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The Long, Slow Drowning of the New Jersey Shore

The Long, Slow Drowning of the New Jersey Shore
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The Long, Slow Drowning of the New Jersey Shore

The Long, Slow Drowning of the New Jersey Shore

No city is more vulnerable than Atlantic City, the largest and poorest municipality on the Jersey Shore. Beginning in 2030, according to the body’s study, the city will begin to incur more than $ 300 million a year in flood damage over the same half-century; by 2050, NOAA estimates that Atlantic City will experience 65 to 155 harmful flooding per year.

What began in 1854 as the vision of a seaside resort where city dwellers could experience the healing powers of the salty Atlantic air turned, over the course of a century and a half, into a seaside carnival. In the mid-twentieth century, an estimated 16 million visitors came to Atlantic City during the summer months, invading its beach, boardwalk, and amusement piers. City officials hastily filled the surrounding salt marshes with mud and sand to make way for a year-round population that peaked at 69,000 in 1947. When state and federal laws in the 1970s put end to the indiscriminate filling of wetlands, it was already too late: Miles of housing – disproportionately occupied by working-class immigrants and African Americans, due to redlining – lay on a building plot. result.

When Farrell arrived in South Jersey in 1971, as a newly graduated 29-year-old doctoral student, Stockton’s main campus had not yet been completed, so he taught his geology and marine science courses in the suites. from the first floor of a broken hotel near the Atlantic City boardwalk. The city was at the end of a long decline, in part thanks to the development of neighboring coastal towns that were much less populated. In the 1980s, the city tried to reinvent itself as a gaming mecca; on the water’s edge, real estate moguls like Steve Wynn, Carl C. Icahn and Donald Trump have built sprawling casinos. But the small businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods withered and the city experienced a second decline. Sandy caused the collapse. The poverty rate has climbed to nearly 40%, the highest in New Jersey, and Atlantic City’s severe flooding problems have effectively been ignored. “There was no interest,” Farrell told me.

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One morning in February 2020, I visited Atlantic City’s new Director of Planning, Barbara Woolley-Dillon, whose first days on the job had been consumed by the urgent need to slow the flooding. Woolley-Dillon’s downtown office occupies a lavish corner of Town Hall, a hard cube of concrete and black glass. Since 2016, the city’s imperiled finances had been under state control, and by that time the planning and development department had temporarily shrunk to two people. The view through the huge windows looked out over the northeastern flank of the city, where the renowned Hard Rock and Ocean casino hotels towered over the townhouses and apartment complexes. The sight, said Woolley-Dillon, who is in his 50s, “is my inspiration to do better for residents.”

In its study of the rear bays, the body imagines the protection of Absecon Island, which is divided between Atlantic City and three other cities, with a storm barrier and a cross barrier as well as connections to the dikes and walls. anti-flooding. Projected costs could exceed $ 6 billion. Woolley-Dillon was a former planner of another barrier island town, Mantoloking, which was razed by Sandy just before she started there; she is a seasoned disaster recovery veteran. But when I questioned her about the body plan, she sighed. It echoed a comparison I had heard several times from other shore experts. “Do you know what happened with Katrina? ” she said. “They hadn’t foreseen the worst-case scenario. Once the dikes were broken, you were stuck, you were in a pool with your house not moving. We don’t want to be in the same position.

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I noticed that the body study also mentioned retirement. Woolley-Dillon said if homeowners wanted to sell their home to a state-run buy-back program, she couldn’t stop them. But she preferred to focus on the city’s official position – that it was committed to adapting to climate change rather than backing down. She talked about what they were building: a medical center; a resilient micro-grid; and an expansion of the Atlantic City campus in Stockton that would include an institute focused on coastal resilience. Since our meeting, the city has positioned itself to be the employment hub for New Jersey’s burgeoning offshore wind industry, with a training center, conferences and a research center. “We do a lot of things for resilience,” she said. “But when you’re on a barrier island, it’s very difficult. How much more can you do? “

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