Peer-to-Peer Case Study: Brigantine Beach, New Jersey

Post-Sandy Recovery Efforts Provide Opportunity to Prepare for Future Flooding

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Summary

In 2012, Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy caused $15.4 million in flood damage to the City of Brigantine Beach, a barrier island near Atlantic City. Brigantine Beach used the post-recovery period to prepare to improve its flood mitigation and community resilience planning. These efforts led to new floodplain management ordinances, greater community buy-in on the need for flood preparedness, and progress on an early warning system. City staff members share credit for positive results, along with an environmental consulting firm, a grassroots organization that formed to help residents rebuild, and elected officials’ strong leadership and support. Brigantine Beach’s hard work enabled the city to improve its Community Rating System from Class 6 to Class 5, making it eligible for significantly lower flood insurance rates. The city aims to apply for a Class 4 rating by May 2017.

Ed Stinson
“We know we have infrastructure that helps things, but we have to recognize there will be a storm where we can’t prevent flooding.”

- Ed Stinson, City Manager and City Engineer, City of Brigantine Beach

Lessons Learned

  • Explain the danger of a false sense of security. Residents may become complacent about flood risks if flood protection infrastructure works well right now. Conveying the nature of the threat, both present and future, is critical.
  • Help the community understand “resilience talk.” For instance, weather forecasts address risk in a different way from flood maps, which can confuse people. Stand ready to translate using everyday language.
  • Good communication skills are essential. When conveying technical information to residents and elected officials, it is critical to know what’s important to them and how they like to receive information.
  • Share information across municipal boundaries. Learning how other communities are approaching resilience provides peer support and ideas for solving similar problems.
  • Recognize that community changes can be painful, but keep the focus on the prize. A town-wide effort to elevate houses will cause growing pains. Listen to concerns while coming back to the benefits—a safer, more secure, more economically stable future.
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The Process

After Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy made landfall near Brigantine Island in October 2012, the City of Brigantine Beach examined its existing planning and capital improvement documents to better prepare for future storms and flooding. The city also informed residents on what was at stake and how to participate in the process to build resilience.

Brigantine Island has about 9,000 full-time residents and a summer seasonal population of about 30,000. Slightly more than half of the 9,222 housing units in the city are seasonal second homes or rentals. The 264 structures declared substantially damaged had to be brought into compliance with current National Flood Insurance Program regulations for new construction. Many damaged structures were older homes built without floodplain management in mind.

Strategic Report and Findings

The city began by focusing attention on overall flood resilience. A planning grant funded through the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and Community Development Block Grant enabled the city to commission a May 2014 recovery planning report prepared by Rutala Associates, a planning consulting firm.

The report’s top recommendations included improving zoning and floodplain ordinances; replacing a major city well; elevating the only road on and off the island; and building or improving barriers around the bayside and oceanfront. Additional recommendations included going above and beyond state freeboard requirements; adopting velocity zone (V zone) building standards in the coastal A zone; encouraging green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff; adding living shorelines to stabilize shoreline edges; and lowering the city’s federal flood insurance rates through the Community Rating System.

For project funding, the city applied for long-term community recovery grants and for low-cost loans through the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust. The grant applications paid off, and the city ultimately needed loans only for two projects.

Elevating Houses

Ed Stinson, city engineer and city manager, believed that future storms and flooding might overwhelm any barriers or pump stations installed. Another concern was that residents accustomed to no flooding because of unseen infrastructure would become complacent about future storm risks to property.

Because of these concerns, the city adopted the report’s recommendations and increased freeboard requirements above and beyond what the state requires. Houses where base flood elevation is nine feet are now required to have three feet of freeboard. Houses with base flood elevation of 10 or 11 feet must have two feet of freeboard.

One problem with full implementation is that fewer than half the houses in Brigantine are primary, year-round residences. That means properties that are either investment rental units or second homes are not eligible for existing financial assistance offered through recovery funding or National Flood Insurance Program hazard mitigation funding.

Community Outreach and Engagement

In the initial aftermath of Sandy, community meetings focused on Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance and National Flood Insurance Program requirements. Soon, however, the meetings included long-term recovery and resilience discussions.

BrigStrong, a grassroots nonprofit organization formed after the storm, ultimately became a long-term recovery group that increased attendance and resilience support by community residents and elected officials. At town-wide resilience meetings, residents viewed maps illustrating sea level rise scenarios and storm surge potential so they could understand that Sandy was not the highest flood the town could experience.

Getting to Resilience

About a year after the report, the city took part in the Getting to Resilience process by the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve. It included assessing resilience strengths and weaknesses, identifying local planning needs, and featuring sea level rise maps to illustrate future flooding impacts. For additional information, see Watershed Outreach Coordinators Help Municipalities Conduct Hazard Resilience Planning.

The community’s final Getting to Resilience report recommended conducting a coastal erosion study, incorporating sea level rise in all planning documents, developing a mitigation plan for repetitive flood-loss areas, and creating a coastal hazard disclosure policy for lenders and real estate agents.

Outcome

The recommendations from the strategic recovery planning report allowed the city to improve its Community Resilience Rating from a 6 to a 5. In addition, points earned by incorporating recommendations from the Getting to Resilience process and report will allow the city to apply for a rating of 4 by May 2017, thereby becoming eligible for further insurance rate reductions.

The community and Stockton University are developing a robust early-warning system for tidal flooding. That will identify problem spots at the neighborhood level based on tide forecasts. The community also is working on a reverse 911 system to alert residents when their property is at risk during a storm.

Next Steps

Officials are moving ahead on the recommended capital improvements for flood reduction and continue to apply for grants. The city is helping residents find potential grant resources to help residents fund the elevation of their houses. The city also is studying its bayfront shoreline to assess whether the city should increase the bulkhead height requirement.

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