‘100 year storm,’ or ‘1 percent storm’?

Hudson County prepares for next weather event

With a little luck, the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30, will hold no unpleasant surprises for Hudson County. But one forecast is certain: another major weather event will hit this area sooner or later.
Some residents have been talking about whether severe storms are increasing, or if Hurricane Sandy was just a once-in-a-lifetime event. Others are just wondering if the county is better prepared than it was a year ago.

County AM station didn’t help

In 2009, Hudson County installed an elaborate siren system in every municipality that was supposed to give residents important information in an emergency. While this system was successfully tested several times, it was flooded during Hurricane Sandy and did not work.
In addition, the sirens are primarily meant to direct people to the county AM station, 1710. But Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea said the information he heard on 1710 AM during the hurricane was months out of date.
County spokesman Jim Kennelly said a week ago Friday that the station is meant to be used to disseminate information regarding a countywide emergency (such as a terror attack). Since Sandy affected different parts of the county differently, county officials deferred to local municipalities, he said.
To improve communication in time for the next emergency, O’Dea said the county has beefed up its free “reverse 911” system, officially known as the Emergency Notification System (ENS).
Hudson Country residents can sign up for ENS online through the county website (https://hcnj.onthealert.com) and through ENS forms that are available in county office buildings. Some municipalities are also allowing ENS sign up forms to be mailed with quarterly tax bills.

‘Sandy was a defining event for all of us; the state’s entire energy infrastructure needs to be rethought in light of weather conditions that many predict will continue to occur.’ – Ralph Izzo
“The advantage with this system is we can do very targeted messages,” said O’Dea. “For example, let’s say there a five-block area in downtown Jersey City where we want to evacuate people. We can send e-mails, text messages, and make pre-recorded calls to people in just that area.”
Since the system is new and launched just this summer, O’Dea said many residents still are not aware that it exists and may not be signed up for it yet.
As for the radio station, O’Dea said he was able to get decent reception throughout the county during Hurricane Sandy, but other Hudson County residents said they had a harder time getting reception.
The county hopes to get approval to get more bandwidth for the station, which Kennelly said will improve reception. The county has retained an attorney to help negotiate a stronger signal for the station in the future.
As for keeping the countywide siren system powered, those improvements should come as upgrades are made to the energy infrastructure.

Will severe storms be rare?

Meanwhile, some are wondering whether severe storms will be the norm now.
Dr. Alan Blumberg, a storm scientist and director of Stevens Institute for Technology’s Center for Maritime Systems in Hoboken, has been saying storms are getting more violent, more often, for years. He predicted Hurricane Sandy’s intensity 72 hours before it hit landfall, thanks to the state-of-the-art sensor system he and his colleagues have deployed throughout the area, from the Hudson River to the Jersey Shore. The systems allow scientists to use data to project the damage of a storm a few days before it hits, and according to Blumberg, the data rarely lies.
In Sandy’s aftermath, the term “100 year storm” became a popular phrase used by those who believe that a storm like Sandy – half hurricane, half nor’easter – could only occur once a century. That assertion isn’t necessarily wrong, says Blumberg, but it is flawed and misleading.
“We really need to do away with the phrase ‘100 year storm,’ because if we have a big Sandy-type event this fall, that doesn’t mean at all that we won’t have one for another 99 years,” he said. “I think the people who talk about how this can happen just once in 100 years are totally wrong.”
Instead, Blumberg likes to use the phrase “one percent storm,” which admits that weather events on par with Sandy are rare without dispelling the possibility that they can happen at any time.
“Calling Sandy a 1 percent storm is similar to calling it a 100-year storm, because one year out of 100 is 1 percent,” he said. “But the difference is that the 1 percent renews every year. Something like this can happen whenever, to the point where we can say there is a 1 percent chance that one will occur in any given year.”
He asked, “Do you ignore 1 percent? I wouldn’t ignore 1 percent. One percent is a lot. It’s important to pay attention to, and we really do need to get ready.”
Gov. Chris Christie has said on multiple occasions that he doesn’t believe global warming was to blame for Sandy’s intensity.
Others disagree.
“People have different opinions on climate change,” said Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “But the reality is that the temperature is getting hotter and the storms are becoming more frequent. My position is that we need to make some changes.”

Keeping the power on

While Superstorm Sandy garnered most of the attention and blame for devastating parts of Hudson County last year, it was, in fact, just one in a series of major storms that hit the area in recent years.
Hurricane Irene, which hit in August 2011 and has been eclipsed somewhat by Sandy, actually dropped more rain on the area and caused more flooding, particularly to inland properties. And residents may be surprised to hear that the early snowstorm that came in October 2011 also wreaked havoc on local infrastructure.
In an effort to strengthen the region’s energy infrastructure, PSE&G – northern New Jersey’s main provider of gas and electricity – earlier this year announced its Energy Strong initiative, a $3.9 billion 10-year plan to strengthen and protect its gas and electricity delivery systems from severe weather.
In February, PSE&G filed a funding request with the New Jersey Board of Utilities for $2.6 billion to cover the first five years of improvements and said it later will seek another $1.3 billion to cover the last five years of its improvement plan.
“It’s clear that Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and the October ice storm in 2011 represent extreme weather patterns that have become commonplace,” said PSE&G Chairman and CEO Ralph Izzo.
In short, PSE&G’s Energy Strong plan will protect switching stations and substations from water damage, reinforce utility poles and overhead wires, replace gas lines in flood-prone communities, and use new technology to improve how the energy grid functions.
Twelve switching stations and substations that PSE&G plans to either raise or fortify are located in Hudson County, including six in Jersey City, three in Hoboken, one in North Bergen, and one in Bayonne. The twelfth station is located in Kearny.
The agency plans to allocate $1.7 billion to raise, relocate, or fortify/protect a total of 31 switching stations and substations statewide.
Another $454 million will be spent to implement so-called “smart grid” technology. About $200 million will go towards creating back-ups within the energy system so secondary sources of power can be accessed if primary sources fail. About 20 miles of overhead electrical lines will be relocated underground, an undertaking that will cost an estimated $60 million.

Construction changes and flood walls

Sandy has also forced discussions, both locally and nationally, regarding future development.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently in the process of revising flood maps and construction recommendations. Draft recommendations released earlier this year call for the lowest floor of a development to be built at least one foot above the base flood elevation.
The recommendations would apply only to new developments that have yet to be approved. But the guidelines could force architectural designs that city planners and retailers don’t like. Earlier this year planners from Jersey City and Hoboken met with FEMA officials to discuss alternative solutions to the problem.
Sandy has also prompted interest in the construction of flood walls, a controversial idea to minimize the impact of another major storm.
“The water has to have someplace to go,” Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan told The Reporter in March. So, let’s say a city like Hoboken has floodwalls. Well, maybe Hoboken is protected. But that flood water doesn’t go away. It just goes next door to Jersey City or West New York. So, floodwalls have to be a region wide option for them to be effective.”
Sheehan added that floodwalls can also be breached if a storm surge is high enough.
At present, the flood wall concept is still being debated and is not being implemented by any Hudson County municipality.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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