On Sunday, we mark the five-year anniversary of superstorm Sandy.

The Hurricane caused $29.4 billion in damage in New Jersey alone, destroying or damaging 365,000 buildings and cutting power to more than 2.5 million homes and businesses.

Ever since then, rebuilding and restoration efforts have been ongoing — and according to Gov. Chris Christie, those efforts have paid off.

He said we’re much more resilient now than we were five years ago with dunes built up along the almost all of the state’s beaches.

“We now have a protective system running from Cape May up to Sandy Hook, and that will help if any other hurricane or superstorm like Sandy comes in," he said. "We’ll be much better prepared and much better protected than we were five years ago.”

Construction of those dunes has proved controversial — with some towns entering litigation to resist them. But state and federal judges over the last few months have allowed work to proceed in Bay Head, Mantoloking, Point Pleasant Beach and Margate, where several homeowners tried to opt out of construction.

Christie also said we have also made some extraordinary progress in fortifying our power grid.

“We’ve made our substations more protected against flooding and against being knocked out, but also setting up separate types of power grids for hospitals, also for our transit system," he said.

He said that power grid for NJ Transit hasn’t been built yet but plans for it have been approved.

The governor said thousands of homes in flood prone areas have been raised “along the shoreline to make sure that if we do get another storm with significant flooding, it won’t ruin these homes. It’ll pass under these homes.”

Robert Kopp, the director of the Rutgers University Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, agrees advancements have been made — but we remain vulnerable.

“I don’t think most of the communities along the shore have really grappled with the long-term problem that’s going to be caused by sea level rise, making severe storms like Sandy more and more frequent,” he said.

He said as the ocean rises “it takes less of a storm to produce the sort of flooding we saw during Sandy.”

The bottom line, Kopp, is we have not yet begun to develop a coastal master plan to address those weaknesses.

"There are still a lot of people living in areas that are quite exposed to the effects of coastal flooding," he said.

Lisa Auermuller, the assistant manager for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, said there has been a tremendous amount of homes raised down the shore, but what we haven’t seen “at the community level is planning for larger infrastructure projects that also would include more resilient, longer-term aspects.”

She said raising homes will protect those structures, but that does not offer protection for nearby “roadways, water-pumping stations, storm water systems. They haven’t really changed much since Sandy in a way to be more protective.”

She also pointed out while the dunes facing the ocean have been built up, back bay areas up and down the coast remain vulnerable to flooding, and the risk will become even more pronounced in the years ahead as sea level rises.

Auermuller said coastal marsh areas in bay areas offer a significant buffer zone from strong storms, but in previous years they were not protected by DEP regulations. Significant development took place in the 1970s, when those marshes were dredged, and those areas remain exposed and vulnerable today.

She said coastal hazards continue to change over time “and they put us more at risk, so being prepared for the next big storm will forever be a moving target with what to plan for.”

She said the bottom line is if another big storm were to hit the Garden State, while we’re doing a better job of sharing information, “I do still think that many of the places that were exposed five years ago are still exposed today.’

“We do have to have a larger conversation as a state about what we see our coastal vision to be into the future, so we do start planning now," she said.

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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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