This story is from Headway, an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. Headway looks for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what’s been tried.
The city of Hoboken, NJ, once a marshy outcropping that the Lenape inhabited only seasonally, hugs the Hudson River. Three-quarters of it occupies a flood plain. It is, in other words, a water magnet. Some scientists have forecast that, with rising seas, a big chunk of Hoboken will be Atlantis by 2100.
But for more than a decade this city of some 60,000 residents has been trying to thwart fate — and it is making progress. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left Hoboken underwater and without electricity for days, causing more than $110 million worth of property damage. The city had to call in the National Guard.
In September, another storm hit the city. Although it wasn’t nearly as severe as Sandy, it still dumped more than 3.5 inches of rain on a single Friday morning, 1.44 inches of it during the hour that coincided with high tide. Early in the day, television crews filmed flooded intersections. City officials declared a state of emergency.
Except this time was different. Across the river, the same storm drowned several of New York City’s subway lines and forced Brooklyn residents to wade through thigh-deep water. But in Hoboken, the fire department only towed six cars, and by that evening there were just a few inches of standing water at three of 277 intersections. An arts and music festival, the city’s biggest cultural blowout and moneymaker, remained on course for the weekend. Television crews, returning to Hoboken early Saturday to film the usual aftermath, left empty-handed. The city’s flooding was no longer news.
Which was, of course, the real story.
Let’s take a moment to give a shout-out to Hoboken. As climate change delivers more extreme weather and rising seas, communities across America are struggling to prepare. Severe storms hurt businesses, destroy inventories and wreck houses, and the losses and rebuilding cost fortunes. Insurance companies no longer want to cover these expenses, depressing property values, which has ripple effects on city revenues. Some homeowners in high-risk coastal areas have begun lobbying for government buyouts.
That’s not Hoboken’s situation. New York City has been spending billions on flood walls and breakwaters and is still contemplating giant gates to hold back rising tides, but it hasn’t done as much to deal with rain. Hoboken has been adding infrastructure to cope with both rain as well as sea-level rise. Flood walls can’t stop rain, after all, which needs somewhere to go when it lands on impermeable streets and sidewalks. Old sewers like New York’s, which process both waste and storm water, were built to handle only a couple of inches of rain per hour. Big storms trigger sewage overflows that pile health and environmental crises on top of flooding.
Hoboken’s goal is to collect and slow storm water. The city’s strategy has been to rebuild its sewers, adding capacity, and also bundle invasive, time-consuming new infrastructure initiatives with benefits residents desire, like new parks and playgrounds that have cisterns and basins. Streets redesigned to minimize traffic accidents in Hoboken also collect and redirect water: The redesign was a big reason the city bounced back so swiftly that Friday in September.
The changes began under the city’s former mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who was in office when Sandy hit. “Before Sandy, our main focus was to mitigate the flooding caused by heavy rain events,” she told me the other day. “After Sandy, we focused additionally on the problem created by the storm surge that transformed the city into an island surrounded by the Hudson River.”
Damage on the scale caused by that hurricane demanded a federal response, and the Obama administration came up with an initiative called Rebuild by Design, which invited international engineers, architects and community organizations to collaborate on climate adaptation and other water-management strategies. Among the projects seeded by Rebuild, a plan emerged for fortifying the coast of staten islandanother for protecting Lower Manhattan, which includes raising East River Park.
Hoboken also received federal help. Rebuild “saw our existing green investments,” Ms. Zimmer said, meaning the parks and playgrounds, “as something to build on.” The New York office of OMAa Dutch architecture firm founded by Rem Koolhaas, teamed up with Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch engineering consultancy, and with local organizations, to come up with an integrated approach to storm surges and heavy rains.
Rebuild’s plan involves elevating vulnerable power lines, building flood protections and, most consequently, creating those parks with underground tanks and pumps that can hold and then expel excess water from rain and tidal surges once the weather clears.
The parks proved to be real lifesavers during the rain bomb in September. On that morning, the largest park, a new five-acre, $80 million site named ResilienCity Park, collected more than 1.4 million gallons of rainwater.
I spoke with Caleb Stratton, Hoboken’s chief resilience officer, on the Monday morning after the storm. Having spent the past decade working as a city planner in Hoboken, then helping to oversee the city’s climate initiatives, Mr. Stratton sounded like a high school senior who had just passed the SAT
“I’m not saying we didn’t flood, that some residents and businesses didn’t have a hard time, but the issue is how quickly a community recovers,” he told me. Hoboken needed weeks to get back on its feet after Sandy, he said. In September, the city only needed a day.
Each storm is different, of course, and Mr. Stratton wasn’t saying the city could handle everyone. I have shared a study by the North Hudson Sewerage Authority, which has compiled weather data since 2015, estimating that Hoboken is prepared to manage nine out of 10 rain events without significant flooding. “It’s just not realistic to talk about 100 percent unless you are going to take dramatic measures — buyouts, restoration of natural floodplains, abandoning infrastructure, down-zoning: all the tools that return the ecosystem to a natural state,” he said, down -zoning being shorthand for reducing the population. “That’s hard to imagine in a context like Hoboken, much less across the river in a place like Manhattan.
“So it’s necessary to pivot to other strategies and talk about risk tolerance,” he continued, “meaning what’s possible within the bounds of what’s financially practical.”
But also potentially profitable. TO study released by researchers for Rebuild by Design and Ramboll, an architectural engineering firm, suggests that every dollar invested in green infrastructure ultimately yields $2 in “avoided losses” (office closures, waterlogged inventories, flooded basements) and other benefits (improved home values and public health). The argument is in part what led Mayor Ravi Bhalla, Dawn Zimmer’s successor, to move Mr. Stratton’s job into the Department of Administration, which oversees all of Hoboken’s government, to coordinate climate strategies.
As Mr. Stratton points out, in most American cities, “all the infrastructure we create to handle water — roads, sidewalks, sewers — is overseen by different departments with different priorities, none of them specifically responsible for storms. “There is no dedicated authority or budget for storm water in most cities.”
That sort of siloing has promoted a political culture of shortsighted decision-making. Just days before the September storm, New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, slashed $75 million that had been slated for the city’s Parks Department to deal with a budget crunch. Disinvestment in parks is going to cost the city in the long run because parks are a first line of defense against climate change. As Amy Chester, who directs Rebuild, pointed out in the magazine Vital CityNew York’s natural acreage absorbs as much rainwater as $580 million worth of green infrastructure.
I don’t mean to suggest it has all been smooth sailing in Hoboken. Ms. Zimmer faced prolonged protests from community members furious about a proposed flood wall along a residential street. She battled with the state’s then-governor, Chris Christie, and also had to seize property by eminent domain. City officials ended up reconfiguring the flood walls and storm water projects to blend less obtrusively into neighborhoods. The negotiations took years.
Even now, Ms. Zimmer fears the effort to safeguard Hoboken could be compromised if Rebuild’s $350 million, 9,000-foot-long project, involving flood walls, gates and another park, is not completed as planned.
The project, whose construction has just begun, jogs through neighboring Jersey City. Its mayor, Steven Fulop, has yet to sign off on several required easements. The easements appear to affect pre-existing plans for a light rail station, according to a representative from Mr. Fulop’s office, making the station potentially more expensive to build, and Mr. Fulop wants the state to pay for those additional costs.
When I reached out to New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, an official representing his administration told me that the governor’s office has “provided assurances in writing to Jersey City that Rebuild would not make the light rail impossible, and to the extent there are costs as part of the easement process, the state would pay those costs.”
The September storm provided early proof of concept for Rebuild’s work in Hoboken and for the effectiveness of its green infrastructure, although changing minds remains a hurdle in the current media landscape. “The news is eager to find water on roadways,” Mr. Stratton said, “images that don’t reflect how quickly a community recovers from storms.”
Put differently, cities will flood. It’s the speed at which they can bounce back, to borrow Mr. Stratton’s words, that will be “the real measure of preparedness.”
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a founder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.