Insidious but overlooked: Back-bay flooding plagues millions worldwide
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.