The Hudson Challenge: Are Critical Infrastructure Upgrades Overdue?

On Jersey’s Gold Coast, aging infrastructure can no longer be ignored.

Hoboken Train Station
The century-old Erie-Lackawanna Terminal, built over the PATH station, flooded when the Hudson River rose 13 feet during the storm.
AP Photo/Charles Sykes/Corbis.

While most eyes fixed on the Jersey Shore, Hudson County took its own severe hits from Hurricane Sandy. In densely populated Hoboken and Jersey City, the rising waters of the Hudson River tossed boats onto sidewalks, smashed through storefront windows, filled parked cars with sludge and overwhelmed the sewage system, backing up raw waste into streets and basements.

“Water came up everywhere,” says Paul Silverman, a longtime Jersey City developer. “It was unbelievable.”
In Hoboken, while most of Washington Street was spared, the city’s historic PATH station was severely damaged. Newark Street and Observer Highway disappeared under water. The city’s low-lying west end was swamped.

In Jersey City, the river advanced more than half a mile inland, surrounding City Hall with nearly 3 feet of water. In Liberty State Park, the river rose as high as 13 feet, pouring over the waterfront walkway, scattering paving blocks in its wake. In both cities, the damage to homes and businesses was extensive. Public transportation, its rail lines and roadways covered with debris, came to a standstill.

The cleanup is under way, but Hudson County, like the Shore, is facing tough questions about how to repair and rebuild.

The challenge is threefold: Hudson County’s infrastructure is aging, its population is booming, and changing weather patterns can no longer be ignored. “Climate change is here,” says Alan Blumberg, director of Davidson Laboratory/Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. “We are going to have more frequent storms and more intense storms.”

Blumberg, a PhD and physical oceanographer whose lab monitors the Hudson River, says the water level has probably been rising for at least 100 years. “It’s accelerating little by little,” he says, and cities along the river need to pay attention.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer says her administration is working with state and federal agencies on short- and long-term solutions to protect the city against extreme weather. “We need to figure out how to become more resilient,” Zimmer says. She hopes to make Hoboken a model for upgraded infrastructure.

Hoboken was built partially on wetlands and is particularly vulnerable to storms. During Sandy, all three of Hoboken’s nearly half-century-old electrical substations, located below sea level, were flooded with the river’s brackish water. The salt immediately began corroding the aged equipment; some of the delay in restoring power was due to the search for parts. Zimmer says the city is focused on finding a way to protect the substations from future floods, possibly by building walls around them or somehow allowing them to float. Alternatively, backup electrical systems using solar or battery power could be installed on rooftops, starting with the most critical municipal buildings.

Hoboken’s PATH station was still out of use a month after Sandy. Zimmer says the Port Authority has been working overtime to install ship doors and pumps to protect the control room, which flooded during the storm. In the future, the control panels will most likely be moved to a higher elevation. “We are going to have a much more resilient PATH system,” says Zimmer.

Blumberg’s work also focuses on helping coastal cities adapt infrastructure to accommodate changing weather patterns. He says he would recommend Hoboken build a low protective wall around low-lying portions of the city, such as the PATH station—if it is done so as not to redirect water to other parts of Hoboken or Jersey City and does not interfere with commuter access to the ferries. “We have to take a holistic approach,” says Blumberg.

Another long-term issue in Hudson County is sewage. In Hoboken, the North Hudson Sewerage Authority in 2010 installed a multimillion-dollar wet-weather pump station to alleviate flooding in the vulnerable downtown. Though capable of pumping 75 million gallons a day, it was overwhelmed in the hurricane. Zimmer says Hoboken will consider buying additional pumps.

The sewerage authority also treats wastewater from Weehawken, Union City and West New York. Storm water collects in sewers on each block and runs through the same pipes used to move wastewater from homes and businesses to the treatment plant in Hoboken. When the system is overloaded, a combination of rain and sewage backs up. That’s what occurred during Sandy, and the overflow contaminated everything it touched, including homes, parks and businesses.

Combined sewer systems also pose a problem for the environment. In emergencies, the state allows stressed treatment plants to release partially treated sewage into waterways. “Every time there is a minor rainfall, they can spew into the waterways,” says Captain Bill Sheehan, founder and executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, an independent environmental protection group. In New Jersey there are more than 200 points where combined sewer systems can release overflow into waterways. Sheehan says that figure was supposed to be reduced by 1985, in accord with the Clean Water Enforcement Act, but New Jersey officials have not enforced the limit. “When it comes to sewers, it’s really hard to get political leaders to make that investment,” says Sheehan, adding that most people don’t think about sewers until their property is damaged and their lives upended.

Secaucus is an exception. In the 1970s, the town secured federal dollars to build a modern sewage treatment plant that Sheehan says works well under the worst conditions. The plant normally treats between 3 million and 4 million gallons of sewage a day. During Sandy, that number rose to 20 million gallons, according to Sheehan. “That didn’t overwhelm the plant,” says Sheehan. “They just ramped it up.”
To prepare for the next Sandy, cities also can allocate space for rain gardens with grass, trees and other features that absorb excess water. Zimmer supports the idea, but says it could not handle a huge storm surge.

“It’s a major breach on the city,” she says, “so it is going to require a major infrastructure solution.”
Another green idea is to protect existing wetlands that have survived Hudson County’s development. “We’ve built right up to the edge of the marsh—and on the marsh—to the point now where a big storm like this comes along, and people’s homes that are normally high and dry are under water,” says Sheehan.

Blumberg says the issue is not unique to New Jersey. Half the residents of the United States now live on a coastline. “We are undergoing the greatest exodus in humankind,” he says. “People are moving to the coast. We need to address that.” As for Sandy being a 100- or even 500-year storm, Blumberg notes that there is really only 80 years of data. “Everyone’s just guessing.”

But he maintains that New Jersey is due for a storm combining the rainfall of Hurricane Irene with the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. “It’s coming,” he says.

In Jersey City, Silverman says his development company will consider climate change when building in the future. “You can’t mess around with mother nature,” he says. Though his buildings are already prepared for strong winds, Silverman says electrical equipment and other items vulnerable to water will be installed at higher elevations. “We are going to build a little higher, a little stronger, a little safer.”

Click on the links below to read more Hurricane Sandy recovery stories:

Sea Change: Post-Sandy Rebuilding
The post-Sandy rebuilding is about to begin. How will the lessons learned change the face of our Shore?

How Much Will Safer Shore Homes Cost?
How we rebuild Shore homes and businesses may be as critical as where.

Building Better Boardwalks: How Asbury’s Modern Boardwalk Withstood the Storm
Here’s how Asbury Park did it—largely sparing its popular promenade from devastating damage.

Comfort in Numbers: Life After Sandy
Her Bay Head home battered by Sandy, our home & garden editor learns to roll with the punches.


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