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How Jersey City Is Preparing For The Next Climate Disaster


Looking at the devastation Hurricane Ida and its aftermath wrought, many places are wondering how to prepare better for a future where climate change makes these events even more likely. That means trying to make infrastructure more resilient before things get even worse. Joining us now to talk about that is Steven Fulop. He is the mayor of Jersey City, which was hard hit by the recent storm. Mayor, thank you so much for being with us at this difficult time.

STEVEN FULOP: Thank you. It is a pleasure to talk about it, though, because I think that the more people understand the challenges that cities are facing, the more likely we are to get the support we need.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, tell me, I mean, what do things look like right now in Jersey City?

FULOP: There's a lot of damage to personal households. It's not only in, like, kind of the low-lying places because the reality is the amount of water that we got in such a short period of time - there was no sewer system in the country that could handle that. I mean, you saw the New York City subways shut down. So, you know, a lot of personal damage, a lot of people struggling and a lot of people hoping for some help on the federal level.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of lasting damage did your city take? Do you know yet?

FULOP: You know, it's really hard to kind of quantify it at this stage, but it's significant. It really is. I don't think there's an area of the city that wasn't hit by the the storm in a major, major way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mayor, can you just tell me a story of someone - someone that you've met while you're dealing with this catastrophe?

FULOP: Yeah, I mean, look. My neighbor two houses down actually had a river coming through their home. It blew out the front door. It blew out the back door. And they moved into the place that they purchased a week ago. So devastating loss. They were thankful that their pets and their health is OK. And, you know, they'll rebuild like everybody else. But I've been to a lot of homes. And you just see a lot of flooding and disaster.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about that idea of rebuilding and also just making cities more resilient. What are you feeling right now? Because, obviously, Jersey City has had some plans in place to sort of deal with climate change.

FULOP: Yeah, we have about a billion dollars' worth of sewer and infrastructure work that has started and is planned over the next couple of years around flood mitigation and sewer separation. We have a climate and resiliency master plan that we're working on and that we passed that has flood overlay zones. We've tried to incentivize the private sector to get them to build more climate consciously. But all of these tools that we're putting into place aren't getting adopted at the rate that the storms are becoming more fierce and more aggressive. And, you know, we need to catch up on the infrastructure in order to keep it as a livable place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me talk about that catch up because, I mean, it's terrifying to think that things are moving so quickly that even the best-laid plans are not enough.

FULOP: Yeah, I mean, look. We have some streets and major sewer lines that we upgraded over the last couple of years. And we have larger pipes under the ground to handle more water coming through them. But we're realizing that the rate of water falling from the sky in such a short period of time that even the catch basins on the streets can't handle them, and then they're still overflowing. So there's more work that needs to be done just based on the fierceness of some of these storms. So, you know, we're doing our best to adapt to kind of the changing landscape, but it seems like it's getting worse and worse every single year and more and more challenging.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me your biggest fear and your biggest challenge. I mean, is the money there?

FULOP: We are doing our best to manage that billion dollars because we recognize that we really don't have a choice, but we're really hopeful for the federal support via the infrastructure bill. We've committed that the majority of the dollars that we get will go towards flood mitigation because you can't be dealing with flooding issues every single year. You can't be throwing things out. You can't be putting claims into the insurance companies and just hoping for federal relief. I mean, that's not a way to live. Water damage is very much like fire damage. It destroys your life, destroys your home. Mold comes as a result of it. The work that needs to be done to remediate that is significant. So the reality is that we really do need the help on the federal level. And while I've been following it work its way through the conversations between the Senate and the House and the executive branch, I think we're going to get more engaged in advocacy because we really need those dollars sooner rather than later.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you've been mayor since 2013. And I know that climate change has been an issue on your radar for some time, but do you feel like specifically local governments right now are at an inflection point?

FULOP: Yeah, I feel like local governments are the places where things are getting done. If you think about kind of Jersey City, I mean, we've been taking aggressive steps for several years now. We've electrified our fleet. We've created kind of micro-grids with - making more of our buildings more sustainable long-term. But the reality is that it's very clear that it still is not enough based on what you're seeing with climate change. So when you have issues like what happened in the last couple days here in Jersey City, there's no way to avoid the conversation that climate change is very real. And if we don't do something about our infrastructure in the very, very near term, cities like Jersey City will not be livable places.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City. Thank you very much.

FULOP: Thank you. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.