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A precarious, dangerous place to build and protect

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen works as an Urban Planner and Project Manager at Michael Baker International, a firm that provides engineering services for public and private sector clients worldwide. For the past several years, she has worked on projects aimed at helping Jersey Shore communities to mitigate the effects of floods and other disasters, including the Ocean County Hazard Mitigation Plan and the Long-Term Recovery Plan for Ocean County. In her narrative, Sarah discusses how Hurricane Sandy has affected shore communities, and how she is working to ensure that such destruction is avoided in the future.


Who is your client on these projects?

We’ve had different clients on our projects. We worked for Ocean County Office of Emergency Management, which is nestled under the Sheriff’s Department for Ocean County on the Hazard Mitigation Plan, and then the After Action Report. And then for the Long Term Community Recovery Plan, we worked for the Ocean County Planning Department.

When did you start?

We interviewed for the plan and submitted a proposal in advance of Hurricane Sandy, in the summer of 2012. We received word that we won the contract a week or two before Hurricane Sandy, and watched as it had such a big impact on the county. We really started in earnest in November and December right after the storm.

So you [were] involved before the storm actually it?

Yes. Hazard Mitigation Plans are required by FEMA in order to make communities eligible for a variety of different pre and post disaster funding, to help make communities more resilient from any type of hazard. In this part of the country, it’s primarily focused on flood related hazards, so the county wanted to have one before the storm. And then the storm happened. It became even more important for them to have the plan so they would be eligible for all the funding that flowed into the state from FEMA. Not only to recover from the storm, but also to build in a way that was stronger and better and more resilient for future events.

Will the plan have an end, or will you keep working with this for future disasters?

Hazard Mitigation Plans shouldn’t have an end. They should be constantly used and updated. They’re required to be updated by FEMA every five years, but in a community such as Ocean County or all the three municipalities in Ocean County, they’ll be pulling it out to apply for grants and to implement projects that they want to do with FEMA funding after the storm.

What is the overall goal of the project?

Mitigation’s goal is to basically eliminate the impact of the hazard. Mitigation projects are long-term projects in communities to make them more resilient. So an example we use is putting sandbags up can help prevent floodwaters from impacting an area, but that’s not mitigation because it’s temporary. Things like floodwalls, elevating buildings, relocating structures, providing open space for flood borders to go. If it floods a park, that’s okay to flood a park. It’s not okay to flood your first floor. So providing opportunities for the natural environment to prevent the impact of disasters, those are all ways that you mitigate disasters. FEMA, instead of spending a lot of money after disasters, is hoping that by mitigating, we start to prevent these storms, tornadoes, anything from impacting people in the first place.

Are there any specific towns that you’ve been working in?

We worked with Ocean County and it was important for us to get full participation from all 33 municipalities so they would be eligible for all of this funding that’s available through FEMA before and after storms.

We’ve worked with really every town. So as part of the project, we had individual meetings with each municipality. And in those meetings, we sat down with them and reviewed the risks. Ocean County is obviously impacted by coastal flooding, but they also have a lot of the Pine Barrens, so a lot of the communities are impacted by wild fire, utility outages, other types of both natural and human made disasters. So we went through all of the vulnerabilities and risks each town or municipality had, and then we went through what they wanted to do about it. So, one on one, we said, “how do you want to mitigate this? What do you want to do?” So we talked to every municipality in the county.

What is your role in the project?

I was the Project Manager, so I gather all of Baker’s resources to work on the project. So I find the right person to make the maps, the right person to draft chapters of the plan, and then I help give them the guidance to do that, and then also review their work. In Ocean County, I was also a meeting facilitator, so I led most of the meetings, gathered input from people, addressed their concerns, got their ideas reflected in the plan, and documented them so that folks’ ideas ended up in the final version of the plan.

In a Hazard Mitigation Plan, we’re just looking for ideas and the best ideas to get them in the plan so that people then take the next steps to determine, okay, is it feasible to have a floodwall here? Would that be the good solution, or would that cause more damage to the neighboring communities? So we just get the ideas written down and document what the risk is, who’s vulnerable, what type of projects they want to have. So the people who work on teams I lead are typically urban planners or community regional planners, different schools call that type of education a different thing. Planners are great to work with I think because they like to write and so some people look at the idea of writing a 200 page plan as nauseating, and urban planners are like, “oh, wow, that’s what exactly what I want to do. I want to sit and analyze all of this information and get it written down and document it.” We also work also with folks who have experience in GIS or Geographic Information Systems, sometimes those are urban planners, too, sometimes people do both, and sometimes there’s GIS specialists. And they’re great at finding the best ad out there, making sure that it projects right in the map, and we’re overlaying the critical facilities on the right layer, and the right information, and that they’re coded to the right information, and you can really do a lot of great hazard analysis in GIS. So, you can look at where it’s flooding, what’s flooding. An important thing with looking at hazards is they’re not entirely predictable. So FEMA makes flood plan maps, where it predicts where you’d have a chance of flooding in any given year, but, you know, water doesn’t stop at a line because it’s a line on the map, sometimes it goes other places. Just because you’re on this side of the line on the map doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have flood insurance and be concerned about it. You’re really close to the flood plane. Anyone as close to the flood plane as that should also have insurance and plan for the potential of flood.

After you plan the project, what happens next?

It depends. A lot of the projects in the plan are done by planners at the local level. So zoning, building codes, how you build, are all important parts of safety and mitigation. If I let you build a house with exposed wires, there’s a good chance that you’re gonna have a fire. Same thing with flooding. Allowing you to build below what’s called the base flood elevation is dangerous. So I would require you as a township to build a foot or two feet above the base food elevation so that your chances of your first floor flooding are lower. So that’s one aspect. Planners and local communities and zoning code officials implement the plan. Structural projects like floodwalls, they could be passed on to town engineers, maybe towns would hire consultants to plan and look at, okay, if we put a floodwall here, what does that do to the hydrology? Where does the water go if we don’t allow it to go here? How strong does that floodwall need to be?

Looking at drainage on streets. So it may not be an exact project that’s identified. We want to do something to impact the flooding along north Main Street. And then passing it on to engineers or environmental scientists to say, “why is it flooding there? What is going on with the drainage? What’s the soil type? If we elevated the street or made the street in a porous material that allowed the water to drain, would that fix it?” You’re often passing on a project to environmental scientists or engineers to work on. Sometimes, then, you’re also passing things on to community officials. So if there’s a town fair, there’s usually a police and fire tent where they’re giving you information about how to use a fire detector. Maybe in flood vulnerable towns, they’re also giving out information about ‘turn around, don’t drown.’ You know, that just a foot of water can float a car. So a variety of people implement the plan.

Can you tell me about the destruction that you saw when traveling to Ocean County?

I think probably the most dramatic destruction that I saw in Ocean County was along the barrier islands. In places like Mantoloking, the ocean met the bay right through the town. When you drive through these beach front barrier island communities, and it’s all up and down the coast, you really see the dramatic impact where the storm moved houses right off of their foundations, tore apart parts of homes, put boats in locations where they shouldn’t be, in someone’s living room. I think you expected to see that right after the storm, you expected to see that all through the winter and spring of that year. And I think what’s dramatic about this damage, from what disasters I’ve responded to before in my lifetime, is that it’s still there two years after. I haven’t driven through beachfront communities in Ocean County recently, but I’m working on a project in Monmouth County, and there’s still houses that have been boarded up, and that people haven’t moved back into. So I think it’s dramatic to see those pictures of houses off of their foundations right after the storm, but I think to me it’s even more dramatic to see houses that are still not inhabitable more than two years after the storm.

In places like Mantoloking, do you have specific plans in place?

I would have to go back to the plan to remember the exact actions that Mantoloking had. Almost all the communities had a plan to not only recognize the FEMA flood plane maps, but also to remember one to three feet of free board. Free board means that you are building above the base flood elevation. So, if FEMA says that it’s gonna flood to fourteen feet, you’re gonna build to fifteen to seventeen feet above sea level, so that you’re more protected and you’re taking into account that water doesn’t go to a line on the map, that it’s unpredictable. A lot of communities have projects to rebuild bulkheads or to install bulkheads on the barrier islands. That’s particularly important, because you get flooding from both sides. Mantoloking I know definitely was looking at dunes and requiring continuous dunes. I think if you look up and down the New Jersey coast and which communities were impacted more dramatically by the storm, the communities that had a continuous dune system, or a bunch of communities next to each other with dunes systems, really faired better than those communities that didn’t have sand dunes. A lot of folks, especially on the barrier islands, their emergency management centers flooded. So you had the folks that were responding to the storm, that were there to help protect the community, they were impacted by the storm as well. So a lot of them needed flood proofing, hardening of those faculties, and also emergency generators so that they could operate and communicate with the county and neighboring communities during the storm.

Do you have a focus on emergency management? Those people obviously need to be able to function at their best.

Absolutely. I think New Jersey has to take a look at these barrier islands. They’re beautiful, I think all of us who have grown up in New Jersey have gone to vacation on them and have fond memories. But it’s a really precarious, dangerous place to build and to protect. As we look at the impact of storms or the fact that these types of storms are likely to be more prevalent and even worse because of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise on barrier islands, I think we have to look at a way to protect people and keep people safe and keep first responders safe.

The bay front flooding in a lot of the communities was worse than the ocean flooding. Each community kind of had a different story and a different impact, but bay front flooding was significant because the storm really raised the water from the bay as well into the communities.

What are you working on right now?

The Ocean County Hazard Mitigation Plan is done. That was done in May or April of 2014, and so that is done and approved. Hopefully, since it’s a plan that gets updated every five years, we’d have the opportunity to work with Ocean County again in 2019. We are finishing up the Long-Term Community Recovery Plan for Ocean County. That is different than the Hazard Mitigation Plan because it started a full year after the storm, and it dove into different topics. It looked at the economic health of the community, health and human safety and services, and tried to look at what’s called the whole community approach to planning. What would you do that would not only protect the houses and the residents, but the economic interest of the community. Because, if people don’t come down the shore anymore, that has a big impact on how nice it is to live in these communities. That plan was just approved by a different federal department, HUD, so we’re looking to finalize that plan and to send it out to the state holders and let them know this is done. It’s time to go work on and implement the ideas that you captured in this plan.

What kind of things do you work on for that project?

The Long-Term Community Recovery Plan was similar. We had public meetings; we collected information. I think the difference is that we collected information for slightly different things than you focus in a Hazard Mitigation plan. So, the idea of a long-term recovery plan is really this idea that you bounce forward. You don’t just bounce back from a storm, but you bounce forward. What can the community do to impact its long-term health? It also looks at things that were not so good before the storm. Maybe too much of the economy is based on tourism related to the shore. So, it would be good to diversify the economy, not just for storm recovery, but just general community health. It would be better to have more and different kinds of jobs in the community. Maybe they could grow tourism related to the Pine Barrens and some different areas. Ocean County is, I think one of the communities use the phrase “more than just the shore.” So that you get people visiting in the winter because they want to go to the Cranberry Bogs or go do something else. It helps the community not just from a disaster, but in general. So what can we do now that the storm happened and we have money coming in to our communities to plan and rebuild in a new way? What can we do that impacts the overall health of the community?

Is there anything else that you would like to share about your work or your projects?

I think it’s exciting to work with folks as a planner that works on disaster related projects because you have the opportunity to have an impact on making people safer. You really do in any type of planning or engineering. If you’re planning a street, you’re working on making the streets safer so that people don’t get in as bad of accidents. But having your home destroyed is one of the worst things that can happen to people in their lifetime. Prior to working at Baker, I worked at the American Red Cross. I met people whose homes were destroyed by fire, occasionally by flooding, and from Tropical Storm Allison, which had a big impact on Pennsylvania. It really can be the worst day of people’s lives. So, being able to work in a comprehensive way to help try to prevent that from happening is really rewarding. On a day-to-day basis, it can get bogged down in bureaucracy, just like any type of job, but if you think of that big picture item, it can be really rewarding. It’s also really rewarding to work a lot with emergency managers. I work at a desk. I’m rarely in danger. But to work with folks who work 24 hours straight when a disaster happens, that instead of rushing out from flooding rush in to help people or stay to help people, they’re really a special type of people. So, to be able to sit with them and take down all of their ideas and lessons learned, it’s nice because you get the opportunity to work with a lot of nice people who are doing even more impressive work than a planner does at Michael Baker. I like working in my field and I also recognize that I don’t have that skillset to disaster [response], so I’m happy to sit behind the scenes and help them out, and help things get more funding so that they can do their job better.

Interviewed by Shannon Yeager
Edited by Shannon Yeager
Hamilton, New Jersey
Recorded April 7, 2015