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5:33 pm
Thu March 28, 2013

New Jersey Residents Blame Increased Flooding On Superstorm Sandy

Originally published on Thu March 28, 2013 6:38 pm

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Ever since Hurricane Sandy, officials in many New Jersey coastal communities have been reporting more flooding than usual. The National Weather Service confirms the state is experiencing an above average number of winter storms. But locals complain the high water isn't just coming more often and with greater intensity, it's coming regardless of rainfall.

From member station WNYC, Janet Babin reports the mystery is baffling municipal leaders and researchers who can't agree on the cause.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: On a clear Saturday night a few weeks ago, Thomas Kelaher, the mayor of Toms River Township, got a surprising call from his police captain: A major roadway was flooding and had to be closed. Kelaher says water was encroaching elsewhere too.

MAYOR THOMAS KELAHER: Downtown by the post office, that area was flooded. The entire golf course, which is just adjacent to downtown, was underwater, and there were a number of other areas under water.

BABIN: Unexplained flooding is also happening about 40 miles north in the town of Highlands. Almost five months since Sandy, and still, only about half the residents here are back in their homes.

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BABIN: Up and down the vacant blocks, you hear the sounds of construction, like this retiling underway at Chilangos, a popular Mexican restaurant. Mayor Frank Nolan says since the storm, water billows up onto town streets more often on both dry days and when it rains.

MAYOR FRANK NOLAN: We used to have on a full moon, high tide and no event, you had some flooding. Now, you have a little event, and you've got two feet of water on the main road.

BABIN: Nolan theorizes that the increased flooding is happening because the late October storm washed away sand from nearby beaches that held back the ocean. Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long blames it on an influx of sand and debris the storm swept into back bays and rivers.

MAYOR DINA LONG: Just off the coast of Sea Bright, there are cars, pieces of houses, the contents of the homes and the stores that were damaged in Superstorm Sandy.

JAMES NICKELS: Theories are a dime a dozen. Everybody has a theory.

BABIN: That's marine scientist James Nickels with the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University. He says there's no doubt the New Jersey coast is seeing more flooding, but he's not convinced any of the mayors' theories are correct.

NICKELS: You just want to watch your step.

BABIN: I join him and one of his students on the university's survey boat to map the bottom of the Shrewsbury River using sonar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got something on the right.

NICKELS: Yep. Go ahead and mark it.

BABIN: Nickels says mapping the river bottom will help protect boaters, but he doubts the debris is intensifying localized flooding. He says wind may be the culprit. Since Sandy, New Jersey has seen more nor'easters, and Nickels says these storms have brought with them stronger easterly winds.

NICKELS: That causes water to be pushed into these bays, and then the wind holds the water in place and doesn't allow it to come back out. The next tide comes along, it pushes more water up and in.

BABIN: But Nickels suspects there may be several causes, or it might be that these high-water events have increased but not as much as New Jerseyans think they have. Take Highlands Mayor Frank Nolan. His house, like the majority in town, flooded during Sandy. And now, he's fanatical about tracking the weather and the water.

NOLAN: Like I have on my iPhone, I have apps for tides. I don't surf. I do that because I'm scared to death that, you know, when you hear these things coming together, the full moon, the high tide and a storm, you know, you're sitting there sleepless nights worrying about what am I going to do, do I got to move my car, is my house going to get hit again.

BABIN: Finding the source of the increased flooding could help calm collective nerves in the state and could also save money. Each new flood event potentially erodes infrastructure repairs the taxpayers have spent millions on since the October storm.

For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin.

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