Murphy, after viewing storm damage, says N.J. needs new playbook for extreme weather

 Politico

09/02/2021 

A tornado ripped through Mullica Hill, N.J., destroying homes in its path.

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MULLICA HILL, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that New Jersey needs infrastructure capable of handling a more violent climate, as he warned of a “long road“ ahead to clean up damage throughout the state caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Tornadoes tore through parts of South Jersey on Wednesday and major flooding spilled across the rest of the state during what the governor called “an extraordinary, sadly tragic, historic 24 hours in New Jersey.” Murphy said he had spoken with President Joe Biden and asked for a federal disaster declaration and heavy-duty trucks that could help the state recover.

Murphy has already declared a state of emergency for all of New Jersey amid obvious damage and ahead of a cleanup that is sure to be costly. The governor said during a late afternoon press conference in Hillsborough there have been at least 23 storm-related deaths in New Jersey. Several people died in their homes or apartment buildings during flash floods. But the storm’s full toll is yet unknown.

The governor visited Gloucester County Thursday morning and found a scene that was still raw. During a press conference in Mullica Hill, in front of a home destroyed by a tornado, a woman was screaming and crying as she was reunited with her mother. Debris littered the area — pieces of homes and trees, a toddler’s single red-and-blue Reebok shoe, clothes, smashed windows.

The governor was scheduled to tour Hillsborough and Passaic, both of which saw major flooding from the storm, later Thursday.

Murphy said the state needs to update its playbook for storm responses. Climate change is driving more extreme weather, including more frequent and intense rains, according to international scientists.

"The world is changing,” Murphy said. “These storms are coming in more frequently. They're coming in with more intensity. As it relates to our infrastructure, our resiliency, our whole mindset, the playbook that we use — we have got to leap forward and get out ahead of this."

Murphy, as well as officials in Louisiana, where Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, have begun to talk about how the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal provides billions to cope with climate change.

“We’re going to look at everything,” Murphy said. “The game changer is the federal money.”

“We’re pulling all the levers we can," he said earlier Thursday during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, "but it’s going to be a long road to get back on our feet."

While the governor didn’t mention specifics, experts across the region have begun talking about how New Jersey and surrounding areas could cope with the coming era of extremes.

Robert Freudenberg, vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, pointed to how regular, almost constant wildfires have reshaped life in the West in a matter of a few years. He worries extreme rain will do the same in the East.

“Water is our wildfires here and we need to start acting,” he said.

If the infrastructure bill does pass, New Jersey officials need to have projects ready to help cope with climate change, said Cortney Worrall, CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, which is spearheading a coalition that’s pushing governments to address climate vulnerabilities in New Jersey and New York.

“New Jersey needs to know what it wants, Number 1,“ she said. “And what are the best climate-resilient solutions that are going to work for different municipalities?”

Earlier this year, Murphy signed into law a bill that would require local governments to plan for climate change.

Though Murphy is far from the first New Jersey governor to deal with severe weather — Gov. Chris Christie had Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene hit while he was in office and Gov. Christie Whitman had Tropical Storm Floyd — his summer has been dealing with back-to-back storms while in the midst of a pandemic. Tropical Storm Henri passed through just two weeks ago, and though it delivered only a glancing blow to the state, it caused major inland flooding in some places. In July, Tropical Storm Elsa brought spawned tornadoes.

Murphy said some inland communities “crushed” two weeks ago by unusual flooding during Henri were hit again Wednesday by Ida’s remnants, which dumped more than 10 inches of rain on some areas.

Inland flooding has caught people off guard, Murphy said, as homeowners didn’t realize they needed flood insurance.

Freudenberg said a lot of money and thought has gone into coastal flooding since Sandy but less attention has been devoted to inland flooding.

“This is not a long-term risk like sea level rise. This is an immediate risk where we see people dying in their basement and trapped on trains for hours,” Freudenberg said.

He worried that some of the emergency alerts this week weren’t specific enough or were easily misunderstood. People aren’t used to thinking of passing rainstorms in the same way they think about the danger of a hurricane set to make landfall.

There has been some attention inland, of course. After Sandy, the Christie administration launched a program to buy up flood-prone land across the state. In 2019, state lawmakers approved the Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, which encourages local governments to set up utilities focused on handling runoff. But no local stormwater utilities have been formed as a result, according to the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Murphy said he spoke during the storm to state Senate President Steve Sweeney, who joined the governor and Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) on a tour of damaged homes in Gloucester County.

Sweeney and Norcross, who have spent much of their lives in South Jersey, marveled in horror at the damage from tornadoes, which they said were largely unheard of in the past.

“What we see behind us is change,” Norcross said during Thursday’s press conference.

The three elected officials — all Democrats — talked about climate change and getting more money to the state from the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans.

Infrastructure takes years to plan. In mid-August, nearly nine years after Sandy, state and federal officials released a $16 billion plan to help protect coastal communities from extreme weather and rising seas. Actual completion of any of the projects could take who knows how much longer.

Since Murphy took office, the state has moved quickly to curb in-state sources of greenhouse gases by investing in more clean energy sources, like offshore wind.

“We’re doing all the things we need to do, but everyone needs to do it,” Sweeney said.

But many of those projects are years away. The state has approved three major offshore wind farms but none are under construction yet. The largely unknown costs of all the energy projects are beginning to become a political issue for Murphy — though those are offset by the damage done by more extreme weather. Even if New Jersey totally cleans up its act, it’s still one of only 50 states in a country that still lacks a surefooted national climate policy.

“People that deny climate change got to get their heads out of their rear end, we got issues, and there’s families being affected, businesses are being impacted — it’s not partisan,” Sweeney later told POLITICO.

In the short term, a federal disaster declaration would make this week’s storm the sixth major storm-related disaster in the state since Sandy.

Time may be working against New Jersey, according to scientific assessments of climate change and the state’s unique exposure to a variety of extreme weather events, rising seas and flooding.

One of the Mullica Hill homes that was ripped apart by a tornado was a model home before Ashley Thomas and her husband moved in. The neighborhood was quickly made unrecognizable by the storm.

“Our community is destroyed in five seconds,“ she said. “That’s all it took.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-09-03 09:27:32 -0700