By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City has a new battle plan to fight a pernicious and familiar enemy – coastal flooding that can swamp the low-lying barrier island during storms.
Known as a floodplain management plan, the document assesses the city’s flood hazards and outlines measures to protect the community from stormwater.
“Ultimately, the desire would be to have absolutely no flooding,” City Solicitor Paul Baldini said.
Baldini conceded that it would be unrealistic to stop all flooding in Sea Isle, but he described an array of flood-control projects during a presentation Tuesday on the latest version of the floodplain management plan.
City officials said the plan must be updated every year and is a crucial part of Sea Isle’s designation as a “Class 3” community in the National Flood Insurance Program overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Sea Isle was one of the first municipalities in New Jersey to gain Class 3 status under FEMA’s “Community Rating System,” which gives local property owners a 35 percent discount on their flood insurance policies.
Once in danger of being thrown out of the National Flood Insurance Program in 1993, Sea Isle has undergone a dramatic transformation since then and is now considered one of the nation’s leading communities in flood prevention, city officials say.
“We showed FEMA we were serious about addressing the problem,” Baldini said.
Sea Isle’s flood-control program is headed by Neil Byrne, the city construction official and floodplain manager. Byrne persevered to secure the city’s Class 3 ranking with FEMA and continues to pursue other flood insurance discounts for local property owners.
“I never saw a discount that I did not go out and get,” Byrne said.
Byrne credited the support he receives from Mayor Leonard Desiderio and City Council as critical for building a strong relationship with FEMA.
“If you don’t have the backing of your mayor and Council, you don’t get anywhere,” he said during the floodplain management presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Over the years, Sea Isle has implemented a series of major flood-mitigation initiatives, such as restoring the beaches and dunes, building bulkheads along the bayfront, upgrading the drainage systems, elevating its roads and erecting berms and levees.
In 2019, Sea Isle installed 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.
The flood-warning system includes 78 flashing road signs scattered throughout town in neighborhoods most vulnerable to stormwater. Sensors detect rising floodwater and activate the flashing signs to warn motorists of danger.
Another high-tech tool installed in 2019 is a “flood cam” that livestreams images on a 24-hour basis at the corner of 40th Street and Central Avenue, another area in town that gets swamped with stormwater. Serving as another early warning system for flooding, the webcam helps residents and visitors to avoid stormwater as they travel around the city.
Sea Isle also built its first stormwater pumping station in 2019 to protect the flood-prone bayfront neighborhood at 38th Street and Sounds Avenue. In the future, the city plans to broaden its flood-control strategy by elevating more roads and building more pumping stations in vulnerable neighborhoods, including the area between 44th and 47th streets.
“From an infrastructure standpoint, flood mitigation remains our highest priority,” Desiderio said Tuesday while delivering his annual State of the City address.
Desiderio says in remarks in the introduction of the floodplain management report that Sea Isle “faces many challenges to remain a viable community for many years into the future,” including rising sea levels, more severe coastal storms and nuisance flooding.
“As mayor I am committed to facing these challenges on behalf of the visitors and residents of the city,” he said. “These challenges will be met by my administration through dedicated hard work, creative ideas, long term thinking and planning and innovative projects to protect our community.”
Every five years a new floodplain management plan is written, with updates required on an annual basis. Baldini described the plan as a “blueprint” that will allow Sea Isle to stay “ahead of the curve.”
“We’re not alone. It’s not just us. It’s happening everywhere,” Baldini said of flooding at other parts of the Jersey Shore and around the world.
He noted, for instance, that Venice, Italy, was inundated in November with its highest flood levels in 50 years, forcing the closure of the iconic St. Mark’s Square after it was left underwater.
“We don’t want that to be Sea Isle,” he said of the flooding in St. Mark’s.