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Let’s try it, see what we can do

Dr. Thomas Herrington

Dr. Thomas Herrington is a Professor of Coastal Engineering and Director of the Ocean Engineering Program at Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. In his research, he focuses on coastal protection and long-term coastal stability. In his narrative, Thomas talks about his work since Hurricane Sandy, which has focused on strengthening the state’s response to hurricanes and other storm disasters, as well reducing its vulnerability in the long-term. He notes that the storm has created a renewed push for projects aimed at shoreline resiliency and sustainability.


How did the hurricane affect you as a Professor of Ocean Engineering?

Career changing. I have spent 15 years working in the state of New Jersey. We have a research center, that’s funded by the State of NJ, to work with the municipalities to work on coastal protection, and long-term coastal sustainability.   We have been in the planning and evaluation phase of long term restoration and protection projects since the 1990s. I always suspected a storm, like Sandy, could come along. After it happened, it became an immediate change from assessment to how do we respond to this huge change, policy – wise, engineering wise, planning wise. My focus in research, and what I’m funded to do has completely shifted.

Can you explain further how your job at Stevens has changed due to Sandy?

Before Sandy we were working mainly with the state, and the Army Corps of Engineers, on long-term shore restoration projects. Before Sandy, there was a lot of question as to their cost, value and benefit, the economics of it; we spent a lot of time monitoring and evaluating the change of the shoreline, at that time. It was kind of a nexus between the economy, the engineering and the biology. After Sandy, the value of these projects became evident, with passage of the Sandy Supplemental Bill, in January of 2013, Congress put out a new plan to address shoreline resiliency and sustainability. I started working at the request of the Army Corps, and what we’ve done is taken what we’ve learned in post-Sandy, and tried to develop a way to provide a level of resilience that doesn’t depend on one type of protection, it’s kind of a layered approach. That’s really where things have changed; no one really thought of the urban coast prior to Sandy.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, how did you prepare?

Not like I would now. With us, it’s kind of weird, because we were working.

I was involved in pre-Sandy coordination calls. The Office of Emergency Management, Coastal Services, and the Governor’s office being a coastal engineer.   Maybe half a day before Sandy made landfall, it became clear that a number of the questions focused on Hudson County. What can we expect in Hudson County? What do we know about flood levels in Hudson County? We didn’t know what the impact was going to be because we never really studied it, and that was a real eye – opener. Now, we are focused on harbor too, and that’s a big change.

What do you think about FEMA’s response to the storm?

From working on Hurricane Katrina issues, I know that FEMA is not coming in to restore your house for you. It’s going to come in, evaluate your needs, try to pay off whatever your insurance is, and then, you are kind of left on your own. It’s always disorganized, and nothing moves forward with that. It’s this bureaucracy. It’s criminal, in my view, it’s really, really, difficult, you try to recover, and there are just these roadblocks.   That whole side of it is just this uncoordinated nightmare.

FEMA now has a new mantra, they are telling people not to depend on them, and to be ready to take care of yourself, for a couple of days, or maybe a week because they are not going to be able to get to you. In Hoboken, there is this kind of false sense of security towards living in this strong, urbanized area, therefore people can get to me and it isn’t true. They are trying to instill this new idea that you need to be able to take care for yourself for some period of time. Next, is the community level, the community needs to be prepared to take care of the population locally for some period of time. In Hoboken, the Mayor is already forward thinking, and so now she is focused on autonomous power systems and buildings, which can at least keep power enough to have communication.  You have to be able to survive on your own, for a little bit of time.

How have you gone about the process of rebuilding, in the professional capacity?

We have been working very closely with the Governor’s Office of Rebuilding and Recovery. On a high level, background scale, we’ve been developing models to understand the flood pathways, and what we can design more easily in communities. At the local scale, we have been working with communities and towns to evaluate different ideas and protection methods. With Hoboken, there was the ‘Rebuild by Design’ competition, one of the initiatives after Sandy, the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal department charged with distributing recovery funds to the local communities. Within the Sandy Supplemental Bill, most of the recovery funds went to HUD, which is very interesting.   HUD has very strict requirements for what that can be used for. For instance, it needs to be focused on low income, disadvantaged populations. They created a design competition to protect these communities on a community or region-wide basis. Six projects were chosen to actually implement, and Hoboken is one of them, for this kind of floodwall, greenway plan. Some of them are really innovative and some of them are just applying this type of technology in a different way. We’ll see what happens.

What’s your opinion on how the local community aided in response?

Locally, it was amazing. People pitched in. In Hoboken, for whatever reason, there was one street with power. It was dry, with power, and homeowners would put tables out with extension cords, so people could plug in their cell phones. I think, in that initial response, the initial thirty days, was really community building. But, after time, that goes away, and it becomes the reality of, the community can only do so much. Once basic services are restored, things are open, the community connection kind of drops out. It’s hard to keep going.

What do you think are lessons for the future, that should be learned from Hurricane Sandy?

That it can happen, it has happened. In the future, there’s a realization of vulnerability, that we aren’t insulated because we live in this giant metropolis, just outside of New York. It’s like the “Day After Tomorrow.”   There is an action to create resiliency, there is an action to restore the environment. In the past our coastal stabilization was to build bulkheads and seawalls that kind of just created this kind of bathtub with bulkheads that evolved over time. The challenge is going to be that this new resiliency and restoration kind of work takes decades.   There has to be sustained investment, and desire, and a drive to do that. They are still working on projects to protect New Orleans, ten years later, and they will probably be ten years from now. It’s a continuous effort.

Is there a scientific answer, do you think, for finding a way to prevent a hurricane like Sandy from striking again?

I don’t think there is a way to stop storms from forming. It’s part of the natural energy flow on earth. Hurricanes are heat movers, they bring heat from areas where the temperature is too high, and they move it to where the temperature is lower. That’s where they develop and thrive, and that’s a natural process. How do you stop it, I don’t know, and if you did stop it, what would the consequence of that be? I mean these storms bring tremendous rainfall to areas that don’t see a lot of rainfall in the summer. I think long term, we need to figure out the best way to live with that risk, and we need to reduce our vulnerability to that risk.

What would you think the association between Hurricane Sandy and climate change is?

That is hard to say, there’s been a lot of research papers published about the idea that there will be increased storminess with climate change. We haven’t seen that in the records.  We do know that storms form along the boundary between temperature contrasts, hot and cold air. In a changing climate, one would suspect that the boundary is going to move north. That is going to put us in a more tropical environment, than we are today. I would believe that we would see more tropical systems affect our area.

How do you think we can educate the community to understand that, you know, their actions have an affect on climate change and hurricanes?

Wait for the next generation. I believe in 25 – 30 years, most of us will believe that climate change is happening and we need to adjust what we are doing. Right now, there is just way too much politicizing of the issue, in the community. We are educating the next generation, I hope. I don’t know if you are going to make our generation realize it, to the point where we need to stop driving cars. It’s going to take time to have that play out.

What type of resiliency projects are you working on?

I’ve been working with FEMA on the remapping project of elevation, within that, we are reviewing the technical aspects, and science of the maps, and how they apply to community education for threats, vulnerability, and weighing those risks. Still working with the Army Corps of Engineers, and with the state to push forward these ideas of coastal sustainability.  There are some really interesting things, which we would not have talked about five years ago. The conversations have moved, today, it’s let’s try it, see what we can do, and if it doesn’t work, let’s try something else. That’s really refreshing.

Interviewed by Joanna Felsenstein
Assisted by Colin Kochenash
Edited by Joanna Felsenstein
Hoboken, New Jersey
Recorded April 1, 2015