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Where Are They Now? Drying Out a Flood-Prone Community

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As the waters retreat, hopes rise in Ocean City, New Jersey

 

While the community science process itself can be instructive and empowering, often the greatest impacts of a project come months or years later. To dig into what happens after a community science project ends, we spoke with Suzanne Hornick, founder and chair of the Ocean City Flooding Committee (OC Flooding). In 2016-2018, Hornick served as community lead on a Thriving Earth Exchange project to document flooding problems and identify solutions in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Connecting people and data

In the mid-2010s, Hornick and other Ocean City residents were facing frequent and dangerous floods, but they were having trouble getting local authorities to take the problem seriously. 

I’m not a scientist, I’m just someone who lives here and observed that something was wrong,” recounts Hornick. “My side of the street would be under three feet of water for days, and on the other side of the street it was totally dry. It was clearly an infrastructure problem, because on sunny days with no rain, the streets would still bubble up at high tide.”

At city council meetings, Hornick spoke out about the public health dangers—people could potentially be sickened by E. coli and other bacteria frequently found in floodwaters—and extensive property damage the saltwater flooding brought. She recalls being either ignored—or worse, ridiculed—after her remarks. The city administration didn’t act until her concerns started getting traction in the press and the issue could no longer be brushed under the rug. 

Through Thriving Earth Exchange, OC Flooding found someone uniquely equipped to bridge the gap between the concerned citizens and skeptical city authorities: Thomas Herrington, associate director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University and the New Jersey Sea Grant Resilient Communities and Economies Specialist. In addition to being a coastal science expert, Herrington grew up in Ocean City and went to school with the mayor and several council members. 

Because Herrington was known and respected by some city administrators, he was able to open lines of communication that had become contentious and use his scientific expertise to facilitate open and respectful communication with residents, which continues today. With Herrington’s partnership, residents were able to collect the data they needed to document their flooding troubles, and with him the team also gained a closer connection to the decision makers with the power to implement solutions. 

From generating knowledge to effecting change

Looking back several years later, Hornick says the effort has been an unqualified success. The city has already implemented several of the team’s suggestions, such as installing bigger pipes, many strong pumping stations, more catch basins and new check valves. The worst hit areas no longer flood to such extremes, and the water is gone much more quickly thanks to improved stormwater infrastructure. In addition, with OC Flooding input, the city is developing an island-wide plan to address island flooding in both the near and long term. City authorities are also considering nature-based approaches, such as building a living shoreline. Hornick reports that because of the project, citizens of Ocean City now feel knowledgeable and empowered to be part of the decision making in their community. 

“Once the city acknowledged that we had a flood issue, they worked really hard,” Hornick said proudly. “Our mayor has done more now for flood mitigation than any other municipality in New Jersey. We have already spent over $50 million on mitigation and remediation.”

Hornick has no doubt that the partnership with Thriving Earth Exchange changed Ocean City for the better. The community science process helped the group focus their actions, stay organized and understand and communicate the data they were collecting. Hornick credits the experience with helping her learn how to be a successful activist by asking the right questions, finding the right data and navigating multiple large organizations. Thanks to the group’s access to scientific expertise, she says the data OC Flooding collected was sometimes more accurate than what the city or the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had been recording. 

“I was really good at complaining to the city council, but Thriving Earth Exchange gave us the knowledge and power to go beyond that and actually effect change,” she shared. “We could say, ‘You’re wrong, and here’s why.’”

What’s next?

Although the flooding has been dramatically reduced, OC Flooding—now 5,000 members strong—will continue to collect and share data to identify areas that are still flood-prone. Following their community science project, OC Flooding connected with other Thriving Earth Exchange partners including the Anthropocene Alliance, Higher Ground and ISeeChange to launch a citizen science coalition aimed at documenting exactly where, how deep and how frequent the flooding was and identifying where better infrastructure and flood mitigation is needed. 

Armed with the right data and a much better working relationship, Hornick now knows that the city is much more likely to address problems. In fact, Ocean City authorities promised to spend another $25 million for additional flood mitigation in the next five years. 

Now, OC Flooding is turning its attention to a new endeavor: a Thriving Earth Exchange project to study the potential impacts of large offshore wind farming on sea life, the environment and public health. The plans are still coming together, but Hornick is confident that the findings, whatever they may be, will be informative for coastal communities all along the East Coast. With one successful community science project under their belt, OC Flooding knows the process works. 

“It was a great experience for all of us,” Hornick said. “We really did make a huge difference, and I think it will last at least a hundred years. We have made people safer and healthier, and made a nice place to be an even better place to be.” Hornick encourages everyone to come visit the much drier Ocean City, known as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” 

Haley McKey editor

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