By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – The closing of part of Ocean Avenue for the better part of four days late last week has the mayor worried it could have exposed a potentially serious – and expensive – problem for the borough.
With last weekend’s nor’easter bringing heavy rain and high winds, state and local law enforcement and local emergency management decided to close the northern portion of Ocean Avenue/ state Highway 36 when it flooded and created a potentially hazardous condition.
Ocean Avenue, from the entrance of the Capt. Azzolina Memorial Bridge in the north to Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge at the Route 520 intersection, was closed until Monday afternoon.
Flooding has been a chronic problem for the small town running between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River. But what seems most troubling about this occurrence is that the road flooding appears to have been caused by breaches in the sea wall, running the length of highway.
Last weekend’s storm coincided with higher than normal tides, and that stretch of sea wall is lower than it is in other parts of the town. “Basically, we had waves breaking on the highway for four days,” Mayor Dina Long said.
The ocean “was coming through the sea wall, over the top of the sea wall, under the sea wall,” she said.
It appears Super Storm Sandy in October caused several breaches in that stretch of sea wall, and its impact became even more apparent with the latest storm.
Long was in contact with state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin, who assigned a deputy commissioner “to expeditiously analyze the situation and come back with some recommendations,” interim borough administrator Joseph Verruni said.
DEP engineers were on site Monday, Long said, along with state Department of Transportation (DOT) work crews that cleared debris and a considerable amount of sand that washed onto the roadway.
DEP spokesman Bob Considine said Wednesday that the department was “still assessing” the situation.
Long said that given the beating that section of wall took from Sandy, “it’s undermined in a couple of places.”
The mayor said she would have to wait for the engineers’ report because knowing the extent of the damage and what that means for the long term.
“It’s always an issue of who owns the sea wall,” and who is responsible when situations like this arise, Long said.
In the past the state contributed most of the cost for repairing it. During the early 1990’s storm damage came with a substantial price tag attached, though Long did not know the cost. When the state took the lead on the repairs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which is conducting a beach replenishment project here – took the position it wasn’t its responsibility, Long said.
That hasn’t prevented Sea Bright from applying to the corps’ Civil Works Program for assistance in repairing the wall following Sandy. Borough officials also have sought assistance for this and other projects from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
She said, “We’re not having much luck with FEMA,” with the borough council decision last week to drop out of the agency’s Sheltering and Temporary Electric Power (STEP) program for resident assistance, contending it was overly complicated and the agency was slow to act.
The sea wall was erected during the 1940s and ran parallel to tracks for the Central Jersey Railroad, which operated a commuter line through the area, Long said her research showed. The cost of the original construction was a three-way split among federal, state and local.
The impacted section of Ocean Avenue is structurally sound. “We don’t foresee any issue with the roadway itself,” said DOT spokesman Tim Greeley.
Now it’s a matter of waiting for the final analysis and determining how to address it – and hope for clear weather in the interim, Long said.
“Obviously, I’m a little nervous about that,” she said.