Urban Wire One year after Sandy: When will we learn?
Carlos Martín
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Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the Northeast exactly one year ago. Since then, with the exception of Colorado’s summer wildfires and fall flooding, our country has largely been spared the major natural disasters that wreak destruction on local communities and cause confusion among national policymakers.

But, such providence often brings amnesia. Too often, the lessons we learn from one disaster get shelved because enough time passes before we must apply them again, or because they seem irrelevant for new and apparently unique disaster scenarios.

Occasionally, though, we have learned and successfully applied lessons at all stages of disaster policy, from immediate disaster relief through long-term recovery to mitigation.

What did Sandy learn from Katrina?  We can do relief better.  

Hurricane Katrina’s response and recovery were marred by poor coordination among the various federal, state, and local entities that could assist or be assisted. To quote Professor Mary Comerio, one of our nation’s best authorities on natural disasters, housing, and planning, a “crisis brings out the best in people, but often the worst in institutions.”

Compared to the Katrina response, the various post-Sandy strategies show that we have learned that better management works. FEMA’s response and relief in particular were praised, much of this due to the improved post-Katrina National Disaster Recovery Framework that establishes clearer roles among federal departments and agencies.

This coordination also led to improved knowledge about who lives where, their housing status, and their service needs. Among Katrina’s victims, there was a wide range of preexisting needs that the storm exacerbated, and not much was known about how home and flood insurance policyholders would fare.

HUD’s post-Katrina assessments offered lessons about who rebuilds, when, and how. Some of these are included in the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy—one of the first comprehensively planned recovery documents in American disaster history.

What are we learning from Sandy so far? We can do recovery better.

Funds for relief and recovery still had to come from special Congressional appropriations, but the implementation of post-Sandy recovery plans demonstrates steps forward in delivering disaster assistance more efficiently and strategically than before. With its Disaster Community Development Block Grants, for example, the State of New York has offered repair and rebuilding assistance to homeowners, as well as buyout plans for those living in floodplain areas.

Sandy is also reminding us that big visions don’t always work. Little preparations and methodical changes do. Grandiose planning schemes for resilient cities and architectural manifestoes for new disaster-resilient housing almost always arise after disasters, but they rarely result in much policy or practical change. It’s the less glamorous, often technical chores of determining incentives for home elevations, making timely and accessible changes to floodplain maps, and managing private lands for the common good that are needed for long-term recovery. These seemingly obvious lessons are difficult to implement, considering the huge need during recovery but scant resources and time.

There are still some gaps that have yet to be filled after Sandy, and program outcomes remain to be seen. But implementation to date suggests that some lessons have been heeded.

What should we be learning? We can do mitigation better.

Disaster plans are often developed only after disaster has struck. We need better implementation plans for community-specific disaster and recovery plans before a crisis hits. Even with Sandy, there are still instances of delays in receiving home repair funds. Mitigation is more cost-effective, allows for more place-based strategies, and can incorporate existing community opinions more profoundly.

State and local governments should have frameworks for implementation of disaster funding, and the federal government should provide resources and requirements for this. Katrina brought these gaps in resources for mitigation and preparation to national attention, but these needs continue to be overshadowed by relief and recovery. With the luxury of time that disaster mitigation and preparation allows, we can also think about how best to design the recovery implementation strategies that yield the communities we want in the long-term, too.

Katrina exposed some spectacular weaknesses not just in public responsiveness to disasters, but also in policy instruments planned to mitigate their effects. Changes in the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program are raising premiums to more accurately reflect the risks of floods, rather than unintentionally reward disaster-prone development. More stringent building codes and other disincentives for development in high-risk areas have also ensured that market-based tools account for the risk of disaster, and steer funds and policy to more effectively filling public rebuilding and recovery needs.

We should do equity better, too.

We’re not all equally affected by disasters, nor are we all on the same social and economic playing field before a disaster hits. Uninsured homeowners in Mississippi, individuals with physical mobility challenges in Louisiana’s post-Katrina settlements, public housing residents in New York, homeowners in New Jersey who can’t afford their new flood insurance premiums—there are many Americans who live in harm’s way but don’t have the resources to move or improve their homes. Potential strategies include a concept for supporting low-income households subjected to higher flood insurance premiums.

We should remember. 

None of these lessons are new. Some go back to past disasters, and to disasters in other nations. In almost all of the cases, the costs of relief and recovery have gone up—and the funding for mitigation has not. Expectations of the federal government covering relief and recovery has grown as much as the costs—not a sustainable disaster funding plan.

Disasters will continue, and some may repeat with more frequency. Before the next big one, it might be worth dusting off those lesson books even if it doesn’t seem cloudy out today.

Photo from Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock


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