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Are We There Yet?

The Long Road to Recovery

How Far?

I’ve taken a break from this site for the past 8 months.  I spent that time working for the President’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force as a Senior Policy Adviser on issues of local government and land use planning. My duties took me to Washington, DC and New York City, but more importantly, to every corner of New Jersey that was impacted by Sandy.  I spent a great deal of time speaking with policy makers, government officials, scientific experts, business leaders and ordinary people from the shores of Delaware Bay to the Hackensack Meadowlands regarding their views and experiences both before and after the storm.  That work has provided me with a perspective on the complexity and difficulty of dealing with the challenges that recovering from a disaster like Sandy presents. Of even greater significance is the necessity of undertaking these daunting tasks while confronting the reality of a changing world climate and rising sea-levels.

There is a strong  urge in human nature to seek comfort. We like familiar surroundings and feel disoriented by change. These instincts are brought to the forefront following disasters. Homes are destroyed, landscapes are altered and lives are changed by major destructive events. Its only natural to want a return to “normal” when major disruptions, like Hurricane Sandy,  take place.  We want to get back to where we were as soon as possible. In terms of Sandy we can describe this feeling as we want the world of October 27, 2012 back and we want it now. However natural this feeling may be, it’s not a reasonable expectation, neither in terms of how long it will take to re-build or how we should rebuild.

Storms on the magnitude of Sandy have certainly happened before. There are a number of lessons that can be learned from past recovery efforts that are applicable in the aftermath of Sandy to assist in guiding rebuilding. What was unprecedented was the scope of the disaster. The density of the population, the value of property and the existing (and now vulnerable) infrastructure in the storm’s path was on a far different scale than anything that had been seen in the U.S. before.  Two things were immediately evident; recovery from this storm was going to take a long time and building things back the way they were was not an option.

How Many Times Does This Have To Happen?

There is a basic premise that we must accept first before embarking on the monumental task of rebuilding. That is, we need to fundamentally alter the manner in which we occupy vulnerable areas of the coast, particularly in the densely populated northeast. The long-standing patterns of development established in an era where climate change and sea-level rise were not recognized threats have placed people, property and infrastructure in harm’s way.   Before we put another shovel in the ground, before we spend another dime of public money, before we issue another permit for construction the question needs to be asked if we are simply wasting our investments and creating unreasonable exposure to risk by failing to take this disaster as an opportunity to remake our footprint in these at-risk areas.

If we don’t change direction soon we’re going to end up where we’re going- Professor Irwin Corey

Sea-Level Rise Risk Assessment Mid-Atlantic Region

It may seem like a fairly common sense way of approaching things. However, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. Back before Sandy, the USGS had been modeling the risks of sea level rise for over a decade. In the Spring of  2012 they released a report warning that sea-level rise was actually accelerating beyond their original projections.  Then Sandy hit and the theoretical impacts became all too real. People got a first-hand look at what an increase of sea-level in terms of several meters was really like and the devastation and disruption it would bring. This should have been enough to make decisions easy. But it wasn’t. There are politics and economics and generations worth of investment in existing development patterns and the social and emotional impact on people’s lives to contend with. These factors, legitimate or not, exist and they make the path to recovery even more difficult and complex.

Evaluating our decisions going forward requires that we look at the full equation-that means looking at the full cost of everything we do. This includes assessing the cost of infrastructure investments in terms of the price of having to rebuild it again. Looking at the sustainability of the service area of infrastructure.  Putting a value on a healthy intact environment.  Assigning an appropriate cost measurement to human safety and lives that we might put at risk by failing to change.  Accounting for likely conditions that we will face as a result of climate change and sea-level rise. These are the just some of the elements that need to be measured and quantified in order to chart a course forward. Political expediency and narrow selfish interest have no role in the calculation.

Just The Tip of the Iceberg

This discussion barely scratches the surface of the  important policy issues we face. Even so, the important questions that exist are clear.  As we proceed to rebuild in the wake of Sandy will we be ready to do things the right way? Will we make the right decisions that will reduce vulnerability and avoid future risk? Will we take the long-term view to insure that where and how we build will be  sustainable? It won’t be easy. The right way rarely is. If we fail to act responsibly future generations will  judge us harshly.and rightfully so.- Ben Spinelli

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4 Comments

  1. Margaret Waldock says:

    Great blog, Ben. You captured very well the mind-boggling, frustrating, emotionally wrought conversations and observations over this past year. Your point about evaluating and articulating the true long term, full-cost of rebuilding and recovery decisions should be emphasized and infused in all public discourse going forward.

  2. Ben – you write:

    “building things back the way they were was not an option.”

    Not an option? What?

    From a land use perspective that is Gov. Christie’s PLAN!!

    How can you possibly ignore that?

    As you are a government guy, surely you must know that Christie’s DEP Commissioner Martin issued an Administrative Order that deregulated rebuilding – in place – prior public infrastructure – from roads, sewer, water to bulkheads, seawalls, etc.

    Martin also expanded the current CAFRA exemption known as the “right to rebuild”.

    Gov. Christie’s “emergency Flood Hazard rules” incorporating the FEMA ABFE’s did NOT consider climate change or sea level riser more intense coastal storms.

    The DEP inland flood maps are so out of date that Senator Gordon mocked Martin by saying they date to the Jimmy Carter era.

    You also must know that the Congress and the Obama Administration let NJ get away with all this and imposed no strings in billions of dollars of taxpayer appropriations or in HUD review of NJ’s recovery plans.

    Ben, in theory, we live in a representative democracy. But how is that supposed to work when the people lack facts – basic facts – to inform their views?

    When even people like yourself, who clearly now better, fail to hold politicians and government officials accountable?

    When the above truths I summarize are totally ignored?

    Ben, conflict avoidance is no way to blog or live a life.

    Wolfe

  3. Ben Spinelli says:

    Margaret,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. The breadth and complexity of the issues and ancillary factors that drive response are tough enough to understand, let alone navigate. I know you’ve encountered a pretty good sampling yourself. This was just a brief overview. I’ll be digging a little deeper into my notebook full of indecipherable scribbling.

    Ben

  4. Ben Spinelli says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. The purpose of this post was to briefly discuss the issues, not provide a comprehensive evaluation of all that is going on. However, this is a pretty clear statement:

    There is a basic premise that we must accept first before embarking on the monumental task of rebuilding. That is, we need to fundamentally alter the manner in which we occupy vulnerable areas of the coast, particularly in the densely populated northeast. The long-standing patterns of development established in an era where climate change and sea-level rise were not recognized threats have placed people, property and infrastructure in harm’s way. Before we put another shovel in the ground, before we spend another dime of public money, before we issue another permit for construction the question needs to be asked if we are simply wasting our investments and creating unreasonable exposure to risk by failing to take this disaster as an opportunity to remake our footprint in these at-risk areas.

    You don’t have to call someone out to be calling them out. Also, you can only put just so much into a single post. Whether or not the basic principle stated above is informing our actions and why or why not as well as who is responsible are subjects for another entry (or two or three). That’s why there’s the picture of the tip of the iceberg in the post. Until then we can point people’s attention to what should be happening, compare it with what is happening and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Thanks for reading.

    Ben

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