Local experts issue dire warning: Storms will only get worse
NEIL GRABOWSKY / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Not many can say they were completely prepared for the damage Ida brought to Montclair and so much of the Northeast the night of Sept. 1.
Montclair had a fairly easy time the week prior with Henry — another former hurricane that weakened by the time it got to this region. But Ida dropped 7.54 inches of water on Montclair, according to the National Weather Service; that’s the rough equivalent to 8 feet of snow. It crested waterways and culverts, flooded basements and streets, and washed cars away.
The back-to-back timing of the storms exacerbated Ida’s impact and demonstrated the dangers of a changing climate, local officials say.
“Residents were traumatized with car rescues, and we were literally getting people out of their homes and apartments. Climate change is real. This is the new normal,” Mayor Sean Spiller said on CNN the day after the storm.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis said that as Ida flooded Montclair on Sept. 1, he was receiving messages via social media about people trapped in their buildings due to rising waters — including a father trapped in a basement and restaurant workers trapped in their store. As of the next day, Montclair’s Office of Emergency Management and the Fire Department had a count of 150 basements that needed to be pumped out, and had conducted 50 rescues from vehicles caught in water. Yacobellis said the township ran out resources such as cones to block flooded streets.
Police Sgt. Terence Turner said he didn’t yet know how many incidents emergency personnel had responded to during the storm, but calls were “well into the hundreds.”
There were several calls about open and missing manhole covers and debris in the roadway. Floods damaged multiple school buildings. The incidents, Deputy Fire Chief Robert Duncan said the day after the storm, were ongoing — “they come in so fast, and you go from one call to the next call.”
Several streams flow eastward through Montclair: Toney’s Brook in the center, Nishuane Brook in the southeast, Wigwam Brook in the southwest, Pearl Brook in the northwest and Yantacaw Brook in the northeast. Yantacaw and Toney’s brooks are dammed to create ponds in their respective parks. Edgemont ponds’ levels have been kept lower in recent months, Yacobellis said.
According to township officials, Montclair’s storm sewer system consists of approximately 2,500 roadway inlets and 42 miles of sewer pipes of varying size, which connect to a combination of natural streams and stabilized (man-made) waterways, each passing into neighboring towns and eventually reaching the Passaic River.
Areas such as Burnside Street near Toney’s Brook and Woodmont Road near Yantacaw Brook have been seeing more flooding on a regular basis.
“We have a problem with flooding. And we don’t have the infrastructure to support this intensity or frequency of storms,” Yacobellis said. “People who don’t have flood insurance because they don’t live in flood zones now need flood insurance.”
As residents clean up and place their sodden possessions out for a special trash pickup this Saturday, many are discovering their homeowner policies don’t cover the damage unless they have additional flood coverage.
According to Allstate Insurance, flood damage, no matter the source — storms, over-saturated grounds, overflowing bodies of water — is not covered by standard homeowner policies.
Yacobellis said future flood preparedness should be done regionally, as Montclair is located at the “bottom of the bowl,” with neighboring towns on higher ground.
“We have to look at development not just within our community, but also within the region. ... We have to look at the depth, capacity and width of pathways so water runoff is not destroying our homes and cars along the way,” he said. “[The system] can’t handle these 21st century storms anymore.”
He said every square foot of dirt lost to concrete contributes to flooding.
“It’s a little too late,” he said.
‘It’s just going to get worse’
Recently, First Ridge Alliance, a group of concerned residents located on the Verona-Montclair border, attempted to fight the density of what was originally envisioned as a 300-unit development in the Afterglow neighborhood of Verona. According to a report issued by the group in March, the homes directly below the ridge where the development is planned already have a history of worsening flooding and sewage issues.
These homes, located on Verona’s Sunset Avenue and Afterglow Avenue as well as Montclair’s Rockledge Road, are immediately downhill from the site. In March, Verona adopted a redevelopment plan allowing for up to 200 units and requiring the developer to comply with the township’s stormwater management rules.
Pankaj Lal, a professor of earth and environmental studies at Montclair State University, said rising temperatures are creating more intense, damaging storms. The density of Essex County, with one of the oldest infrastructures in the nation, only exacerbates the damage the storms now create, he said.
Long-term investment and planning will be needed, but on a regional level when it comes to redevelopment and updates to antiquated stormwater and sewage systems, Lal said.
Montclair’s former sustainability officer, Gray Russell, painted a bleak future. But he said most of the redevelopment is going up on surfaces concreted a long time ago.
“It’s just going to get worse over the next 20 years in ways us humans have never seen before,” Russell said.
Until the United States as a whole stops the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by using wind and solar power and electric vehicles, there will be more storms precipitating more moisture and even tornadoes, like the one in Mullica Hill in Gloucester County during Ida, Russell said.
He said Ida’s coming off the back of Henri, and tornadoes like those more typical to Oklahoma touching down in New Jersey only illustrate the change in weather patterns.
David Korfhage, group coordinator for Montclair Climate Action, said climate change is with us: “It’s clear we are here. It’s a matter of whether we get a little bit hotter or a lot hotter.”
To slow climate change, the group promotes choosing mass transit over vehicles and a switch to a renewable energy source by joining the energy aggregation program offered by Montclair and several neighboring communities.
Spiller said one only has to look at Montclair and New Jersey overall to see that climate change is real.
Russell agreed. “I think this [storm] absolutely is a sign of climate change. When you see intense storms like this, flooding we haven’t seen in decades, it’s going to require bold action. We are going to have to address it. We have to get infrastructure funding. We need those funds here in Montclair. We’re going to have to upgrade, change, redesign a lot of the things we’ve had to do in the past.”
In the meantime, Russell called on residents to create more rain gardens, plant more trees and collect water in rain barrels. He called on developers to create more green space with pocket parks and green, permeable parking lots.
In July, the Township Council voted to embark on a study of Montclair’s greenhouse emissions levels, and in response to create a plan for Montclair to do its part to lower those emissions.
Both Russell and Korfhage said towns need to be better prepared for the new normal — more intense storms that bring on flash floods and heat waves that result in blackouts.
“Perhaps we need bigger pipes [to carry the stormwater], but we need to be better prepared and to adapt,” Russell said.
As storms become more frequent, Montclair is investigating creating a microgrid, to be housed at Mountainside hospital, intended to provide power to nearby essential buildings in the case of an outage. It could power the hospital, the nearby fire station that houses the Office of Emergency Management, Glenfield School, which could be used as a shelter, and the senior citizen housing building.
In March, after a feasibility study concluded that Montclair was a suitable location for a microgrid, the state Board of Public Utilities Office of Clean Energy awarded the township a $679,500 grant to have an engineering team design the project. The design project has not yet gone out to bid.
“Right now we have a hole in the boat, and we are bailing out buckets of water that just keep filling the boat back up. Unless we stop the leak we are going to sink the boat,” Russell said.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, flooding is the most common and costly type of natural disaster throughout the United States, and one in four flood insurance claims comes from outside flood zones. One inch of water in an average-sized home can cause more than $25,000 in damage.
And the threat of that sort of damage isn’t only from a so-called “100-year” storm — one that has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year — Yacobellis said. It’s the twice- or three-times-a-year storms that are the threats now, he said.
In the future, more homeowners will be opting for flood coverage on their insurance policies, he said.
As a result of this storm, Yacobellis has created a fund to help local residents and businesses recover. Its goals include providing assistance to low-income homeowners and renters who do not have flood insurance, and to those who got denied coverage by their insurance companies.
Lal, the MSU professor, suggests for the immediate future residents should take flash flooding alerts seriously for every storm, pointing to the 27 New Jerseyans who lost their lives in the rushing, rising waters of Ida.
“We may have been lucky with Henri. … People should have listened to the warnings and stayed off the roadways. Loss of property is one thing; loss of lives is another. There is no investment needed for people to take warnings seriously,” Lal said.
After the storm, Montclair Design Shed, which hosts Montclair Design Week in October, added a new program to its agenda, on preparedness for future superstorms. The annual event calls on the community’s creativeness to mobilize action for “a more resilient and equitable future.”
“In the past two days, our communities have experienced profound changes that we can no longer deny,” the group wrote on Facebook Friday, Sept. 3. “Here at DesignShed, we can’t unsee the ways in which Toney’s Brook swelled and crested, creeping under our door while we helplessly watched. We are grateful it wasn’t worse.”
It asked in the post, in response to the threat of climate change, “What if, in contrast to ‘aftermath,’ there was ‘foreground’? — planning, policies and everyday changes that would help prepare for events like Ida.
“If we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that life can change in an instant, and the future we want won’t design itself,” the group wrote.