CRANFORD — In the fall of 2021, local communities already struggling under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic were dealt another staggering blow when Hurricane Ida, a massive category 4 storm that made landfall near New Jersey’s central coastline, ripped through the Union County area with unforgiving force. The storm, which claimed the lives of 23 people, destroyed homes, flooded roadways and left millions of dollars of damage in its wake.
Ida was defined as a “100-year storm,” a meteorological designation assigned to catastrophic weather events so large that they statistically have a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. In theory, information provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior suggests, storms of this magnitude are only expected to occur about once per century. Thanks to shifting weather patterns and an increase in major storm projections, however, experts agree that the oft-repeated moniker may no longer be completely accurate.
“As we saw late this summer with the remnants of Tropical Storms Henri and Ida, more frequent and intense storms are our reality today, and we can expect these extreme precipitation events to continue, even worsen, in the years ahead,” said New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette in a recent press release. “By building upon our scientific understanding, we can take the wise steps that the science demands, from planning more resilient development, to enhancing our storm-water and flood-control infrastructure and beyond. We all have the power to ensure that what we build today will stand the test of time and a changing climate.”
For local residents, especially those situated along the flood-prone Rahway River, the question is not whether or not the next major storm will cause damage — the question is how bad things are likely to get.
Last month, as part of this year’s annual budget appropriations, Governor Phil Murphy allocated approximately $1.8 million to the Township of Cranford to fund critical storm-water improvements in a 50-acre area that includes South Union Avenue, Retford Avenue, Walnut Avenue and High Street.
“This wasn’t to do a study but to actually get a project done,” Cranford Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty said in a recent press release. “Securing this funding demonstrates the importance of collaboration and partnership in local government.”
Last fall, the township hired engineering firm Mott MacDonald to propose solutions for flooding in the community.
“This entire area drains toward South Avenue and High Street, causing repetitive flooding for residents and businesses, particularly where High Street meets Chestnut Avenue and South Avenue,” Mayor Prunty said. The Mott MacDonald proposal, which can be viewed in its entirety on the township’s website, represents a two-phase storm-water improvement project that consists of the installation of an express sewer system and new pumping equipment designed to move storm water out of the neighborhood.
The state funding represents a major step in the right direction, Mayor Prunty said, but municipal floodwater mitigation efforts like those happening in Cranford are only part of a larger solution.
In February of this year, federal funding was restored to complete a long-awaited Army Corp of Engineers feasibility study of the upper portion of the Rahway River Basin.
The 82-square-mile Rahway River Basin covers a large part of Union County as well as parts of Essex and Middlesex counties, including Clark, Cranford, Fanwood, Garwood, Kenilworth, Linden, Mountainside, Plainfield, Rahway, Scotch Plains, Springfield, Westfield, Winfield Park, Union Township and Summit.
Communities along the river are all too familiar with the need for better floodwater mitigation. A list of the most damaging storms on record for the region includes a series of four storms between 1968 and 1975, and another four in the 1990s. Notable storms over the past 15 years occurred in 2007 (an April nor’easter), 2011 (Hurricane Irene), 2012 (Hurricane Sandy) and Hurricane Ida, the remnants of which caused severe flooding in at least eight Rahway River communities.
Efforts to establish a regional flood-control system began in earnest following the devastation left by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. At that point, riverbank communities including Cranford, Millburn, Springfield, Maplewood, Union, Garwood, Kenilworth and Rahway formed an alliance known as the Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control to talk over local options and try to find some solutions.
Then, in 2015, the federal government allocated $1 million in funding to complete what would turn out to be the first round of feasibility studies along the basin. The initial project, conducted under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, produced 17 flood-control options. Further work was unilaterally halted in 2019, however, when it became clear that a cohesive decision was not likely to be reached in a timely fashion.
Dan Aschenbach, coordinator of the Mayors Council, said local voices started to grow louder when it became evident that federal projects would likely take too long to complete.
“A few of these ideas could have been successful, but we never got that far,” Mr. Aschenbach said, adding that one of the most popular options, locally known as 4A, would have centered around planned dam releases at the Orange Reservoir.
“Multiple options have been [considered as to how] to better utilize that reservoir as a storm-water drainage facility,” Mr. Aschenbach continued, “but a number of these ideas were dismissed while they were still in their planning stages because the Army Corps will only move ahead if there is a consensus among all of the impacted municipalities.”
The $50-million project also would have had to undergo a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis in order to secure the requisite federal funding.
Ultimately, Mr. Aschenbach said, 4A was relegated to the backburner due to lingering concerns posed by Army Corps engineers about the impact of the dam releases on downstream communities.
“It’s an extremely complicated process,” Mr. Aschenbach said, “and we’re still trying to find the best way forward.”
Now that funding for the feasibility study has been restored, however, 4A, along with several other options, will be brought back to the table for further discussion.