NJIT Hosts Forum on Storm Recovery

Experts from around the world attended NJIT's forum on storm recovery.

Experts from around the world attended an NJIT forum whose theme was how to protect New Jersey’s coastal areas from storm surges, storms and rising sea levels. 

Professor Michel Boufadel, who moderated the forum, said that engineers, scientists, academics, and other experts must form multi-disciplinary teams and create ways to make the state more resilient. 

New Jersey is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed more than 72,000 homes and businesses, killed 34 residents and caused more than $62 billion in damage, said Boufadel. Coastal areas were especially hard hit, leaving many residents homeless and natural resources compromised. The way to aid that recovery, he said, is for experts to collaborate on research and field work.   

“The old paradigm of one discipline providing solutions to complex problems is long gone,” added Boufadel, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who also directs NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection. “What we need are cross-disciplinary approaches that protect residents and property while preserving New Jersey’s natural resources.”

Joel Bloom, president of NJIT, and Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at NJIT, opened the forum with introductory talks.  The first speaker to take the podium was Rob de Vos, consul general for the Netherlands. He discussed what his country has done to contend with high sea levels and low-lying land. Engineers there, for instance, created a dike that serves as a boulevard, one that is also a vibrant public space, with restaurants and shops and beaches. And since his country is small and densely populated, engineers have also built underwater parking decks. Though the Netherlands is good in contending with high water, de Vos said, the country needs to improve its emergency response procedures.    

“We had our Sandy in 1953, so in terms of emergency response America is ahead of us,” added de Vos. “I came to this forum to learn from you and to share knowledge. Most cities around the world are growing but all are confronted with climate change, so we must work together and share solutions.”

Gary Buchanan, who directs the Office of Science for the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, gave an overview of what his office has done to contend with Sandy. The DEP evaluated the storm’s effect on wetlands, forests, beaches and animal habitats, he said.  It also formed teams that derived the best methods of coastal restoration, including a 10-point plan to improve the Barnegat Bay. 

“We need the best science and technology to meet the challenges of Sandy,” said Buchanan.

Steve Doughty, a research scientist for NJ DEP, talked about the toll that Sandy took on the state’s water supply systems and its power system. Without electricity, the pumps in the drinking water plants failed.  And without power, the pumps used to move fuel out of storage tanks failed. That led to a fuel shortage.

“Our goal in the DEP is for the state’s infrastructure to become stronger, safer and smarter,” said Doughty.

The last to speak was Mitchell Erickson, an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who talked about the federal agencies that worked together on national security and disaster recovery duiring and after the storm. Generally they worked well together, he said, but the one area that performed poorly after the storm was communications. The nation’s emergency communication system needs a major technological overhaul, he said.

He ended his talk by saying he had two challenges for the students in the audience:  One, to think of creative ways to cut the nation’s disaster management spending in half, from $2 billion to $1 billion; And two, to determine how country should look in 50 years. 

“You students hold the key to the future,” said Erickson, “and you will determine how things will change. For better or worse, the future is in your hands.”   

By Robert Florida