Hurricane Sandy was a harsh wake-up call for Jersey shore communities, a reminder of their vulnerability in the face of predicted sea-level rise, more intense storms and increasingly frequent coastal flooding.

Now that post-storm cleanup and rebuilding is slowing, New Jersey shore communities, aided by non-profits and academic centers, are developing comprehensive resiliency plans to better prepare for the longer-term challenges of climate change.

Remembering Sandy's wrath

In Tuckerton Beach, N.J., a back-bay lagoon community in Ocean County, bay waters surged over tiny inlets cut into the neighborhood. Aerial photos from the storm show lines of houses stranded in the swollen bay, streets and yards covered.

"The next day, we came down here and I thought I was in a war zone," said Tuckerton Borough administrator Jenny Gleghorn, who remembers water higher than her head.

"You had bells going off because of fire alarms where the homes were completely knocked off their foundations, gas pipes completely exposed and all you hear is the noise of gas leaking," Gleghorn said. "It was horrible looking afterwards."

Today, the community looks more or less like a typical suburban development built around canals, with most homes replaced or repaired and put up on stilts.

As homeowners rebuilt, the borough of Tuckerton repaired destroyed infrastructure with an eye toward resiliency: it relocated its inundated police department out of a flood plain, and has plans to replace sewer and water pipes with salt-resistant materials.

In repairing a main road after debris were cleared, the borough added extra layers of asphalt to the center of the street, to keep it above water during floods. 

"Just enough so that if you had to get police in here or ambulance in here you could ride the center line and make sure that you're out of the water," Gleghorn said.

Planning for a watery future

With immediate repairs now over, Tuckerton and many other municipalities are beginning to grapple with planning for a much longer-term challenge: sea-level rise. Rutgers researchers project sea level will rise between 13 to 28 inches by 2050, while New Jersey itself gradually sinks.

Non-profit groups, including New Jersey Future and the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, are working with local communities to develop comprehensive resiliency plans using maps with up-to-date sea level rise projections.

Lisa Auermuller, watershed coordinator at the Cousteau reserve in Tuckerton, is working with about 20 municipalities on the shore, from Monmouth County down to the Delaware Bay. Most are in the planning stages, working toward developing an action plan to mitigate long-term risk.

"We're looking at things like evacuation routes in the communities," Auermuller said. "Are they accessible with an additional foot of water posed by sea level rise? Are there school districts in flood planes? If they are, we'll work with them to think about where they should move them to."

Are vulnerable populations, like nursing home residents, located in risky areas, and if so, should they be moved?

"They're ginormous questions for a municipality in whole to be dealing with," Auermuller said. "We hear that this is too big all the time."

"We can't be the only towns that are in this situation"

Auermuller said climate change planning in New Jersey is largely happening from the bottom up. Non-profits and academic centers, like the Cousteau Reserve and the Dodge Foundation, are advising local communities and parceling out grants.

The Borough of Tuckerton joined with surrounding Little Egg Harbor Township for Sandy cleanup and resiliency planning. Still, administrator Jenny Gleghorn said it feels like a tiny town facing a huge challenge.

"If the state of New Jersey would just say, 'This is the type of thing that you need to do, and here's some funding to help that out,' I think a lot of towns would benefit from that," Gleghorn said. "We can't be the only towns that are in this situation."

According to the Georgetown Climate Center, every state on the eastern seaboard except for New Jersey already has, or is actively developing, a statewide climate change adaptation plan.

Delaware and Maryland require state agencies to consider sea level rise in construction projects that use state money.

In Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut, local or state authorities must take sea level rise into account when issuing permits for development on the coast.

Critics: state moving in wrong direction

Tuckerton Beach and other neighborhoods on man-made lagoons are particularly at risk as sea levels rise. These neighborhoods were built on top of former marshes that were filled in with sand and muck from dredging. Houses were constructed just above sea level.

Recently, John Miller, a water resources engineer and certified floodplain manager with Princeton Hydro, showed me around the lagoon community of Mystic Island.

We stopped on Twin Lakes Boulevard, a main road with about a dozen smaller streets attached, jutting out like ribs into the water. Miller had a map of projected sea levels for the year 2050 loaded onto his phone.

"We're actually at a low point right here," Miller said. "Right where we are in 2050 will be under water twice a month."

The road is a central spine providing access to the smaller streets in the community.

"Twice a month, you would have a condition where, during a high tide event, for several hours you would not be able to pass this area," Miller said.

Marshes stopped being dredged and filled in the 1970s, with the passage of New Jersey's wetland protection rules. This June, the state proposed changes to a related set of regulations governing coastal permitting. The Department of Environmental Protection aims to consolidate two overlapping sets of rules into one, streamline application processes and cut down on red tape. The re-write is part of Governor Christie's Red Tape Review Commission.

The regulations are open for public comment on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection website through Aug. 1. 

Critics, including floodplain manager John Miller, say the proposed revisions go beyond cutting red tape and will make development in vulnerable areas easier, at a time when it should be more closely scrutinized.

"They won't allow another Mystic Island, but they'll take the areas that are uplands or disturbed areas and you will be able to add additional density to those areas," Miller said.

One of the proposed rule changes would allow the building of new marinas, and the expansion of existing facilities to include restaurants. It is an attempt to bolster the recreational boating industry, which was hard-hit by the economic downturn and hurricane Sandy.

Marina owners, including Kenny Kooyenga, owner of Vintage Marine Group and Cedar Cove Marina, are vocally supporting the change.

Sitting on the dock at his Tuckerton marina, Kooyenga said the economic downturn gutted the business.

"We are at a 62-slip marina and as you take a look around there's more water than there are boats, so I'm only sitting on 12 occupied slips," Kooyenga said.

"Permitting for a little bit more activity in and around the waterfront in whatever direction that may go... is certainly something that I would welcome and entertain whole heartedly," Kooyenga said.

The proposed changes allow for automated permitting for reconstruction of bulkheads, and building piers, docks, pilings, and boat lifts in man-made lagoons.

The proposed changes would also ease the permitting process for two houses or a duplex on a lot, as well as houses located within 100-feet of a navigable body of water.

The Department of Environmental Protection's Larry Hajna clarified that this does not apply to wetlands or other protected areas.

"We're not talking about building on dunes, or building in environmentally sensitive areas, we're talking about basically infilling areas on the islands that have not been developed," Hajna said.

Hajna said the rules would make the permitting process less onerous for buildings that likely would have been built anyway.  

Structures will have to meet new state and National Flood Insurance Program standards, as well as local construction requirements.

Still, floodplain manager John Miller and some of the most vocal environmental groups in the state see the rule change as a missed opportunity to incorporate lessons learned from Sandy into coastal land use policy.

In the face of rising seas, he argues putting more people in low-lying areas near the coast will make it harder to evacuate them, or reach them with emergency services.

"When you are moving structures closer to the water, when you are increasing densities, when you are changing what are called water-dependent uses, you are now starting to get more and more development into high-risk areas, and that is our concern," said Miller, who testified at a public hearing on the rule changes for his role as the legislative committee chair of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management.

No easy solution for the shore

The state heralds its Blue Acres program, which provides buyouts to voluntary sellers of land in floodplains around the state, as a move toward increased resiliency. Since Sandy, the idea of planned retreat from the shore has gained exposure, but on the ground in shore communities, it seems to be gaining little traction. The challenge, of course, is that increased shore development is good for developers -- and for state and local coffers.

Even after the devastation wrought by Sandy, Tuckerton administrator Jenny Gleghorn said not rebuilding destroyed homes along the shore was not an option.

"Unfortunately, a big part of our revenue comes from the shoreline homes and we really need to keep that up there or the borough can't function," Gleghorn said.

A recent report sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers found that risk-reduction projects on the Atlantic Coast have focused on fortification, not on encouraging development in lower-risk areas. That has led to a stark increase in losses during coastal storms over the past century.

The report authors write they do not have a magic bullet as increased flooding and stronger storms are expected, but they say a coordinated response across levels of government will be key.