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Three Years Since Sandy, Are We Ready?

The East Coast dodged a bullet by the name of Hurricane Joaquin earlier this month. Although that Category 4 storm hammered the Bahamas—and its torrential rainfall prompted President Obama to declare a state of emergency in South Carolina—Hurricane Joaquin was largely a false alarm for the coastal U.S. Just this past weekend, the strongest landfalling Pacific hurricane on record came and went over Mexico without a single death reported.

While Joaquin and Patricia were an untaken test of our hurricane preparedness, both raised an important question: Three years out from Superstorm Sandy, are we any better prepared?

According to a progress report issued last week, New York City is safer now than when Sandy hit. Citing a range of initiatives and investments aimed at strengthening coastal defense and bolstering emergency preparedness, including upgraded buildings and infrastructure, the report also highlights existing efforts to support those on the front lines when disaster strikes in their communities—primarily volunteers, community-based organizations, and small businesses.

The improvements described in the report are necessary. However, it is extremely difficult to measure or even assess how they are actually assisting families, civic groups, and small businesses on the ground. Congress has allocated nearly $50 billion across 19 federal agencies to help communities recover and rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. This includes $4.21 billion in Community Block Development Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which to date have not been fully dispersed. (In the interest of full disclosure, New America was one of the 11 winners of the City of New York’s RISE competition using CDBG-DR funding, and is still awaiting a contract.)

Clearly there is money being spent, albeit slowly, to make us better prepared. But how do we know that that money—our federal tax dollars—is being spent well?

As to the question of how to make do with the scarce federal funding, just this week, 67 eligible states, counties, and cities nationwide are finalizing submissions for the National Disaster Resilience Competition, a two-phase process that will competitively award $1 billion in CDBG-DR funds for specific projects aimed at disaster recovery and long-term community resilience.

This, even though federal funding programs aimed at New York City’s recovery efforts have been demonstrably troubled, like the HUD-funded Build It Back program, due to delays and mismanagement. Other initiatives, however—perhaps most notably HUD’s Rebuild By Design program—have been recognized as national models and are being implemented more broadly.

The difference between the two HUD programs is community engagement and buy-in. Rebuild By Design incorporates a participatory approach centered in communities, decentralizing recovery processes and putting progress into the hands of local groups. One of the winning submissions targets investment in a massive food distribution center in the South Bronx, one of the world’s largest wholesale produce markets, located in the poorest U.S. congressional district. The proposal to protect this working waterfront impacting 20,000 direct jobs was put forth by a multidisciplinary team of design, engineering, and development companies alongside local partners, including The Point CDC, a South Bronx community group with longtime roots in a citywide environmental justice network.

The good news, then, is that, even with federal funding troubles, there do exist robust community networks that have been established or strengthened through local, long-term recovery organizations (LTROs) comprised of coalitions of local organizations on the front lines. As Joaquin loomed on the weather maps, the LTROs were preparing to spring into action (we spoke to LTRO-affiliated groups Ready Red Hook, LES Ready, and Project Hospitality, which leads Staten Island’s LTRO). Here, then, is one clear benefit that has come of Sandy: Disaster recovery has fueled community building. Civic groups have also reported thoughtful and effective processes for local participatory input, stewarded by the Governor’s office. Notwithstanding the State’s inroads at the local level, the end of recovery funds means the loss of recovery jobs at the LTROs and other community-based organizations. The question many communities are facing now is how they can best move forward.

New Orleans may provide some clues. Out of a total $120.5 billion in federal spending for recovery after Katrina, close to $75 billion was paid for emergency relief alone—not rebuilding, which is long-term work where community and civic groups can and should play an increasing role. However, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans released their resilience strategy as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. The strategy outlines specific actions to fight inequality, improve existing systems, and be more adaptable to change going forward—all through a process that builds from and with community input, taking into account existing challenges, even before disaster strikes.

By way of comparison, there is no regional tally of the status of spending on allocated funds for Superstorm Sandy since the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board shut down its operations and website. Thus, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports having allocated $13 billion in local assistance for Superstorm Sandy, it is not clear how funds have been distributed, nor how much remains unspent.

And the costs of Hurricane Sandy are still being tallied. New Jersey’s Sandy tracker accounts for funds awarded and received, while the City of New York equivalent only accounts for awards. Add to this the complication of fraud and delayed or poorly-executed contracts. A dearth of qualified contractors and foreclosures are among other top frustrations cited by communities. For example, the deadline for filing National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) claims for Hurricane Sandy was just two weeks ago. Amidst criticism that earlier claims were not processed properly or were underpaid, the NFIP is conducting an internal review to revamp—and in some cases completely overhaul—how it processes claims and, importantly, how it interacts with flood survivors.

So where exactly is the New York–New Jersey region three years after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy? Discussions about proactive strategies for managed retreat (moving development away from high-risk areas) are starting to emerge. But these discussions are even further complicated by an outstanding formal appeal filed by the City of New York over errors in the scientific modeling FEMA used to update the City’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

All told, the federal government has had a steep on-the-job learning curve about how to support state, city, and community resilience. To be sure, regional and interagency cooperation is lagging. And even though 2015 has proven to be the hottest year on record, the conversation among policymakers, practitioners, and experts is, frustratingly, almost exclusively focused on hurricanes and storm surge. Those are not necessarily the concerns of residents and local groups who have created a viable network of response and recovery efforts despite confusing and inefficient webs of bureaucracy. Given that resilience has become the defining issue for communities everywhere, it is essential that New York’s resilience planning support the vital efforts of these local groups. Doing so will help ensure that the capacity, knowledge, and advancements gained through the trial of Sandy are not squandered. We have to be ready to help communities help themselves. If Sandy has taught us anything, let it have been that.


Greta Byrum is the director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. She reimagines the way we design, build, and manage communications systems to support local residents as leaders, organizers, and preparedness experts.

Pamela Puchalski