TRENTON – Environmental groups issued unflattering report card grades Thursday to the governor, president, state and federal agencies and the Legislature for their work in the year since Superstorm Sandy battered New Jersey.
But they said the failure to enact policy changes in the last 12 months does not mean an opportunity no longer exists to plan better for future storms, the advocates said six days before the storm’s one-year anniversary.
“It’s clear that we can’t just commemorate Sandy,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “We have to act. (Federal) task force recommendations are already gathering dust.’’
The grades – failures for Gov. Chris Christie, the Departments of Community Affairs and Environmental Protection, and incompletes for the Legislature and federal officials – were a result of their rush to rebuild by Memorial Day to pre-Sandy levels – ensuring repetition of mistakes and results – rather than envisioning a safer, resilient future.
The environmentalists said science-based planning is being sidelined by shortsighted business goals.
“Some of these changes may take years,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the N.J. Sierra Club. “They’re not going to happen overnight. They’re not going to happen in a year. But we have to be smarter than the next storm.”
State and federal failures include refusal to recognize climate change as a reality, allowing homes to be rebuilt in the same at-risk areas, unwillingness to buy out properties, and allowing inadequate dune projects, the environmentalists said.
“Sand alone is not going to help,’’ said John Weber of the Surfrider Foundation as he touted his group’s efforts to plant dune grass in locations such as South Seaside Park, Ship Bottom and Lavalette.
He pointed to the fact that in towns such as Spring Lake, Manasquan and Sea Bright the Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to restore the shore in accordance with late-1990s design templates of wide, flat beaches without dunes, a recipe, he said, for future storm damage.
“The governor doesn’t get it,’’ said O’Malley. “Climate change is too esoteric and above his pay grade.’’
Some states are getting it right, they said. “New York has incentives to move out of harm’s way,’’ Tittel said. “New Jersey is paying bonuses to move back into harm’s way.”
And the state lawmakers did not escape scrutiny. One bill the Legislature did pass – to allow development on high-hazard urban piers – was considered horrible by environmentalists who argued it deliberately would put people in danger. The governor vetoed it over concerns it would jeopardize eligibility in the national flood insurance program.
Lack of transparency in the administration has not helped, they said, pointing to non-appearances at legislative hearings by Christie Cabinet members.
So at federal and state levels, as a result of what the environmentalists said are politically expedient responses to the storm, by not revising building codes, by not approaching dune projects better, the state will be at risk of losing federal money and of leaving residents in harm’s way.
And the groups held themselves up for a close look as well, admitting they need to do more in terms of better educating the public.
“We’re increasing the likelihood of more victims in the future,’’ said David Pringle of the N.J. Environmental Federation, if state and federal governments don’t change their approach.
Access Full Report Cards: