The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 29, 2014

Hurricane Sandy: What we still haven’t learned

October 29, 2014

Exactly two years ago, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey. Within hours, its impacts were felt across more than a dozen states, particularly the densely populated New York and New Jersey coasts. Along with its toll on human lives, Sandy—the second-costliest hurricane in US history—dramatically altered livelihoods.

One year ago, we posed a few questions about what we were learning during the Sandy recovery—and what we should have learned already. The report card two years later is slightly better on some counts, but remains mixed on most.

What we learned before  

The big lesson that we got after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is how not to do response and relief. Since then, we’ve been doing these a whole lot better. From disaster emergency communications to community response teams that foreground the needs of victims, systems have improved. We are finding better ways to communicate with a wider range of citizens, even in the face of chaos and danger. These detailed improvements have been informed by research, are cognizant of resources, and leverage national-local and public-private-charitable collaborations.

Though Sandy’s response and relief were not without mishaps, how we addressed the challenges faced by affected communities and households has qualitatively improved. Fortunately, we didn’t have any disasters at the scale of a Katrina or a Sandy in the past year to test this lesson.

What Sandy is teaching us

Resilience—the elusive capacity to bounce back after a disaster—matters. Becoming resilient requires a wide set of plans and actions, the most cost-effective ones involving commitments and changes before disasters strike. Usually, though, forward-thinking plans don’t happen until after a community is hit and more aware of its vulnerability.

In the past, a few localities have planned for the next disaster while rebuilding. But the Hurricane Sandy Task Force was the first effort at the national scale to explicitly integrate planning for the future through the vantage point of the recovery soon after a disaster.

In our evaluation of the task force’s Rebuild by Design effort, the Urban Institute noted that Sandy also taught us that thoughtful recovery that takes into account the likelihood of future disasters requires a few key ingredients: strong leadership from policymakers and partners; the early and continuous involvement of local citizens and community groups; some innovative thinking that cuts through public red tape; realistic implementation plans; and especially money. Lots of money—but not as much as the value of what it would cost to rebuild after disasters plus what we lose in human and economic suffering during that time.

Resilience saves money in the long-run. In an era when even repairs and replacements to the infrastructure we already have are underfunded, we’re learning this lesson the hard way.

What we need to start learning

We’re still far from perfect on at least three counts. First, current recovery still favors building back to the pre-disaster condition rather than making environmental and social improvements—that is, becoming resilient. But New York’s Sandy buyout program for affected homeowners and for whole communities that are likely to face more disaster has improved the design of recovery with an eye towards resilience. We’re still waiting on the long-term outcomes from these to compare with Katrina’s programs.

Second, by waiting until a disaster has struck before we think about the longterm, we still fall into a crisis-response pattern. Many communities that are in desperate need of long-term disaster mitigation may not have had recent disasters—or the recovery resources that come with that. We need to develop better ways to fund mitigation, and better ways to keep people engaged in envisioning the kind of community they want after a disaster, even when there’s no disaster.

Finally, even when we’re paying attention to future risks, we tend to look at the big ticket items that our cities and regions need to prepare for future events first: stormwater pumps, berms, sea walls, and—though much less common—permanently limiting or moving existing development.

Though a first line of defense, efforts to improve resilience need to go beyond infrastructure. Housing, hospitals, schools, and local utility networks are also parts of the social and built environments that protect us—and are damaged—during disasters. They can’t be overlooked.

When will we learn?

The ability to be resilient involves, at its essence, mitigation. This is especially true for the disasters that are likely to increase as a consequence of human-induced global climate change. For these disasters, all communities need to develop adaptation plans.

The sad reality is that few cities and states have integrated long-term disaster mitigation and climate adaptation into all areas of local planning, and even fewer have implemented any of their plans.

The even sadder reality is that the opportunities for reducing the causes of some of these disasters (like reducing greenhouse gas emissions) will fade into the background if we only focus on the opportunities for mitigating disasters’ effects. Adaptation is a necessary action, but hazard reduction should still be on the table. Changing the course of some of these hazards is in our hands, and changing the disasters wreaked by all hazards is in our purview.

Even though our report card this year shows some progress, there will be bigger tests in the future.

Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano via Compfight cc

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