HACKENSACK, N.J. — Superstorm Sandy's tidal surge into the Hackensack Meadowlands was a “once-in-a-750-year” event that could have been blocked only by a massive - and very expensive - flood wall to stop the waters racing from Newark Bay, officials with the state Meadowlands Commission said Friday.
And given the environmental, topographical and fiscal realities, they said, there's little to be done in preparing for another such catastrophe other than adding up a “wish list” for localized flood mitigation by federal agencies.
“To stop a surge of that magnitude, you'd . have to block it off at the source,” said Tom Marturano, director of solid waste management and natural resources for the commission. “I know everyone's looking for the solution, the ‘silver bullet,' but I don't think there is one.”
Officials meeting on Friday in Lyndhurst repeatedly sought to dispel initial reports that the flooding that destroyed entire neighborhoods in the towns hardest hit, Moonachie and Little Ferry, was caused by a break in a berm.
“We know everybody would love to hear, ‘Yes, a berm broke, and it caused all this flooding.' Because then that could get fixed,” said Marcia Karrow, the commission's executive director. “This is a much bigger, more complex issue.”
According to records compiled by water sensors maintained by the Meadowlands Commission, high tide on the day of the storm lasted for six hours; during that period, the water level averaged about 81/2 feet in some areas and 91/2 feet in others - compared with about 31/2 feet during normal high tides. In some areas, the water rushed over the New Jersey Turnpike, which is higher than 10 feet. Meanwhile, berms in the area are several feet lower. The berms were damaged, Karrow said, but they were damaged by the same surge that damaged houses; they didn't cause the flooding.
“I don't think there's anybody alive who has experienced this - this kind of water level,” said Francisco Artigas, director of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute. “This is just completely out of the map. We've never seen anything like this.”
Flooding in extreme storms is a fact of life in low-lying areas in towns in the Meadowlands District - Carlstadt, East Rutherford, Little Ferry, Lyndhurst, Moonachie, North Arlington, Ridgefield, Rutherford, South Hackensack, Teterboro, Jersey City, Kearny, North Bergen and Secaucus - and Karrow said there's little that can avert destruction when an event like Sandy happens.
“If you envision this whole area like a bathtub, no matter how much anybody raises one particular area, everything has to be raised at the same elevation, because otherwise, the water's going to pour in at the lowest point,” she said. “That's the unfortunate reality of this area.
”We're hoping that this is a once-in-a-750-year experience,“ Karrow added. ”This is the reality of all the low points . and those berms were not built to protect anybody from water; they were built for mosquito control.“
Marturano said, ”Even if we were to build all these berms, the problem is we've got roads that are low - it would just come over the roads. The water will just come in through wherever the weak point is. It'll come in slower perhaps because you've narrowed it down, but it will come in with more velocity.“
At a meeting in early December, mayors in the Meadowlands District called on the commission to assist communities in flood planning. Karrow responded that the commission has ”no statutory authority to do flood control.“ On Friday she said that remains the case.
”I don't know what was done in the past with my predecessor or predecessors, but since I've gotten there, flood control has not been something we've done, and we have not had a budget for it,“ Karrow told the mayors in December. She added, though, that ”any engineering help that any town needs or wants, we are happy to assist all of you with.“
The commission has not received information detailing damage estimates for the district's 14 towns.
On Friday, Karrow said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a ”project wish list“ for future flood mitigation programs.
Karrow said the commission is helping to coordinate with the towns for FEMA money, but reiterated that the state has not given the commission authority for flood planning. Karrow said projects approved for the FEMA ”wish list“ require a 25 percent local match.
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