By John Burton
TRENTON – State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin made it clear this week that the work on Sandy recovery is continuing and that “New Jersey is open for business” for the coming summer, tourism season.
During a teleconference for media Tuesday, Martin laid out what the agency and others are doing to ensure the state fully recovers from the effects of the late October storm. He discussed topics including the effort to clean debris from the waterways, the purchasing of homes in flood-prone areas by the state and what will be coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about the requirements for home elevation.
On the local front, Martin said he visited Sea Bright less than two weeks ago, toured the borough with Mayor Dina Long and discussed a number of issues, including repairs to the seawall and beach replenishments.
During a heavy rainstorm last month, police and emergency management were forced to close much of Ocean Avenue/Highway 36 in the northern portion of the borough – from Sandy Hook entrance to the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge. The roadway was flooded when ocean water came through and under the wall, which had taken a pounding from Sandy. Martin said DEP coastal engineers would be “trying to figure out if there is a better way to fix that part of the seawall” and how to get funding to pay for the repair.
The DEP would be in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to seek public assistance funding for the eventual repair project, “because that is the kind of project that federal assistance could and should be paying for,” he said.
The DEP also will work with local officials to look for a long-term solution to flooding from the Shrewsbury River side of the borough, Martin said.
He said the progress of recovery in Sea Bright was “very good” as the community works to get businesses and beaches ready for the summer months.
“All of our beaches (around the state) will be open in some form or another,” he said.
The DEP is focusing on waterway debris cleanup, and have hired three large-scale contractors to scour the bays, tidal rivers and coastal lakes for what was washed out with the storm, he said. During the initial months, the emphasis was on cleaning the streets of debris, with Martin and the department believing it posed an urgent risk to public health and a safety hazard. More than 8 million cubic yards of household and vegetation debris and sand has to be removed.
The water cleanup will require “a massive amount of effort to make sure we’re cleaning up everywhere,” Martin said, noting that in Mantoloking alone 58 homes – and their contents – were washed away.
He expects to have 75 percent of the waterway debris removed by June 1.
In addition, while the cleanup will continue through the summer months, he said the department was “confident our waterways will be open for the summer.” He asked boaters to use common sense and to report any debris they discover by calling the hotline 877-WARNDEP.
Another priority for the DEP and the Christie Administration is establishing a beach protection system, and restoring and adding sand dunes. “We’re doing everything to make that happen,” he said, including strongly encouraging property easements to add dunes.
Congress has allocated $4.5 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake various coastal projects, with Martin expecting about $1 billion of it for New Jersey.
Also, for where flooding can’t be remedied, the state is expanding its Blue Acres program, buying properties in flood-prone area. State officials are planning to spend about $250 million, much of it federal money, for an approximate 1,000 Sandy-damaged properties. Officials will look into to buying entire blocks or neighborhoods, as opposed to “taking a house here, a house there,” which wouldn’t improve the situation, Martin said.
That property will be used for parks or revert to wetlands for better flooding control, he said.
For low- and moderate-income homeowners, grants of up to $150,000 are available to assist them with repairs and elevating homes in flood-prone areas.
For home elevation, FEMA is in the process of finalizing its new flood maps and height requirements. The agency’s maps and requirements, begun a couple of years prior to Sandy, will be completed and open to public comment probably late this summer, according to Martin.
“I would request that a lot of people wait and see until the next set of maps come out to take any action on it,” he said.
Boardwalks around the state are being rebuilt and the water quality is excellent, Martin said.
“We remain optimistic, but there is a lot of work to making sure all of that happens.”