The township of Weehawken submitted a $12 million application to the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) Friday to construct two flood defense walls around the Shades neighborhood and along Boulevard East to protect the low-lying parts of town against future Hurricane Sandy-like storm surges, said Mayor Richard Turner this week.
The Shades, a low-lying neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the Palisades just north of the Hoboken border, incurred tremendous damage from Sandy as nearly six feet of water settled in the streets, basements, and St. Lawrence Church, the township’s main Catholic parish.
The township’s application was formulated as part of a joint effort with the North Hudson Sewerage Authority (NHSA) to protect the Shades and NHSA’s 18th street pump station, a critical component of the authority’s infrastructure that came within inches of failing during Sandy. However, the application will be submitted solely by the township, said Turner.
“When we heard that NHSA was doing something to protect their pump station, we thought we could do something together that might also protect the Shades,” he said.
Friday was the deadline to submit proposals to FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which allocates funds to municipalities that have proposed long-term disaster prevention plans. Turner was quick to point out that there’s no guarantee that the state will approve Weehawken’s application, but he said there was no harm in trying.
“We can’t make any promises, we can’t commit to anything, but we’re giving it our best shot.” - Mayor Richard Turner
The application was submitted first to the county, who will then pass it on to the state agencies tasked with allocating around $600 million of federal monies.
The application would see the construction of two separate walls. The first, a permanent, concrete reinforced structure that is planned to be somewhere from seven to ten feet tall, will extend eastward from the Palisades cliffs along the Hudson Bergen Light Rail tracks as far as Boulevard East.
The second wall, which is described as “deployable” because it only takes action in the event of a storm surge, will run perpendicular to the first, along Boulevard East through the 19th Street intersection, stopping just north of the basketball court there. The highly technologic structure is an aluminum wall that lies flat in the street during dry weather. In the event of a storm surge, the wall would naturally begin to rise as water rushes in below it, until it stands at 90 degrees and locks into place. In Weehawken’s design, the deployable wall will stand seven feet tall.
According to Richard Wolff, the Executive Director of NHSA, the design has been used successfully in and around New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The 18th Street pump station, although small and relatively inconspicuous, performs several major functions of the sewerage authority’s southern operations. Primarily, it acts as a transfer station for sewage from Weehawken and parts of Union City to the authority’s Adams Street treatment plan in Hoboken. Treated sewage is then dumped into the Hudson River.
If the pump station fails, untreated sewage could not make it to Hoboken, and thus would back up throughout Weehawken and Union City.
In a storm situation, when rain, and in exceptional cases, flood waters gather at the low-lying pump station, it begins performing its other function. Once the water reaches a certain level and cannot be pumped out as quickly as it is pouring in, it is deposited into the station’s two underground stormwater pumps. Each pump can process around 50 million gallons per day. During Sandy, it was put to the test.
“We were within inches of losing those pumps,” said Kevin Wynn, a senior project manager at the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, which works with NHSA and has lent its support to Weehawken during the application process.
“Because we didn’t lose them, we were able to pump that six or seven feet of water that was sitting in the Shades out in around 48 hours,” he continued. “If we didn’t have the use of those pumps, it would have taken much longer.”
Turner said that protecting the pump was of vital importance to Weehawken’s safety.
“It was too close for comfort,” he said.
The walls will also be in proximity of other infrastructure, including property owned by NJ Transit and PSEG. Turner said that he hoped the attraction of protecting four major infrastructural sites would strengthen the township’s application in the eyes of the FEMA assessors.
“I think the more agencies we have involved in this, the better chance it stands of being accepted,” he said.
Hoboken walls ok
Turner did not say whether he’d spoken to Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who recently proposed a similar plan for Weehawken’s southern neighbor, about the proposal, but he did say that Weehawken’s design does keep open the possibility of collaborating with Hoboken in the future.
Following Zimmer’s proposal, the Sierra Club issued a press release blasting her floodwalls, saying that if she was to go ahead with her plan, a storm surge deflected from Hoboken could result in massive consequences for neighboring towns. But Turner expressed skepticism at the notion.
“The Hudson River basin is enormous, any water that can’t get through our walls will most likely just go back into the river,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be threatening other towns with our plan.”
Long road ahead
After the Township Council voted unanimously to submit the application on Wednesday night in time for Friday’s deadline, Turner apologized for not having provided the public with more sufficient notice that it would be discussed.
“We had to get it done, and we had to get it done quickly,” he said. He added that he would be holding an open community meeting along with Township Manager James Marchetti and First Ward Councilwoman Carmela Silvestri Ehret in April to address any of the public’s concerns or questions.
It could be up to eight months before the township is notified of the status of its application, at which time, if it is accepted, Wynn will draw up a full engineering design, survey the area, begin building sub-walls, and construct various soil tests to determine the best types of concrete to use in the construction phase.
“We’d also have to look at what underground utilities are in the area, and plan around that,” he said.
Then, the township could open the bidding for the project and construction could start. In all, if the project is approved, the walls would likely be completed by early 2016.
Turner said that even if FEMA denies the township’s application, there might be benefits even in simply having filed it.
“I think it’s likely that, if [a Sandy-type storm was to occur a second time], FEMA and the insurance companies would be less interested in providing help to municipalities that didn’t show efforts to mitigate future disasters the first time around,” he said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org