ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Much of the Jersey Shore's future hinges on whether another devastating storm or two hammers the high-risk region.
"Sometimes we find that throughout the country, people get wiped out once, people want to rebuild. When (they) get wiped out two or three times, especially three times — enough, it's time to retreat," said Larry A. Larson, a professional engineer and director emeritus at the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in Madison, Wis., a national group striving to curb losses from floods.
Sandy wasn't a hurricane when it smashed into the coast near Brigantine, N.J., in October 2012. But the massive storm, which arrived near high tide during a full moon, caused epic damage in oceanfront and bay areas. Nineteen months after the storm, the Shore area is recovering faster than the Gulf Coast did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"I do think both New York and New Jersey are moving ahead a little faster," but recovery takes time, Larson said. "I expect that we will see a better, a safer rebuild than what we saw in Katrina, for example."
Jon K. Miller, research assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., who visited hard-hit New Orleans in May, said "Nine years later, there are people (along the Gulf Coast) that are still waiting for their money" from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But it may be 10 to 20 years before the Shore recovers, and it may not be a full recovery, experts say.
"I think five years from now you're going to see limited change," said Thomas G. Dallessio, director of the Center for Resilient Design at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. "There are numbers of homeowners that are following (FEMA) recommendations and are raising their homes. But I think for every home that's being lifted, there are probably at least a dozen that aren't, so we're going to continue to have this haphazard pattern of some houses anywhere from 5 to 15 feet higher than others."
And that poses a problem. The storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane during a full moon will push homes that have not been rebuilt into rebuilt ones, Dallessio said.
A Category 3 storm, with peak sustained winds of at least 111 mph, hasn't made landfall in New Jersey since 1821. A lesser hurricane hasn't scored a direct hit since 1903, although there have been numerous close calls.
"Nothing is foolproof and even the work that's being done on the boardwalks and the dunes up and down the Jersey Shore, they are still subject to devastation from a Category 3 storm," Dallessio said.
Meanwhile, he thinks many people would like to see a Marshall Plan for the Jersey Shore, much the same way the U.S. rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II. The plan would focus on the best recovery solutions and anticipate future storms, he said.
Solutions could be major seawalls and dunes to green infrastructure and new ways of constructing buildings with higher sea levels in mind, he said. But the $60 billion granted post-Sandy in federal recovery dollars for New Jersey, New York and other states isn't enough.
"At best, we have individual solutions either for lots or towns" instead of an overarching plan, he said.
John A. Miller, a professional engineer and legislative committee chair for the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, said the Shore will have a different look in 10 to 20 years.
Some communities will be "very challenged," including "the Sea Brights or the Bricks or the Toms Rivers," with flood risk issues, he said. And some people will leave because of chronic flooding.
"In the 10- to 20-year time-frame, I think the reinsurance companies will say 'no, we're out of here,' " Miller said. "I don't mean the entire Jersey coast or entire state," but some areas will be considered too risky to insure.
Larson, of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said much of the Jersey Shore is in the highest risk area for storm surge.
Dallessio said flood insurance may become more expensive than property taxes in the near future and some people may opt not to have insurance, putting their biggest asset at risk.
Still, efforts to rebuild the beaches and dunes will lead to greater storm protection, according to some experts. Miller, of Stevens Institute of Technology, said he's pretty optimistic about what things will look like in five or 10 years because of the widespread efforts to restore beaches and dunes.
"We've sort of done things in a very piecemeal way so far," he said, and "I think Sandy sort of forced our hand."
Nonetheless, back bays will continue to be vulnerable, he said, and experts are seeking ways to limit the storm surge.
Stewart C. Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said the beaches are in better shape than they were in 1986, when the college first began monitoring the shoreline.
But a catastrophic storm will "rearrange things," he said. Will people "pick up the pieces and rebuild? Some will, some won't."