether,” said Bhalla. “But what we’re trying to do is make sure that we stay resilient and we can manage the city in a manner where property is not damaged, people can live, and the effects of flooding are as little as possible.”

Caleb Stratton, the city’s chief resilience officer, said Hoboken is “already breaking the cycle of rebuilding by reducing flood risk.”

Nick Angarone, chief resiliency officer for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement that the most important lessons of Sandy recovery have been to work with local leaders and top scientists to implement projects that “will help us to withstand the impacts of the next big storm, and come away better positioned to respond to future climate shocks and stressors.”

In the ten years since Sandy devastated New Jersey — killing 43 residents and leaving millions without power for days — weather events have only become more regular and more catastrophic. Some scientists suggest the city could be underwater by 2100.

While Hoboken officials and climate experts agree upgrades implemented across the city, home to 58,000 residents, will help in the aftermath of some disastrous weather events, the fight for Hoboken to survive against climate change is just beginning.

“Rebuild by Design will definitely solve problems — but we don’t know yet to what extent those problems will be solved because that will depend on how the weather and climate behave in the future,” said Marouane Temimi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Hoboken-based Stevens Institute of Technology.

A resiliency park under construction in Hoboken was designed to prevent the kind of widespread flooding seen after Sandy. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

How Rebuild by Design works

Construction on the second phase of Hoboken’s Rebuild by Design began this year. Stratton said it is the most “critical component” because it incorporates the four fundamentals of the project: resist, delay, store, discharge.

The newest resiliency park, between 11th and 13th streets along Madison Street in the city’s northwest end, will open next spring. Construction workers are laying down pipes that will catch stormwater and transfer it to a basin that will store up to 1 million gallons of water. The park itself will also have structures to hold another 1 million gallons.

The northwest resiliency park will include community areas, an athletic field, restrooms, playgrounds, and a pavilion, and will be lined with trees and gardens.

“We’re building a park, but you wouldn’t even know the park is actually acting as a mechanism for defense against flood water,” he said. “The structure is all underneath. You wouldn’t even know.”

Stratton also pointed to three PSE&G substations that were elevated 15 feet after Sandy to avoid massive power outages. The relocation allows people to rebound quicker, he said, and avoids the severe economic impact Sandy had.

And an 8,800-foot storm barrier called a “resist structure” will be built in parts of Hoboken to protect against storm surges up to 16 feet. The height of the wall will vary depending on the topography of the area, but will be 11 feet high at its tallest.

When the project was announced, residents criticized the flood wall for potentially being an eyesore, ruining their property or blocking their views of Manhattan. While city officials and the state said they would consider altering the plans, the Rebuild by Design moved forward as is.

The project also includes a one-acre park on Jackson Street that has already been built with six pickleball courts, a playground, a basketball court, and rain gardens. It can hold up to 460,000 gallons of stormwater, city officials said.

All of these changes made a difference when Hurricane Ida dropped seven inches of water on the city in just a few hours.

Low-lying Hoboken suffered some flooding, with some drivers needing rescue and 300 properties facing substantial damage. But the city didn’t experience systemwide power outages. Sandy left more than 3,000 properties substantially damaged and some residents without power for two weeks.

“You’re not watching restaurants throw out all their garbage on the street. People aren’t emptying their refrigerators,” Stratton said. “Resiliency for us isn’t just mitigating the risks of climate change, it’s improving the quality of life for our community through these community investments.”

Temimi, the professor from Stevens, said it’s unfair to compare the two hurricanes and argue the aftermath of Ida proves Rebuild by Design is working. Sandy was accompanied by a massive storm surge when it hit at high tide, while Hurricane Ida was an extreme rainfall event, he said.

“The infrastructure, in totality, will definitely mitigate and reduce significantly the effect of events like Ida, but probably not eliminating them because of the severity of an event like that,” he said.

Tanks underneath the city’s resiliency parks will store up to 1 million gallons of water. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

The fight ahead

Climate change has worsened since the Rebuild by Design plans were completed in 2014.

The past decade was the hottest on record, sea level is steadily rising at a faster pace than expected, and extreme weather events like droughts and massive hurricanes fueled by warmer temperatures are becoming deadlier.

As worsening storms batter coastal cities over and over again, some ask, is the war against climate change fruitless? Should we be moving out of cities entirely?

It’s something Bhalla has thought about. He said it’s exactly why Rebuild by Design is being implemented, and it’s why he said he’ll do anything else the city can to stay above water.

“There could be another unique event, but between Superstorm Sandy and the pandemic, we’ve become pretty used to the unknown and to assume the unknown,” he said. “We have a staff that collectively have the wherewithal to know things are unpredictable — especially with climate change — and we’re well-prepared to adapt accordingly and protect residents.”

Other cities are struggling with how to break the cycle of destruction and rebuilding. But Rebuild by Design is a specific project for Hoboken and surrounding areas, which means it can’t just be copied by another town.

Temimi pointed to Hoboken’s unique position as a low-lying urban city, its position as an economic driver due to its proximity to New York, and the density of residents in the square-mile town. Still, he said, there are components that can be copied.

Rain gardens and bio-infrastructure are the easiest ways to reduce the impact of stormwater, he said, but aren’t sufficient to protect against flooding from events like Sandy or Ida. It’s hard to predict what will be sufficient until those weather events come, he said.

“We have to protect ourselves based on the knowledge that we have, then wait to see if the future is guided by the past or not,” he said. “We can tell sea levels will rise and temperatures will rise, but we are never certain until we can verify what we projected.”

Angarone, the state’s chief resiliency officer, said officials are working across New Jersey to address sea-level rise and increased rainfall. He pointed to the state’s Blue Acres program, which has bought out 800 flood-prone properties using $203 million in federal funding since 2013.

And regionally, initiatives like Resilient NJ are working to develop new action plans, currently focusing on 24 municipalities that have sustained more economic damage from recent weather events than the state suffered from Sandy. Resilient NJ also offers a “local planning toolkit” to help municipalities devise strategies and resiliency projects that fit their needs.

Tiffanie Fisher, a Hoboken councilwoman and a Bhalla critic, said Rebuild by Design has been extremely successful at tackling everyday flooding and some extreme weather events. She commended the previous mayor, Dawn Zimmer, for coming up with its framework.

But Fisher argued there are overlooked components. More consistent maintenance of sewer systems would prevent them from getting backed up during bad storms, she said.

Fisher declined to say whether she thinks officials should be moving residents out of areas threatened to be underwater in the next 100 years — not just Hoboken, but places like New York City, Miami, Corpus Christi, and New Orleans.

“I think we’re going to be addressing that for some period of time,” she said. “Scientists used to say sea levels rise an inch every five years, and now it’s like an inch a year. Once we get to a foot a year, then we’re all screwed and everyone’s moving to Montana.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.