In October 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy caused devastation to several states along the Eastern Seaboard, President Barack Obama created a high-level federal team representing 24 agencies to consider a long-term recovery strategy for the states most affected.
The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force was charged with preparing a report with recommendations on its findings with specific instructions to think ahead and consider long-term needs for the vulnerable Atlantic Coast states. And to recommend ways to reduce not only the devastation but also the high costs likely with respect to future disaster events.
After working for roughly six months, the task force issued its report in August and also made plans to track the implementation actions by agencies and to work on ways to reduce the future federal outlays for future major weather events.
Among the special features of this endeavor is the first-time use of an executive order to require 24 federal agencies to consider the long-term recovery process; the task force effort was linked with ongoing White House directives to deal with climate change and to foster more resilient communities; and follow-up processes were included to implement the recommendations provided by the report.
Given all of these special characteristics of the task force and its report, the results should be of interest to emergency management personnel. Of particular interest are: have the art and science of disaster recovery been highlighted and enhanced, and are the recommendations likely to result in progress in recovery from and resilience to disasters?
Is this just another federal report or are there some unique and compelling new directions and directives in the works? The preparation of this report was unique in several respects:
- The president issued Executive Order 13632 in December 2012 to initiate the involvement of high-level representatives from 24 federal agencies to consider long-term recovery from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
- The National Disaster Recovery Framework, issued in September 2011, was fully implemented on a large scale for the first time in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
- Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan was selected as chair, rather than someone from the Department of Homeland Security.
- The report links disaster recovery with climate change, in particular the president’s Climate Action Plan, and it links recovery with resilience, particularly the White House Initiative on Resilience. The task force report makes operational the mission of these initiatives.
- It is primarily a document written for action by and for federal agencies involved in disaster recovery and does not call for legislative actions. Also, it does not extend to state and local governments or organizations in the private or nonprofit sectors.
- It called for “Giving governments and residents the best available data and information on current and future risks to facilitate good decision-making for recovery and planning.”
The Reach of Hurricane Sandy
The destructive impacts of Hurricane Sandy were huge, making it the second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, after Hurricane Katrina. The enormous cost of the disaster is one of the reasons for federal action, since no one wants to see or pay for another similar disaster.
One interesting fact was that Sandy affected 24 states across the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S., although most of the destruction was centered on the dense population and infrastructure of the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York. The greatest ratio of damage occurred in housing and in public transit systems. Also of great significance is that the area impacted was an economically important and vulnerable part of the country, with many essential industries and dense population centers.
Sandy’s aftermath differs from that of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, in that the region’s relatively expensive and unusually low-availability housing market raised special challenges. “Affordable temporary housing units close to Sandy-affected neighborhoods were in short supply. This forced federal, state and local authorities to employ an array of policy tools to provide displaced individuals with places to stay,” according to the report. Also, the density of housing, zoning and land use patterns precluded the use of mobile homes for temporary housing.
The report provides a series of guidelines for spending and allocation of the Congress-approved Sandy relief funds, and these guidelines have gained approval by elected officials and private organizations. Of the $50.5 billion approved by Congress in the Sandy aid package last January, about $9 billion already has been spent. A portion of the money was applied to cleaning up the New Jersey and New York shores, and rebuilding homes and businesses.
And data regarding the federal outlay for this disaster are available to the public to allow interested persons to track the progress of the actions proposed.