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New Jersey Must Adjust to Climate Change in Rebuilding, Says Christie Whitman

12-10-12

It’s been a challenging time for the state and its leadership. As the year comes to a close, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman talks to NJ Today Mike Schneider about the long, hard road ahead for New Jersey as it tries to rebuild from one of the most devastating hurricanes in its history.

Whitman’s second term in office ended in 2001. From 2001 to 2003, she served as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. She recalled vividly the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the state and the loss of lives. The impact of Hurricane Sandy, a crisis in the form of a natural disaster, will be felt for quite some time, she says.

“You can’t make up for the devastation of the loss of life and we lost an enormous number of lives in 9/11,” she said. “Having said that, the economic impact of the loss along the shore, [with] tourism being the second largest industry [in the state], is going to be with us for years to come.”

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She says Gov. Christie is already doing the immediate things that need to be done when a natural disaster strikes, which is to seek as much federal assistance as possible for the rebuild. She also approves of Christie’s appointment of James Lee Witt to head the state recovery effort. The reported fee of approximately $10 million for Witt’s services has raised some eyebrows. “[His] credentials are unparalleled as far as dealing with this kind of rebuild,” said Whitman.

Whitman says rebuilding down the shore should involve input from the community. “Bring the people in from the communities along the shore, let’s just say Sea Bright, and [ask] what was it that drew you here, what was it that made you want to live here, what are the values you want to preserve and how do we do that in a sustainable way for the future.”

Any rebuilding effort will have to begin with the understanding that it can’t be rebuilt the way it was, she says.

“We’ve had two 100-year storms in 14 months in this state with a couple of nor’easters thrown in between for good measure, the climate is changing whether people want to talk about it or not … and we have to adjust to that,” said Whitman.

She adds that sea levels are rising and that means hard decisions will have to be made about building homes in areas most vulnerable to storms, like the barrier islands in particular.

“There are going to be some places where we’re gonna have to say, ‘you know what, you can’t build here anymore because the rest of the country isn’t going to continue to pay, all the taxpayers are not going to continue to pay to rebuild,’ and we’re all paying a price.”

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $60 billion in Sandy relief money. But Whitman says the real costs will far exceed that number.

“We’ve already seen what the estimates are from just New York and New Jersey, with part of Delaware, [in a] $80 billion figure they’ve talked about,” she said. “But what’s really going to hurt New Jersey is the lost income. It’s not just the rebuild. That money is just for rebuilding.”

The state’s tourism industry is going to take a big hit next summer as small businesses struggle to come back, she says.

“For the mom and pop stores along the boardwalk, they can’t even begin to rebuild until there is a boardwalk, which is not going to happen for a while,” Whitman said. Another major hurdle for the shore economy, she says, is that “small businesses don’t have the insurance they need to rebuild.”

Politically, the economic fallout from Sandy will reverberate throughout the halls of the state house as lawmakers gird themselves for the budget battle to come. Whitman points out that municipalities have already set their local budgets based on pre-Sandy property values, which will now have to be re-examined.

“You can’t charge somebody the same amount for a 3000 square foot home when there’s no home there,” she said “Their incomes are going to be vastly reduced and that’s going to put more pressure on the state to help the municipalities. So it’s one of those ripple effects that is going to be very difficult to deal with for a long time.”