In­sid­i­ous but over­looked: Back-bay flood­ing plagues mil­lions world­wide

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - POL­I­TICS - BY WAYNE PARRY

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Marty Mozzo gets a gor­geous show each night when the sun sets over wet­lands near his prop­erty on the bay side of a bar­rier is­land.

When he and his wife bought the house in 2008, she looked at the marsh, where the only sign of wa­ter was a tiny trickle nearly a half mile away.

“Do you think this will flood?” she asked.

“How could it?” he replied. “Look how far away the wa­ter is.”

Within weeks of mov­ing in, a storm stranded them for two days with wa­ter on all sides. Theirs is one of sev­eral neigh­bor­hoods in Ocean City, N.J., where res­i­dents have adopted un­of­fi­cial flood eti­quette: Don’t drive too fast through flooded streets or you’ll cre­ate wakes that slam into houses, scat­ter garbage cans, and dam­age lawns and gar­dens.

They are among mil­lions of peo­ple world­wide whose lives and land are be­ing damp­ened by back­bay flood­ing — in­un­da­tion of wa­ter­front ar­eas be­hind bar­rier is­lands where wind and tides can cre­ate flood­ing dur­ing storms or even on sunny days. It’s a type of flood­ing that tends to be over­shad­owed by ocean­front storm dam­age that grabs head­lines — and gov­ern­ment spend­ing — with dra­matic video of crash­ing waves and splin­tered houses.

“This in­sid­i­ous flood­ing is in­creas­ing, and it is an im­por­tant so­cial is­sue, but it is not get­ting enough at­ten­tion paid to it,” said S. Jef­fress Wil­liams, a coastal sci­en­tist with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey. “Flood­ing is hap­pen­ing with in­creas­ing fre­quency in back-bay ar­eas. It hap­pens very rapidly; it’s just not as dra­matic.”

Wil­liams, who lives on Cape Cod in Mas­sachusetts, said back-bay flood­ing is hap­pen­ing just as fre­quently — if not more so — than ocean­front flood­ing.

Nearly five years af­ter Su­per­storm Sandy de­liv­ered a wake-up call, the prob­lem of back-bay flood­ing is com­ing into sharper fo­cus. Stud­ies are un­der­way, money is

start­ing to flow to­ward the prob­lem, and the re­al­iza­tion that de­struc­tion of wet­lands for devel­op­ment along such shores is partly to blame is lead­ing to dis­cus­sion about build­ing codes.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s bud­get pro­posal, re­leased last week, would cut a com­bined $452 mil­lion from the Na­tional Oceano­graphic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Home­land Se­cu­rity depart­ment for re­search grants, flood map­ping and anal­y­sis. If en­acted by Congress, many en­vi­ron­men­tal groups worry, less money will be avail­able to study back-bay flood­ing.

Jeff Ge­bert, chief of coastal plan­ning for U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers Phil­a­del­phia di­vi­sion, ac­knowl­edged that be­fore Sandy, back-bay flood­ing was not as high on the agency’s radar, due in part to the lack of easy en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tions.

The pic­ture is largely the same na­tion­wide, he said, “be­cause the so­lu­tion to back-bay flood­ing is much more com­pli­cated” than sim­ply pumping sand onto ocean­front beaches.

The Army Corps and state of­fi­cials be­gan a three­year study of back-bay flood­ing in De­cem­ber in New Jersey that seeks cost-ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions that can be repli­cated else­where. Sim­i­lar stud­ies are un­der­way or re­cently were com­pleted in New York, Vir­ginia, Texas, Con­necti­cut, Rhode Is­land, Mary­land and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Many tra­di­tional en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tions used

along the ocean­front are of lim­ited ben­e­fit against back-bay flood­ing. Houses are be­ing el­e­vated and road­ways repaved to make them higher. But the bulk­heads, sea walls and sand dunes used along the ocean can’t be repli­cated in many back­bay ar­eas be­cause of lim­ited space and re­sis­tance from home­own­ers who prize wa­ter­front views.

Jim and Maryann O’Neill moved from Phil­a­del­phia to a sec­tion of Stafford Town­ship, N.J., in 1994 for a quiet ex­is­tence near the wa­ter. But they’re now much nearer to it than they bar­gained for.

In Jan­uary 2016, a coastal storm in­un­dated their home. A March 2017 storm sub­merged the roads and de­posited fish on the pave­ment in front of their house. And that was two years af­ter the town raised the road by their house by 8 inches. They have rusted through three pickup trucks and three cars in the past 13 years.

In Ocean City, of­fi­cials will spend $40.3 mil­lion over the next five years on drainage im­prove­ments and road work that in­cludes el­e­vat­ing road­ways, new pipes and pumping sta­tions. Such work in his neigh­bor­hood has cut down on flood­ing, Mozzo ac­knowl­edged.

“We put $20 mil­lion into back-bay dredg­ing for five years,” Mayor Jay Gil­lian said. “When you talk about $20 mil­lion in one seaside re­sort for just one thing, that speaks vol­umes about how much these coastal places need.”


Jim O’Neill walks through a flooded street in front of his home in Mana­hawkin, N.J., af­ter a mod­er­ate storm. He lives in a low-ly­ing area near the Jersey shore.

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