Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Releases New Strategy

One of the main messages of the 200-page report from President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued this week is that risks from extreme weather are growing more commonplace and federal, state and local governments must prepare for them by focusing on improving infrastructure, including electrical grids and telecommunications.
Shaun Donovan, of HUD

Shaun Donovan, of HUD

One of the main messages of the 200-page report from President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued this week is that risks from extreme weather are growing more commonplace and federal, state and local governments must prepare for them by focusing on improving infrastructure, including electrical grids and telecommunications.

“In recent years, we have seen more intense storms hit our neighborhoods with increasing frequency,” task force chairman & HUD secretary Shaun Donovan said in a letter at the beginning of the report that outlined 69 policy recommendations, some of which have already been adopted, but many others to be worked on in the years to come. “More than ever, it is critical that when we build for the future, we do so in a way that makes communities more resilient to emerging challenges such as rising sea levels, extreme heat, and more frequent and intense storms.”

He noted that for every dollar spent today on mitigating hazards from extreme weather at least $4 in costs can be avoided if disasters strike again.

“By building more resilient regions, we can save billions in taxpayer dollars,” he added.

Donovan said the post-Sandy rebuilding strategy will serve as a model for communities across the United States facing greater risks from extreme weather and to continue helping New York and New Jersey rebuild from the hurricane.

He said that the release of the report and its recommendations “marks a crucial step in that journey” to rebuild the areas devastated by Sandy. In his remarks, President Obama also said that the federal government would continue to “stand with the region for as long as it takes to recover.”

“We have cut red tape, piloted cutting-edge programs and strengthened our partnership with state and local officials,” the President added.

The report establishes guidelines for the investment of federal funds, including the $50 billion in funding approved by Congress in January, to support resilient rebuilding in the region. It also includes policy recommendations that aren’t linked directly to the Sandy Supplemental funding but are still expected to have a significant impact on how the area rebuilds. The report emphasizes more regional planning and improved data sharing between federal, state and local governments as well as regular follow-up meetings and ongoing monitoring.

 

John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute who led a Disaster Assistance Advisory Services panel for ULI in July in New York, told Commercial Property Executive the task force and Donovan “deserve a lot of credit” for the report and said there were some “really important recommendations coming out of the task force.” McIlwain said his group’s post-Sandy report will be released in October.

Recommendations from the task force on energy include encouraging state and federal cooperation on improvements to the electrical grid to make it “smarter and more flexible” and launching programs with public-private partnerships to lower project costs and increase energy resilient infrastructure including at “industrial economic engines like refineries, office buildings, data centers , and manufacturing facilities.” It also calls for developing a “resilient power strategy for wireless and data communications infrastructure and consumer equipment” so that cellular service is less vulnerable during disasters when needed the most.

The report says efforts are under way to improve the fuel supply chain to avoid the long lines at gas stations and to help prevent electrical outages at gas stations, refineries, pipelines, marine terminals and storage facilities that stopped or limited fuel transportation following Sandy.

To help families, businesses and governments better understand current and future risks to properties and aid in rebuilding efforts, a web-based Sea Level Rise projection tool will be made available, Donovan said. To address insurance challenges, the task force is working with Congress on affordability challenges regarding the National Flood Insurance Program so homeowners aren’t priced out. It is encouraging business owners and homeowners to elevate properties above flood levels to protect against future storms and make premiums more affordable. In some areas, elevation is being required in order to rebuild.

The task force says it will continue to make it easier for homeowners and businesses owners to access disaster recovery loans and assistance and is trying to speed payouts after disasters, including “developing a one-stop shop online for everything related to small businesses and recovery.”

The report also says the federal government can help streamline recovery efforts by limiting redundant reviews by multiple federal agencies that can hold up rebuilding projects and add unnecessary costs.

McIlwain said he liked the ongoing competition called “Rebuild by Design” that began in June and will be bringing innovative resilient rebuilding ideas created by teams of architects and engineers from around the world to areas impacted by Sandy.

“Long-term planning and resilience is part of what they are focusing on,” McIlwain said.

McIlwain pointed to the recommendations in the report that deal with local communities and suggests the federal government help small governments develop the capacity to handle long-range planning needs, including getting funding sources to hire local disaster recovery managers. He also cited the report’s emphasis on regional collaboration and its importance to future rebuilding efforts.

A statement from two executives of the Brookings Institute who run the institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program also lauds the task force for its “unprecedented commitment to coordination across federal agencies and collaboration between the federal, state and local governments and key local constituencies.”  Senior Fellow Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz, a vice president at Brookings and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, said the rebuilding strategies in the task force report show “a federal commitment to localism and regionalism that has implications for a wide range of domestic policies.”