“Recovering together” naturally: the case for natural flood protection in South Jersey’s coastal zones

IMG_4462
[LOOKING ACROSS JETTY AND ABSECON INLET AT ATLANTIC CITY]

Over at Design Observer, the preeminent geographer of New Orleans, Richard Campanella makes a strong plea for a balancing of the nation’s “sediment budget”, an inequality that some of our Jersey shore communities feel most acutely in the wake of Sandy.  As Campanella has pointed out, the anthropogenic changes to our coasts and waterways have laid the foundation for the unprecedented economic growth of the nation:

“We routed water from wet to dry places via aqueducts, canals, pipelines and reservoirs, to be used for hydroelectricity, irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes, and upon these systems we built the world’s largest economy.”

Similarly, Atlantic City’s resort economy is built on a series of man-made infrastructural interventions: from the railroads in the 1850s to jetties and groins to the partially private-funded AC-Brigantine Connector tunnel, Atlantic City survives due to a series of public infrastructural umbilicals.

historical_shoreline_absecon_island
[GROINS HAVE EXTENDED ATLANTIC CITY'S SHORELINE FOR MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY]

Many of these landbuilding structures currently in use by the US Army Corps along the Jersey Shore–jetties and groins primarily–do little but augment and reinforce natural depositional patterns.  They’ve served to extend Atlantic City’s northern section further into Absecon Inlet although there is not much density occupying this space.  As Campanella has also expertly noted, the successes of large scale landbuilding infrastructure projects often directs development into areas of muted danger.  Only during storms like Katrina and Sandy does the “obscured relevance” of these natural processes become violently apparent.

Though not a levee or a floodwall the 3,727’ Absecon Inlet jetty on the east side of the waterway is a piece of this quietly reassuring infrastructure.  Designed and built in 1948 for what the Army Corps calls “channel control,” the jetty functions by creating a hard edge to capture the fleeing sands of northern Brigantine Island from entering Absecon Inlet and blocking this vital thoroughfare.  Sitting 8’ above the mean high water mark, it’s also a formidable barrier which invited development along Brigantine’s Ocean Drive and Sunset Court.

Jetty_Location
[LOCATION OF ABSECON INLET JETTYS]

Yet during Sandy, the inlet crested both Absecon inlet jetties, flooding Atlantic City and severely scouring and undermining the bulkhead along Ocean Drive.  According to the Atlantic City Press, a beach replenishment project amply protected the Atlantic side of the city, but the inlet and back bay sections were notoriously porous.  The City and the Army Corps will soon open bids for constructing a section of seawall between Oriental and Atlantic Avenues, with another section proposed but neither designed nor funded further north.

31Oct
[NOAA AERIAL IMAGERY SHOWING INLET CRESTING EASTERN JETTY 31 OCTOBER 2012]

IMG_4464
[AFTER CRESTING THE JETTY, THE INLET SCOURED UNDER THE BULKHEAD ALONG OCEAN DRIVE]
IMG_4467
[HOUSES ALONG OCEAN DRIVE SUFFERED TREMENDOUS EROSION]

A near constant commitment to new flood protection infrastructure has a predictable impact on development in both Atlantic City and Brigantine.  Despite the proximate danger of a swollen Inlet, a new residential complex at Rum Point has just broken ground–after extensive litigation with NJ Department of Environmental Protection.  Arguably, the people pay doubly when the Federal government subsidizes risky residential building through infrastructure and generous national flood insurance programs.

Seawall_Construction-002
[PROPOSED SECTIONS OF SEAWALL IN ATLANTIC CITY. MAP BY CHRIS DOUGHERTY]

Yet options do exist for “softer” flood protection.  One of the rare “successes” of Superstorm Sandy was found in Jersey’s protected marshlands.  According to the American Littoral Society’s report on Sandy’s impact on coastal habitats, coastal restoration projects like the south Cape May Meadows (a project developed by the Army Corps, the Nature Conservancy and NJDEP) “fared very well during the storm and achieved its goal of flood protection.”  Salt marshes and dune systems also blunted traumatic storm surges and waves.

The dialogue around the failures of rigid flood control systems and the embrace of more adaptive natural systems is becoming increasingly robust.  Increasingly, cities in littoral areas across the globe have developed fraternities to exchange more natural techniques for combating rising sea levels.  In these dialogues, ‘combat’ perhaps connotes the wrong mentality; rather many of these urban modifications allow water to coexist within cities.

recovering-together

Immediately after Sandy, billboards along the AC Expressway urged Jerseyans to bounce back with “Jersey Strong” vigor.  One simply said “Recovering Together”.  What if this was an exhortation to rebuild together with natural processes? With Atlantic City’s lack of density, wouldn’t it be interesting to see an entire northern area riven through with salt marshes, tidal creeks and–instead of simply allowing north Brigantine Island to become south Brigantine Island–we balance the sediment budget and create an extensive urban dune system?

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