Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Is it Time to Develop a New Blueprint for Rebuilding?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of rebuilding for today, instead of rebuilding for the next generation.

Respite (2011) © Jason Rohlf, Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue Subway Station. Commissioned and owned by MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design. Photo: Rob Wilson

When parts of the Northeast finish rebuilding after Sandy, it will look and feel a bit different — but not different enough for some.

Watching communities rebuild after such devastation is often perplexing for educated observers who say mistakes are repeated and lead to more devastation, and that an approach that considers the likelihood of more severe storms and reduces risk should be taken.

The latter isn’t happening often enough, and even as parts of the Northeast pick up the pieces and promise more resilient communities, there is hand wringing among those who say opportunities are being missed. Again.

“I think there are many windows that have already been closed,” said Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “The vast majority of the rebuilding planning has been done, and for the most part, the writing is on the wall.”

That writing says adaptations like elevating structures and improving storm engineering building are the actions being taken. “There’s no doubt we can do a better job of storm engineering building,” Young said, “but that doesn’t stop the shorelines from eroding.”

Sand dunes are also being built and will help, but not forever, and that’s the point of some of the criticism. Rebuilding in the same areas is asking for more of the same, even with elevated, stronger structures.

“In other words,” said Young, “if the river is flooding, rather than step out of the river, roll up your pant legs.”

Ken Mitchell, professor of geography at Rutgers, is researching on rebuilding after Sandy for the National Science Foundation. He said elevating structures, which has been emphasized by the federal government, will only help so much. It may not help against the worst floods, and it doesn’t protect the infrastructure serving the buildings.

And he said, in focusing on this solution, communities are missing other more viable, long-term ones.

Sand dunes are effective too, but again only to a certain extent. The dune system can be established to withstand extreme storms with proper maintenance, said Stewart Farrell, director of the Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center. But the effect won’t last forever, he said, “Since we run out of sand eventually, run out of cash or run out of the will to fight storms combined with sea level rise at some point.”

These have traditionally been the primary approaches, but other tactics should be considered more often, including relocating structures from the riskiest areas. One roadblock, though, sources say is an “incentive” by the federal government to rebuild as before.

A Moral Hazard

There are a number of federal subsidies that encourage rebuilding in the same spot, according to Young. “In Hurricane Sandy, we had a $60 billion emergency appropriations bill that goes back into these communities and puts the roads and the power grid back and infrastructure in place.”

Young said the appropriations money is helping rebuild boardwalks, beaches and investment properties right back where they were. “Why wouldn’t any of these people rebuild right where they are if they know the federal taxpayers have their backs and are assuming all the risks?” Young asked. “The federal government has created a moral hazard.”

Young said it’s well known where the problem spots are and that emergency managers are tasked with responding to those areas every time there is “even a little wind blowing and a little storm.” Young advocates rebuilding in areas that are known to be more protected.

Mitchell was less direct about the government’s role in perpetuating disasters, but agrees that much more can and should be done to reduce risk. “I don’t want to criticize the government because I think it’s moving in the right direction with reforming the flood insurance program, but there are a lot of things we don’t think about.”

He said he hopes that flood insurance adjustments will help and that there’s evidence the program can work, but more so in river flood situations than coastal ones. “In the past, they were undercharged,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to help, but on the downside it’s going to force some people, like elderly people who suffered damage to houses they inherited, out of the marketplace because they won’t be able to rebuild.”

Mitchell advocates a holistic approach to recovery and rebuilding; one that considers the local economy, physical environment and social networks that people inhabit. He said we’re a long way off from that and closer to the one-size-fits-all approach.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.

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