Ocean City flooding
(Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Evan Lyon via DVIDSHUB / Flickr)

In the early 1940s, Suzanne Hornick’s family bought a bit of land in Ocean City, New Jersey, where Hornick still lives.

“I’ve been sitting on this same couple square grains of sand my whole life,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t like any other beach. I’m attached to my own little one.”

But as Ocean City – a community of 11,000 people that’s located on a barrier island – and nearby wetlands were developed starting in the 1980s, parts of the island began to flood regularly. As the years went by and seas rose, the flooding grew worse. The flooding blocked streets and spilled into the ground level of homes. In the winter, chunks of ice floated on the floodwaters between houses. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast.

Flooding from a winter storm
Flooding from a winter storm in January 2016 stranded Ocean City residents for days. (Photo credit: Roseanne Monfardini/ISeeChange)

The flooding didn’t deter developers, who replaced the city’s traditional cottages with towering homes.

Several of Hornick’s friends decided to leave the island altogether.

But she has stayed to fight back against the rising sea. With few assets aside from a camera, a Facebook page, the assistance of a local scientist, and a boatload of anger, she’s had surprising success – and the lessons she’s learned will resonate with other coastal communities wrestling with flooding.

It began with a Facebook group

During a rainstorm several years ago, Hornick was at a gathering at a friend’s house. Floodwaters trapped her there for hours. She and her friends began complaining about the constant inundations.

“Next thing you know, we’ve formed a committee,” she recalled.

In 2015, the Ocean City, NJ Flooding Committee was born as a network of neighbors, mostly organized through a Facebook group. Hornick has managed the group ever since.

“This all started because I had a big mouth,” she said. “I wanted to make the only asset I had safe, livable, and appreciable for my children.”

Since Hornick’s family moved to Ocean City, coastal communities have become more vulnerable to flooding, for the most part because of three main changes: more development, more rain, and sea-level rise.

Between 1970 and 2010, the coastal population in the U.S. grew by 34.8 million people, a 39% increase. The trend continues along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. To accommodate more people, developers constructed buildings on former wetlands and other green spaces. That increased stormwater runoff and reduced the amount of land available to hold water during floods.

Meanwhile, climate change has brought the threat of more intense rain to the coast. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Increased evaporation rates lead to higher levels of water vapor in the atmosphere, which in turn lead to more frequent and intense precipitation extremes.” This trend is particularly strong in the Northeast, which saw a 38% increase in the amount of total annual rain falling during the heaviest rain events from 1901-2016.

Sea-level rise has also increased the flood risk. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Global average sea level has risen by about 7-8 inches since 1900, with almost half this rise occurring since 1993.” By the end of the century, the sea is likely to rise another one to four feet above 2000 levels. Higher seas mean more flooding, particularly in low-lying coastal areas like Ocean City. According to research by Climate Central, Ocean City, New Jersey, experienced 125 more flood days between 2005 and 2014 than between 1995-2004.

Tidal flooding from sea-level rise continues to grow worse, said NOAA oceanographer William Sweet. “This year [2019] will be a record-breaker, but the fact of the matter is that last year was a record-breaker in many of the same areas, and the year before was a record-breaker, and the year before that was a record-breaker and the year before that,” Sweet said. “That is the sea-level rise story.”

‘You’re ruining my quality of life.’

After its founding, the Ocean City, NJ Flooding Committee grew in size and influence. During peak vacation times, residents displayed lawn signs that read “Fix our flooding now.” They sent letters and sought press coverage. Hornick became a fixture at city meetings, where she blamed local officials for not acting to stop the flooding.

“The relationship between my group and the city got very contentious,” Hornick said. She was angry. She was loud. She got kicked out of meetings.

“When you’re ruining my life and my quality of life, I’m going to be not happy,” she recalled.

Her relationship with city officials easily might have stayed that way – angry. But then Hornick was introduced to the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange program, which connects communities with scientists to help solve local problems. (ISeeChange, a partner on this story, is also a partner of Thriving Earth Exchange.)

Through the program, Hornick’s group teamed up with researcher Tom Herrington, the director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. That changed everything.

“When Tom came in, he was able to sit down with us in a meeting and bridge that gap between the city and my group and make it more amicable,” Hornick said. “Because of that, we have a voice in our city government.”

According to Hornick, what has made Herrington particularly helpful is that he grew up in Ocean City.

“It’s not like a scientist just coming in and saying, well, I have empirical knowledge that I can impart to you people,” Hornick said. “Tom says, ‘Oh I remember that on 52nd Street. I know those trees. I understand that current and how it hits the bulkheads by the airport because I lived there.’”

Armed with a deep understanding of the community, Herrington worked with Hornick to encourage community members to document the flooding that they were seeing. He helped distribute a handful of rain gauges across the island and explained the threats of sea-level rise and possible solutions at community meetings.

The result, Hornick says, is that the city has been forced to make changes.

Approximately $25 million has been invested in stormwater reconstruction projects on the island already, and the city has budgeted another $25 million in the next five years for more stormwater projects.

Peter Madden, city council president and local real estate broker, agreed that the relationship between Hornick’s group and the city has improved, but he said that the city was heading in this direction before the group got involved.

“The city’s done a very diligent job on trying to work with FEMA, work with flood mitigation, work with everyone on the island so that we can preserve everything that we have as long as we can,” he said. “The flood group is nice, they do a very nice job, but they haven’t really made a huge impact on anything that the city wasn’t already doing.”

Hornick argues that before her committee got involved, there was no evidence that the city would take action.

But no matter who deserves the credit – or blame – the new projects seem to have reduced flooding on some parts of the island. This fall, when East Coast users of the ISeeChange weather tracking app reported major high tides and flooding, the street in front of Hornick’s house remained dry.

In fact, Hornick says her street hasn’t flooded in more than a year.

Work remains to be done in Ocean City. For one thing, just because that infrastructure is working now doesn’t mean it will be able to handle even higher seas and more intense rain. So scientist Herrington is talking with community members about options such as adding more green space to the island and installing living shorelines, which rely on natural elements like marshes and oyster reefs to buffer the waves.

Hornick believes that the lessons her community has learned can translate to other places dealing with coastal flooding.

She recommends that other coastal communities first find out what they don’t know by connecting with experts and scientists like Herrington – ideally those who already have a relationship to the community. Then, she said, gather data via stories and photos of flooding alongside rain totals to create a concrete record of the issue. Once citizens have a good sense of the problem, she said, it’s time to go public with it.

These days, Hornick estimates that she spends 25-30 hours a week on the Ocean City, NJ Flooding Committee and that it used to be twice as much.

“But it’s OK. Somebody’s got to do it,” she said. “We’ve got to make this right, and we can.”

Produced in partnership with ISeeChange.

Samantha Harrington, director of audience experience for Yale Climate Connections, is a journalist and graphic designer with a background in digital media and entrepreneurship. Sam is especially interested...