Turning disaster into an opportunity for flood resilience

Hoboken – a densely populated city on one square mile of mostly reclaimed marshland along the Hudson River in New Jersey – was unprepared for a 14-foot surge of water from Hurricane Sandy.

The surge flooded streets and knocked out power to many residents for weeks. The city’s three power substations required extensive repairs, its hospital was evacuated, and untreated sewage flowed into the river through its combined water and sewer system. Total storm damage was estimated at $100 million.

“Hoboken pretty much filled up like a bathtub,” said City Manager Stephen Marks. “It was pretty hellish.”

But local officials have turned disaster into opportunity, taking advantage of federal, state, and nonprofit funding; innovative engineering and financing; and surging political will to creatively address the city’s chronic flooding problems plus other community concerns, like the need for parking and recreational space.

Hoboken received a $230 million grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement its 2014 comprehensive urban water strategy: “Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge.” The city plans to leverage the funds to support green and “grey” coastal defense projects, landscaping to slow down water run-off, a green circuit to trap water, and pumps to support drainage.

To make the plans a reality, the city enlisted the help of re:focus partners, a design and finance firm focused on bridging the gap between the public and private sectors in sparking sustainable investment in cities.

“There are flat file drawings and master plans that never see the light of day because there is no path to financing – public or private,” said re:focus CEO Shalini Vajjhala. “Our premise is that you need to incorporate engineering and financing into pre-development to avoid that fate.”

Courtesy of the city of Hoboken, N.J.

With a $3 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, re:focus partners provided Hoboken and seven other cities selected through a national competition the opportunity to collaborate with them and their partners, including engineering work from Bechtel Corp., legal assistance from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and financing help from Wall Street Without Walls. The Hoboken effort resulted in a 2015 plan to improve the city’s resilience to flooding by redeveloping a six-acre former BASF Corp. manufacturing site into a dual use underground parking and storm water retention facility topped with green space modeled on a similar project in Rotterdam.

After lengthy negotiations, Hoboken purchased the BASF site in December 2016 for $30 million with a loan from the New Jersey Environmental Trust Fund. As a clean water project, three-quarters of the loan is interest-free and the remainder is at market rates. The financing also includes 19 percent principal forgiveness for green infrastructure, according to Marks.

The city is in the process of selecting a final design team for the Northwest Park project, which would be the largest in Hoboken. The city is opting for an above-ground parking garage and a more conventional underground water storage facility beneath green space. Parking fees will help pay back bonds for the project. The city also has been working with the North Hudson Sewer Authority on separating storm water runoff from sewage that needs treatment.

“Full sewer separation is a far better outcome than we expected, so we are thrilled that our work kick started an even more ambitious set of resilience activities for the city,” Vajjhala said.

“Our work with re:focus was catalytic,” Marks said. “They really helped the city imagine what could be done with the urban challenges we face.”

re:focus partners also helped Hoboken move forward with a smaller, one-acre park in the southwestern corner of the city that will be the first resilience park with integrated green infrastructure in New Jersey. The once asphalt-covered site is being replaced with rain gardens, shade tree pits, porous pavers, a cistern for rainwater harvesting, and an underground retention system to reduce storm water run-off and localized flooding.

By thinking holistically about city challenges – including climate change – before a disaster strikes, cities can prepare themselves to turn disaster into resilience opportunities.

Open-mindedness is key to successful projects, Vajjhala said. Marks said there also has to be the political will to seek tangible solutions to a multitude of problems. “You need elected officials who are focused on the problem and want to tear down the silos that keep people apart,” he said.

And it helps to have state and federal loan programs available to make financing less of a concern. “That really sweetened the pot for naysayers and skeptics,” Marks said. “It created a political will behind the solution.”