When Superstorm Sandy’s heavy rains and unprecedented storm surge swept across low-lying Hoboken, New Jersey, on October 29, 2012, the streets—in the words of Hoboken’s Mayor Dawn Zimmer—filled up with water “like a bathtub." The storm caused more than $100 million in damage.
As an urban coastal community just across the Hudson River from New York City, Hoboken had a long history of flooding and of misguided property development.
However, the destruction produced by Sandy's record 14-foot storm tide was unlike anything the city had seen before, and the impact was exacerbated by the social vulnerabilities of Hoboken's population.
In the aftermath, city leaders finally recognized that action was needed. Strong political leadership, careful consideration of the science, and evidence-based decisions are making a difference in Hoboken's post-Sandy rebuilding. However, sustained leadership and community commitment will be needed to overcome the city's long history of sidelining science.
The Risks of Ignoring Science
Long before Sandy, Hoboken's leaders made decisions that increased its existing exposure to flood risks:
- During the mid-1800s, city leaders chose to drain and develop a tidal marsh on the western side of town. Many structures built during this era remain in use and incurred significant flood damage from Sandy.
- More recently, old docks and marinas along Hoboken's riverfront were turned into parks, walkways, and roads. Developers and politicians ignored the warnings of scientists and engineers about the risks of building on top of existing, aging infrastructure.
- Even after Sandy, bills passed by the New Jersey legislature, but fortunately vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, would have permitted development that would jeopardize property and lives in the event of a Sandy-like storm.
Hoboken's Exposure to Extreme Weather Events
Sea level rise from climate change now exacerbates the city’s longstanding problems with flooding by creating a higher launching pad for water to enter the city from high tides and storm surge.
Unlike more sparsely populated beachfront communities along the Jersey Shore, Hoboken has a dense population and a high concentration of buildings and infrastructure, exposing more people and more property to storm damage.
- Fifty-three percent of Hoboken's population—including 57 percent of residents of color and 62 percent of African American residents—live in areas of the city below five feet above average sea level, placing them at the highest flood risk (see map, right).
- One hundred percent of Hoboken's fire and EMS stations, hospitals, libraries, community centers, rail and ferry stations, sweage plants, and major hazardous waste sites are also located below five feet.
Sandy's Impact: A Turning Point
Damage to Hoboken was massive not only because Sandy was an unprecedented storm but because effective, science-based planning and preparedness measures had never been established. As a result, Hoboken damages were estimated at well above $100 million to private property, $100s of millions to the transit system, and $10 million to city property.
Businesses also suffered. More than a month after the storm, many local businesses were reporting up to a 60 percent drop in revenue. Even businesses not directly affected by flooding were hurt by transportation disruptions, including the closure of the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) station connecting Hoboken to New York City.
Many flooded property owners in Hoboken found themselves high and dry when it came to financial recovery. In her December 2012 testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Mayor Zimmer described “an insurance gauntlet” Hoboken faced “because the National Flood Insurance Program is not designed to meet the needs of the built urban environment.”
After Sandy: A Proactive Approach to Science-Based Policy
In August 2013, Mayor Zimmer released the Hoboken Resiliency and Readiness Plan.
Flood mitigation and stormwater management are crucial science-based components of the mayor's plan. This includes installation of “wet weather” pumps—an action the city had been delaying for years—as well as rain gardens and conversion of land to parks and open space with water retention facilities incorporated into the design.
Other elements of the mayor’s plan address energy resiliency, shoreline protection, critical facilities and infrastructure, emergency notification, public information access, building codes, and a local task force.
Hoboken’s recovery efforts and plans for resilience are not without caveats. The worst effects from sea level rise are not projected to occur for several more decades, and subsequent city leaders will need to sustain the efforts Mayor Zimmer has begun.
Rebuilding and planning for the extreme weather effects exacerbated by climate change will need to be inclusive of all Hoboken residents, including the most vulnerable. Political resolve in the city will be needed to resist overzealous waterfront developers. And policy makers at the state and federal levels must continue to support local preparedness and resilience efforts in communities like Hoboken.
Caveats aside, a year and counting after Superstorm Sandy, Hoboken is better prepared to respond to sea level rise in terms of local planning, leadership, community engagement, multilevel government policy coordination, and action. Mayor Zimmer’s proactive approach to science-based policy following Superstorm Sandy serves as a model for other leaders in coastal communities throughout the country, as they, too, contend with rising threats from climate change.
Before Sandy: Unsustainable Waterfront Development Costs the City Millions
- Scientists and engineers warn city officials that conditions for proposed waterfront development are poor.
- Development of the waterfront, including Sinatra Drive, moves forward despite warnings.
- First collapse of the newly built Sinatra Drive.
- Second collapse of Sinatra Drive.
- Criminal indictments linked to waterfront development bribery scandal involving nearly $9 million.
- Castle Point Park Walkway collapses.
- Frank Sinatra Walkway collapses.
- Newly elected Mayor Zimmer begins a turnaround towards more science-based policy by appointing a new City engineer not linked to bribery scandal.
- Hurricane Irene floods Hoboken. The city responds by ongoing assessment of whether to build more “wet weather” pumps.
After Sandy: Science-Informed Policies Are Adopted
- October 2012
- Sandy’s record 14-foot storm tide causes unprecedented flooding and damage.
- December 2012
- President Obama establishes the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Mayor Zimmer is appointed to the Task Force Advisory Group.
- June 2013
- President Obama releases his Climate Action Plan.
- August 2013
- Governor Christie vetoes proposed New Jersey legislation to allow risky development on Hoboken’s piers.
- August 2013
- Mayor Zimmer releases the Hoboken Resiliency and Recovery Plan.