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5 years after Sandy, NJ not ready for next big one | Editorial

State government responded well to the public safety crisis when Hurricane Sandy knocked New Jersey on its heels, but five years later, the Shore is still struggling to rebuild.

The broken Seaside Heights Jet Star Roller Coaster is an enduring image of Sandy’s destruction.
The broken Seaside Heights Jet Star Roller Coaster is an enduring image of Sandy’s destruction.Read more(AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Five years ago this week, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the New Jersey Shore. Billions have been spent to rebuild what was damaged or destroyed, but hardly enough has been done to protect New Jersey from the next big one.

Flood insurance standards forced property owners to upgrade their buildings, but the state has yet to write a smart coastal building code or make a commitment to protect back bay areas, which is where most of the Sandy damage occurred. Today, even routine nor'easters and winter storms take a toll on barrier islands and back-bay developments.

The region is fragile, and Sandy proved it. The storm knocked the state on its heels on Oct. 29, 2012. The government responded well to the public safety crisis, but it gets a failing grade in helping many still struggling to rebuild.

Nearly $4.2 billion in federal funds were sent to New Jersey, but it was not enough for many property owners to rebuild. As many as 2,400 families are still trying to make their homes livable, according to the New Jersey Resource Project, a grassroots group assisting Sandy victims. Some families are living in their cars.

Adding to the confusion were unscrupulous contractors who came in like sharks to feed on the state's misery.

Now, these same problems are playing out in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico as they try to recover from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But the Trump administration is dithering over reinstating a federal rule it eliminated in August  that improved building standards in flood-prone areas. That rule change is why it is essential for states to supersede the weakened federal standards.

The best move New Jersey made to prevent future damage was to spend $100 million from its Blue Acres program  —  run by the Department of Environmental Protection — to buy homes affected by Sandy or repeated flooding. It will return those properties to nature. The state should consider expanding the program to remove more buildings in harm's way rather than spend dwindling funds to rebuild the same properties again and again.

Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno, understand the value of coastal protection, but they have not made clear how much either of them would do about it. New Jerseyans must let whoever wins Tuesday's election know just how important coastal protection is to them —  including those who don't live or play at the Shore, since those towns contributed $44 billion to the state's overall economy last year.

The next governor should use the time before the next big storm to streamline the recovery bureaucracy and provide a list of pre-approved, competent contractors to residents as soon as possible.

The state should also build a resilient infrastructure to handle storms by maintaining oceanfront dunes and, if necessary, forcing back-bay communities to fortify bulkheads and increase wetlands to buffer them from another Sandy.

Equally important, the next governor must acknowledge that the building code for the Shore, as well as for areas bordering rivers and creeks, should be updated to take into greater consideration the increasing probability of flood damage. Another big storm is a certainty. New Jersey needs to be better prepared.