Looking Back on Resilience Lessons from Hurricane Sandy
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction on the East Coast, the Lincoln Policy Institute published a useful after action report.
When Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, it brought much of the New York–New Jersey–Connecticut megaregion to a halt. As Sandy’s storm surge raged, it spared little in large, highly developed areas of New Jersey and New York.
The storm also flooded vital infrastructure, including key arteries in and out of New York City. Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel and Amtrak’s Hudson River Transit Tunnel became impassable. Sandy also disabled power plants and transmission lines, which left 8.5 million customers in three states without electricity. Some went without power for weeks. The storm surge easily overtopped the region's bluefield infrastructure, including protective dunes and floodwalls from Atlantic City to New London. More than 600,000 homes were damaged. Sixty lives were lost.
In the months following the disaster, the federal government marshaled significant financial and technical resources to help communities recover and rebuild. With preliminary damage estimates in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut topping $65 billion, the scope of the devastation inspired new ideas about how to adapt to changing conditions.The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Regional Plan Association organized gatherings in June 2013 and January 2014 in order to analyze the response to Hurricane Sandy, identify a national strategy for climate resilience, and assess the role of federal agencies in supporting climate adaptation.
Whereafter, these two organizations compiled and published a report (PDF) that identifies a set of policies, regulations, and administrative practices that federal agencies can adopt to help coastal regions become more resilient—able to recover quickly from natural disasters while at the same time reducing future risk in the face of climate change.
Hurricane Sandy was a huge wakeup call that elevated the discussion about disasters and climate change at all levels of government. Public officials realized that the regional reach of the storm demanded a new approach to disaster relief and recovery. Status-quo strategies for disaster recovery, urban planning, and coastal management were no longer viable; in the face of rising sea levels, these outdated approaches undermined riverine and coastal ecosystems, endangering people, property, and the economy.
Many coastal regions are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including extreme weather, sea level rise, erosion, and heavy precipitation. Important components of the nation’s economy, coastal cities and their regions depend on healthy shoreline and marine ecosystems and reliable regional networks of infrastructure in order to function. As disasters become more severe and costly, a new approach will be necessary to minimize fiscal exposure to extreme weather and to help coastal regions become more resilient.
The response to Hurricane Sandy offers a number of important lessons for building climate-resilient coastal regions. The report defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from shocks and stressors while at the same time reducing future risk. By strengthening and integrating this connection between disaster recovery and rebuilding—between short-term and long-range actions following a disaster—we gain further critical opportunities to build even greater resilience.
The report, co-published with Regional Plan Association, identifies a set of policies, regulations, and administrative practices that federal agencies can adopt to help coastal metropolitan areas become more resilient. In addition, the research documents how state and local governments recovering from Hurricane Sandy sought to use federal aid to create a more resilient region, and it describes the obstacles they encountered.
Chapter 1 introduces why coastal regions matter and warrant stronger support from federal policies for a more integrated approach to coastal management and disaster relief.
Chapter 2 outlines several federal disaster relief funds and recommends reforms to existing policies, regulations, and administrative procedures that could make disaster recovery aid more flexible and supportive of climate adaptation. Without reforms to these programs, it will be difficult for cities and their regions to adapt to climate change and for the federal government to reduce its fiscal exposure given the growing number of extreme weather events. Chapter 3 examines federal flood insurance and risk management approaches. The report suggests that new reforms and incentives are needed to help metropolitan regions appropriately regulate vulnerable coastal land and remain attractive places to live and do business.
Chapter 4 maintains that resilience is the responsibility of all federal agencies, as well as state and local governments. The chapter recommends ways to integrate adaptation into funding programs and federal planning activities that influence infrastructure investments. The focus is on major federal expenditures that either shape physical infrastructure with regional implications or have broad impacts on state and local land-use decisions.
Chapter 5 describes the science, information, and planning tools that facilitate more adaptive planning and policymaking— particularly data-driven support tools that can help leaders make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Chapter 6, in conclusion, offers specific policy recommendations to position federal agencies to help coastal regions adapt to a changing climate. These recommendations can advance a national strategy for disaster recovery that helps coastal regions adapt to future conditions by integrating hazard mitigation and risk management approaches into federal policies. They include the following measures:
Anticipate future climate impacts during the disaster recovery and rebuilding processes.
- Adjust the rules that govern the use of disaster relief aid to help communities not only rebuild but rebuild in a more resilient way.
- Strengthen connections between pre-disaster and post-disaster planning efforts.
- Evaluate projects on their true costs and risks, including life-cycle costs and environmental impacts.
- Develop new financing and insurance models that capture the value created through mitigation to support long-term investments in resilience.
Align federal policies and programs to reduce risk and restore the health and productivity of coastal resources over the long term.
- Remove incentives to develop in hazardous areas.
- Create risk reduction standards for multiple hazards, base them on future climate conditions, and build in a threshold for uncertainty.
- Enforce Executive Orders that serve to protect and restore ecological resources.
Enable effective urban infrastructure and development patterns.
- Incentivize regional planning across federal grant and loan programs. • Incentivize state and local governments to play a leadership role in risk reduction and environmental protection.
- Support strategic investments in energy resilience.
- Distribute costs and responsibility for risks fairly and help low-income households access affordable housing in lower-risk areas.
- Reward cities for partial mitigation activities that reduce flood losses.
Develop and share data, guidance materials, and decision-support tools to help governments and property owners make forward-thinking decisions.
- Invest in science and decision-support tools to help both the public sector and the private sector make decisions that support resilience.
- Expand the use of new technologies to integrate two-way flows of information among all levels of government.
- Disseminate guidance and best practices across federal programs and use data visualization to effectively communicate risk to the public.
About the Authors
Robert Pirani is a Senior Fellow at Regional Plan Association and the Program Director for the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program (HEP) at the Hudson River Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2014, Mr. Pirani was RPA’s Vice President for Environmental and Energy Programs for more than 20 years.
Laura Tolkoff is Associate Planner for the Environmental and Energy Programs at Regional Plan Association, where she has focused on advancing climate mitigation and climate resilience through research, advocacy, and planning. She also manages RPA’s energy program, which seeks to develop a contemporary model of energy infrastructure in the New York metropolitan region.
Policy Focus Report Series
The Policy Focus Report series is published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to address timely public policy issues relating to land use, land markets, and property taxation. Each report is designed to bridge the gap between theory and practice by combining research findings, case studies, and contributions from scholars in a variety of academic disciplines, and from professional practitioners, local officials, and citizens in diverse communities.
Copyright © 2014 by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Regional Plan Association
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