Hoboken Wants to Be Next Urban Flood Protection Model

By KATIE ZEZIMA | December 17, 2013

This city was nearly swallowed by the Hudson River during Superstorm Sandy last year. Three of its electrical substations and most of its firehouses flooded, businesses and homes were submerged, and people were trapped in high-rises because elevators didn’t work and lobbies were under water.

Hoboken Recovery After Sandy. Photo: George Armstrong/FEMA
Hoboken Recovery After Sandy. Photo: George Armstrong/FEMA

Now, more than a year after the storm, Hoboken is looking to become a national flood mitigation model. Its mayor has become an advocate for better planning and more funding for flood-prone urban areas, and for changing national flood insurance and relief regulations to better reflect the realities of city life.

“For the future of Hoboken, it’s imperative,” Mayor Dawn Zimmer said. “In a lot of ways the federal polices make it very difficult for urban areas. They’re not really focused on urban areas. They’re much more tailored to suburban areas.”

This low-lying city of 50,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan is trying to exempt itself from being in a flood zone and out of expensive flood insurance premiums for homeowners and businesses, the cost of which will increase with new FEMA maps.

“We can’t raise our homes on pilings,” she said.

Zimmer wants to incentivize the use of green roofs and rain barrels to capture, then slowly release, rainwater. A Dutch design firm came up with a plan for the city. It’s one of 10 finalists in a competition held by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment called “Rebuild by Design” that seeks to protect the coastline from New Jersey to Connecticut from catastrophic storms.

The Hoboken plan would use parks as a defense against floods. A so-called green belt would ring the city, with parks providing protection from the rising Hudson on the waterfront, and acting as storage on the western side.

Water collected from those protective areas would be connected to water containment areas, which would slowly release the water back into the Hudson after a storm.

The riverbank is not Hoboken’s only problem; the porous landfill in the western side of the city allowed water to come in during Sandy.

“Hoboken used to be an island. It’s not anymore. But the landfill behind it is vulnerable,” said Henk Ovink, a senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “If the city can deal with water, not only by preventing it from coming in, but once it’s in having a way to deal with it, then the city becomes far more resilient.”

Zimmer wants to make the city self-sufficient enough so residents can shelter in place and have basic infrastructure such as cellphone service and electricity.

The city council is considering legislation requiring all new buildings to have their electrical and elevator mechanical systems above the flood plain. Future residential development cannot be built on the ground floor. Many homes and businesses in Hoboken are at so-called garden level and are classified as basements under the National Flood Insurance Program, severely limiting what is covered.

Zimmer is also looking at the idea of a micro-grid for the city that would allow emergency systems to remain operational and, in the future, potentially have every building in the city on a system where hallway lights, elevators and fire prevention systems stay on during a storm.

A project called MileMesh is looking to keep Hoboken’s Internet system up during a disaster by installing a series of nodes throughout the city.

So far the city has received little money for flood mitigation, something Zimmer is trying to change. She is partnering with agencies such as New Jersey Transit, whose tracks would be protected by Hoboken’s plan, and possibly access federal transportation or other funds.

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