America’s tragedies have long been a breeding ground for business growth. Some of our nation’s finest accomplishments are the result of trying circumstances, including modern consumer-based banking during the 1920s Great Depression, public air travel in the 1940s during World War II, and the interstate highway system during the 1950s Cold War.
In the engineering world, especially here in New Jersey, we find ourselves in the nascent stages of an industry that is responding to unusual weather events and climate change predictions that threaten our daily life and our long-term socioeconomics.
The warning shot for our region was Hurricane Katrina.
Although we recognized the tragic and far-reaching impacts of Katrina in the Gulf, we found ourselves unprepared in all sectors of society. Trains were left in floodplains, transformers were located in basements, and beach communities were left unprotected. Superstorm Sandy exposed those weaknesses in New Jersey and dramatically changed our resiliency design trajectory.
The engineering and public policy communities have mostly put the argument over climate change to bed, and have begun to do the hard work of resiliency design. There is a lot of work to do.
The global climate change resiliency effort covers a wide range of environmental challenges, including clean water supply, sea level rise, weather pattern changes, and air quality. In New Jersey, our most pressing challenge is flooding. With or without a sea level rise, it is our primary climate issue.
During the first two centuries of New Jersey’s history, the climate was kind. Instances of severe weather impacts were rare, and our pattern of development reflects that fact. A large portion of our most valuable economic resources — ports, rail, tunnels, industry, residential — are located within vulnerable floodplains.
Retreat is now not an option. The engineering community has responded in-kind, and has largely focused on means and methods that will preserve, protect, and enhance the at-risk assets of the region. We are well positioned in this regard because our national competition for business opportunities has not responded with the same vigor that our governmental entities demonstrated via large public policy initiatives, regulatory controls, and private initiatives. A small sampling of initiatives includes the following:
• FEMA — In 2013, FEMA began to update flood mapping. These maps have been the most impactful event upon flood resiliency design and planning in the region’s history. They affect a great number of existing and proposed assets across a broad range of marketplaces, including residential, commercial, industrial, and port concerns.
• State of New Jersey — The state has been a major player in resiliency design and planning through the adoption of regulatory controls such as the Flood Hazard Act, International Building Code, and revised Coastal Rules, as well as infrastructure investments. New Jersey Transit (rail resiliency) and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (shore protection) have been the lead agencies of change. In addition, the state and federal governments have partnered in two large-scale resiliency initiatives in the Meadowlands and Hoboken.
• Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — The Port owns some of the most critical, and vulnerable, transportation assets in the region. It is actively pursuing resiliency improvements at all of its rail, air, tunnel, and port-related facilities.
• U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — The Corps is constructing storm damage prevention projects throughout New Jersey, including beach nourishments, flood control devices, and wetland creation.
• Distribution and logistics — At least two-thirds of the warehousing facilities in the state’s major ports are located in floodplains and suffered substantial product losses during Superstorm Sandy. The private marketplace has responded dramatically by recognizing the inherent risk and valuing properties and rents accordingly. Consequently, “flood proof” warehouses have become more valuable. Owners and developers are modifying and redeveloping properties throughout the region, using a range of options that include dry flood-proofing, site raising with fill, and campus-wide levees.
• Local — The City of Bayonne, N.J., for example, is one of many communities with large portions of its socio-economic base located in the floodplain. In response to the known flooding risks, the city has adopted a building code that reflects state and FEMA best practices. It has partnered with FEMA in its Community Rating System, restored wetlands, and is working with private redevelopers to transform flood-prone former industrial facilities into modern, flood-resistant communities.
The sum quantity of resiliency efforts has created a new industry within the engineering and planning community. Where professionals dabbled in the technical disciplines in the past — such as coastal engineering and flood-resistant architecture — they have now become a “must-have” discipline for any full-service company. Growth in employment and revenues has similarly increased among those firms that are adequately responding to the demand.
Lastly, a note on resiliency: It is an often-misunderstood term, interpreted with an aggressive tone to convey absolute strength against adversity. In fact, it represents a principle that is much more representative of the human spirit. Resiliency is “the ability to recover quickly from misfortune,” and serves as the guiding principal for current climate change design efforts.
Matrix and other engineering firms that are experts in coastal engineering and flood-resistant architecture have the laudable task to protect New Jersey from the future storms that are sure to come. Protective planning remains the primary objective.
Andrew Raichle, P.E., is vice president and Eastern Region manager with Florham Park, N.J.-based Matrix New World, P.C. (www.matrixneworld.com), a full-service environmental, geotechnical, and civil engineering firm founded in 1990.