By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City will likely face a long and expensive battle to protect the low-lying barrier island from a flooding problem that is only growing worse, municipal officials told residents on Tuesday while presenting the findings of a new stormwater study.
More than a year in the making, the study recommends a series of pumping stations, drainage improvements and even the construction of rock walls as part of a broad strategy to shield the beach resort from floodwater.
“Flooding issues, especially bayfront flooding issues, have become more problematic,” said engineer Andrew Previti, whose firm, Maser Consulting P.A., conducted the study.
Mayor Leonard Desiderio, disputing suggestions from one longtime Sea Isle restaurant owner that it is already too late to stop the flooding, vowed that the city “will attack this problem head-on.”
“We’re going to do the best job we possibly can to fix this problem,” Desiderio said in an interview after the study was unveiled during a City Council meeting.
Desiderio, who is also a Cape May County freeholder, said the city plans to strengthen its partnership with the county to help finance flood-mitigation projects. He added that Sea Isle will also pursue federal and state grants, although he sounded less optimistic about the city’s chances of securing that type of funding.
Noting that other Jersey Shore communities are dealing with similar flooding issues, he said competition will be intense as other beach towns also seek state and federal grants.
“This is a battle that’s going to be really tough,” Desiderio said.
Previti acknowledged that Sea Isle will never be completely immune from flooding, no matter how much money it spends and how many projects it builds over the years. The idea is to target areas of the city that are most vulnerable to stormwater to reduce the flooding problem, particularly along the bayfront, Previti explained.
“We cannot stop flooding,” the 24-page flooding study concludes. “What can be done is to mitigate or reduce the risk of flooding and reduce the adverse impacts caused by flooding.”
Previti told the audience that the study will help Sea Isle in its efforts to obtain flood-mitigation grants and develop a stronger partnership with Cape May County to jointly tackle the problem.
The study does not say how much it will cost and how long it would take to implement the recommendations. In an interview after the Council meeting, Previti estimated it will likely cost tens of millions of dollars and take at least a decade to complete.
Mike Monichetti, whose family has been in the Sea Isle restaurant business for 108 years, thanked city officials for their efforts to reduce flooding, but called it an “impossible” task.
“The sad truth is, I kind of think it’s too late,” Monichetti said. “God, I hope I’m wrong.”
Monichetti is the owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant on Park Road overlooking the bay. He said his restaurant is swamped with flooding, even during moderate coastal storms.
“I just don’t see how you’re going to stop this water,” Monichetti told city officials. “It’s impossible.”
In public remarks during the Council meeting, other local residents and business owners complained that the flooding problem has been dragging on for years and is definitely getting worse.
“We’re talking about the same issues. We’re talking about them again and again,” former City Councilman John Divney said.
Divney urged the city to keep the flooding issue in the spotlight. He suggested that city officials should hold a public workshop to collect feedback from the community.
“Let’s get everybody involved with it,” he said.
Anthony Piperno, who lives at 33rd Street and Landis Avenue, said his neighborhood used to flood about five or six times a year. However, there has been flooding three or four times in just the last two months, he pointed out.
“It’s gotten worse and worse,” Piperno said.
Piperno also said that some of his neighbors have had their cars destroyed by flooding in the past month. Sea Isle and other seashore towns were pounded by a surprisingly strong coastal storm on Oct. 27 that turned streets into rivers of stormwater.
“You’re constantly worried about it,” Nancy Piperno, Anthony Piperno’s wife, said about the flooding. “Sometimes, we’re trapped in our home. We can’t drive anywhere. Sometimes, you can be stuck for 24 hours.”
Members of City Council joined the mayor in assuring residents that the city is committed to addressing the flooding problems. Councilman William Kehner characterized the flooding study as “the first step” in developing an overall strategy to protect the town.
In the study, Maser Consulting notes that Sea Isle has already implemented a series of flood-mitigation initiatives, such as restoring the beaches and dunes, building bulkheads along the bayfront, upgrading the drainage systems and erecting berms and levees.
Replenishment of the beaches and dunes has been going on for more than 50 years with the help of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the study says. In 2015 and 2016, nearly 3 million cubic yards of new sand was pumped on Sea Isle’s entire shoreline during a $40 million beach replenishment project.
In one key recommendation, Maser is urging the city to build stormwater pumping stations in areas susceptible to flooding. Pumping stations would not prevent flooding, but are a way to flush stormwater off the streets faster than existing drainage systems, the study says.
The city is expected to begin construction this month on its first pumping station in the flood-prone neighborhood of 38th Street and Sounds Avenue. The pumping station will complement repaved roads, new drainage improvements and a nearly 4-foot-high rock wall that runs along the sides of 38th Street to protect the bayfront neighborhood.
According to the study, the city should also build berms along roads that are adjacent to the marshes or are in low-lying areas. Berms consist of a combination of dirt wrapped in a geo-textile material and a stone wall that acts as a barrier against stormwater.
Maser is also recommending that the city should install check valves on all of its outfall pipes that currently don’t have them. It is making the same recommendation for county-operated outfall pipes in Sea Isle that currently lack check valves.
Check valves operate by water pressure. When tidal waters rise, they exert pressure on the valves to close. This effectively keeps tidal water out of the system, the study says.
Independent of the study, Sea Isle has approved plans for a citywide early-warning system to keep residents and tourists away from flooded areas. It is billed as the largest project of its kind for any municipality in New Jersey.
As described during a presentation in May to City Council, the flood-warning system would include flashing road signs scattered throughout town in neighborhoods most vulnerable to stormwater. Desiderio announced Tuesday that Sea Isle has been awarded $90,000 in county funding for the warning system, which will include 70 flashing signs.