In October 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy caused devastation to several states along the Eastern Seaboard, President Barack Obama created a high-level federal team representing 24 agencies to consider a long-term recovery strategy for the states most affected.
The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force was charged with preparing a report with recommendations on its findings with specific instructions to think ahead and consider long-term needs for the vulnerable Atlantic Coast states. And to recommend ways to reduce not only the devastation but also the high costs likely with respect to future disaster events.
After working for roughly six months, the task force issued its report in August and also made plans to track the implementation actions by agencies and to work on ways to reduce the future federal outlays for future major weather events.
Among the special features of this endeavor is the first-time use of an executive order to require 24 federal agencies to consider the long-term recovery process; the task force effort was linked with ongoing White House directives to deal with climate change and to foster more resilient communities; and follow-up processes were included to implement the recommendations provided by the report.
Given all of these special characteristics of the task force and its report, the results should be of interest to emergency management personnel. Of particular interest are: have the art and science of disaster recovery been highlighted and enhanced, and are the recommendations likely to result in progress in recovery from and resilience to disasters?
Is this just another federal report or are there some unique and compelling new directions and directives in the works? The preparation of this report was unique in several respects:
The destructive impacts of Hurricane Sandy were huge, making it the second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, after Hurricane Katrina. The enormous cost of the disaster is one of the reasons for federal action, since no one wants to see or pay for another similar disaster.
One interesting fact was that Sandy affected 24 states across the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S., although most of the destruction was centered on the dense population and infrastructure of the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York. The greatest ratio of damage occurred in housing and in public transit systems. Also of great significance is that the area impacted was an economically important and vulnerable part of the country, with many essential industries and dense population centers.
Sandy’s aftermath differs from that of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, in that the region’s relatively expensive and unusually low-availability housing market raised special challenges. “Affordable temporary housing units close to Sandy-affected neighborhoods were in short supply. This forced federal, state and local authorities to employ an array of policy tools to provide displaced individuals with places to stay,” according to the report. Also, the density of housing, zoning and land use patterns precluded the use of mobile homes for temporary housing.
The report provides a series of guidelines for spending and allocation of the Congress-approved Sandy relief funds, and these guidelines have gained approval by elected officials and private organizations. Of the $50.5 billion approved by Congress in the Sandy aid package last January, about $9 billion already has been spent. A portion of the money was applied to cleaning up the New Jersey and New York shores, and rebuilding homes and businesses.
And data regarding the federal outlay for this disaster are available to the public to allow interested persons to track the progress of the actions proposed.
The report makes 69 policy recommendations across several policy areas. They are designed to “align funding with local rebuilding priorities, eliminate barriers to recovery while ensuring effectiveness and accountability, coordinate across levels of government, facilitate a regionwide approach to rebuilding, and promote resilient rebuilding so that the region will be better able to withstand the impacts of existing risks and future climate change,” according to the report.
Among the key recommendations:
Also flagged was the need to act on well documented changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. The report acknowledges deficiencies by saying, “Since FEMA has not updated flood maps of New Jersey and New York City in more than 25 years, it was difficult for local planners to effectively understand and address current and future risks posed by climate change, urbanization, and other factors.
“Consequently FEMA issued updated Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps in the immediate aftermath of the storm and the administration released a sea level risk tool designed to provide communities in the Sandy-affected region with timely information on how various scenarios of sea level risk would be expected to impact them.”
Several major professional and trade organizations watched with great interest as the task force conducted its work, and some were asked to participate in an advisory capacity by the federal agencies. Predictably organizations concerned with various aspects of the damage — such as floodplain management, insurance and infrastructure — are interested not only in the report findings and recommendations, but also will watch with interest as implementation occurs.
While the sharing of science-based data strengthens the technical aspects of risk reduction, the ability of local governments to incorporate and use this information in their land use decisions is still in question.
The consensus is that many of the 69 recommendations could have and, in fact, have been made in previous hurricane after-action reports. No mention is made in the task force report about the findings and recommendation of the many federal government reports issued after Katrina, which presently holds the record for the most costly disaster in our nation’s history.
The lead role of HUD’s Donovan was understandable in that he had housing experience in New York City prior to his current position, and HUD is responsible for disbursing the largest single agency portion of the multi-billion dollar supplemental funds package voted for Sandy recovery.
So, will this be a milestone report, particularly in terms of achieving implementation of its recommendations? How well will the required follow-up by the task force members proceed, since it is an unprecedented effort? And will this task force process be a model for future catastrophic events or is it a one-time prototype? It will probably be a few years until the answer to that question is clear.
As noted in the NJ Spotlight, since the task force was created by a presidential executive order, the report is nonbinding and unenforceable at the state and local level. There are no mechanisms in place to enact penalties if New Jersey or other states were to violate any of the findings.
Furthermore, the federal agencies may not be able to implement many of the recommendations addressed to them if the sequester currently in place continues into 2014 and beyond.
Nevertheless, the same article noted that Donovan said many of the recommendations will be carried out on the federal level, with or without the participation or cooperation of state and local officials. Donovan also said various mechanisms are in place to guarantee that all of the findings are put into practice, including detailed action plans for each one and quarterly meetings of the cabinet to provide oversight.
Full and effective implementation of the recommendations will be expensive, since it requires federal outlays for buyouts and environmental compliance measures. Watching the implementation phase unfold in the coming years will reveal whether this report truly matters.
Claire Rubin heads the small firm Claire B. Rubin & Associates in Arlington, Va. She is the editor of Emergency Management; The American Experience, 1900-2010 and blogs at RecoveryDiva.com.