Murphy, after viewing storm damage, says N.J. needs new playbook for extreme weather

A tornado swept through Mullica Hill, N.J. and destroyed houses on his way. | Katherine Landergan

MULLICA HILL, NJ – Governor Phil Murphy said Thursday that New Jersey needed infrastructure capable of handling a more violent climate as he warned of a “long road” caused by the remains of Hurricane Ida Eliminate damage across the state.

Tornadoes ripped through parts of South Jersey Wednesday, and during what the governor put it, “the extraordinary, sadly tragic, historic 24 hours in New Jersey,” major floods inundated the rest of the state. Murphy said he spoke to President Joe Biden and asked for a federal disaster statement and heavy trucks that could help the state recover.

Murphy has already declared a state of emergency for all of New Jersey, amid apparent damage and ahead of what will certainly be an expensive cleanup. The governor said during a press conference in Hillsborough late that afternoon that there had been at least 23 storm-related deaths in New Jersey. Flash floods killed several people in their homes. But the storm’s full toll is still unknown.

The governor visited Gloucester County Thursday morning and found a scene that was still raw. During a press conference in Mullica Hill outside a tornado devastated house, a woman screamed and cried as she was reunited with her mother. The area was littered with rubble – houses and trees, a toddler’s red and blue Reebok shoe, clothing, broken window panes.

The governor was due to visit Hillsborough and Passaic later Thursday, both of which suffered major floods from the storm.

Murphy said the state needs to update its storm response playbook. Climate change is leading to more extreme weather conditions, including more frequent and intense rainfall, according to international scientists.

“The world is changing,” said Murphy. “These storms are more common. They come with greater intensity. In terms of our infrastructure, our resilience, our overall mindset, the playbook we use – we have to leap forward and go ahead. “

Murphy, as well as officials in Louisiana, where Ida landed as a Category 4 hurricane, have begun talking about how the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal is allocating billions to tackle climate change.

“We’re going to look at everything,” said Murphy. “The game changer is federal money.”

“We’re pulling all the stops we can,” he said Thursday during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, “but it will be a long way to get back on your feet.”

While the governor didn’t provide any specifics, experts across the region have begun talking about how New Jersey and the surrounding areas might cope with the coming era of extremes.

Robert Freudenberg, Vice President for Energy and Environment at the Regionalplanverband, pointed out how regular, almost constant forest fires have changed life in the West within a few years. He fears that extreme rainfall in the east will do the same thing.

“Water is our wildfire here and we need to start acting,” he said.

If the infrastructure bill is passed, New Jersey officials must have projects in place that will help address climate change, said Cortney Worrall, CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, which leads a coalition urging governments to address climate vulnerabilities in New Jersey and New York remedy .

“New Jersey needs to know what it wants, number one,” she said. “And what are the best climate-resilient solutions that will work for different municipalities?”

Earlier this year, Murphy signed a bill that would oblige local governments to plan for climate change.

Though Murphy is nowhere near the first New Jersey governor to grapple with severe weather – Governor Chris Christie had met Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene while in office and Governor Christie Whitman had Tropical Storm Floyd – his summer ended up with that Busy back-to-back storms during a pandemic. Tropical Storm Henri only passed through two weeks ago, and although it dealt only a fleeting blow to the state, it caused major inland flooding in some places. Tropical storm Elsa brought spawned tornadoes in July.

Murphy said some inland communities “crushed” by unusual flooding two weeks ago, while Henri was hit again Wednesday by Ida’s remains, which poured more than 10 inches of rain in some areas.

Inland flooding took people by surprise, Murphy said, as homeowners didn’t know they needed flood insurance.

Freudenberg said a lot of money and thought has gone into coastal floods since Sandy, but less attention has been paid to inland floods.

“This is not a long-term risk like sea level rise. This is an immediate risk when we see people dying in their basement and being locked in trains for hours, ”said Freudenberg.

He was concerned that some of this week’s emergency alerts were not specific enough or easily misunderstood. People are not used to thinking of passing rain showers as they think of the threat of a hurricane hitting land.

Inland, of course, there was some attention. After Sandy, the Christie administration started a program to buy up flood-prone land across the state. In 2019, state lawmakers approved the Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, which encourages local governments to set up utility companies that focus on dealing with runoff. However, no local rainwater utilities have been established, according to the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Murphy said he spoke to Senate President Steve Sweeney, who joined the governor and Rep. During the storm. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) On a tour of damaged homes in Gloucester County.

Sweeney and Norcross, who spent much of their lives in South Jersey, were in horror at the damage caused by tornadoes, which they said were largely unknown in the past.

“What we see behind us is change,” said Norcross during the press conference on Thursday.

The three elected officials – all Democrats – spoke about climate change and getting more money for the state from the Biden government’s infrastructure plans.

Planning the infrastructure takes years. State and federal officials were released in mid-August, nearly nine years after Sandy was released a $ 16 billion plan to protect coastal communities from extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels. The actual completion of one of the projects could take who knows how long.

Since Murphy’s inauguration, the state has been quick to try to curb greenhouse gas sources within the state by investing in cleaner energy sources like offshore wind.

“We do everything we have to do, but everyone has to do it,” Sweeney said.

But many of these projects are still years away. The state has approved three large offshore wind farms, but none are under construction. The largely unknown cost of all energy projects becomes a political issue for Murphy – although it is offset by the damage caused by more extreme weather. Even if New Jersey cleans up completely, it is still one of only 50 states in a country that still lacks a secure national climate policy.

“People who deny climate change have to get their heads out of the ass, we have problems, and families are affected, companies are affected – it’s not partisan,” Sweeney later told POLITICO.

In the short term, a federal disaster declaration would make this week’s storm the sixth major storm-related disaster in the state since Sandy.

According to scientific assessments of climate change and the state’s unique exposure to a variety of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and flooding, time could work against New Jersey.

One of the homes in Mullica Hill that was destroyed by a tornado was a model home before Ashley Thomas and her husband moved in. The neighborhood was quickly made unrecognizable by the storm.

“Our community is destroyed in five seconds,” she said. “That was all it took.”

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