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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | Newly appointed by Pres. Barack Obama to head the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, Shaun Donovan, Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, faced an auditorium packed with urban planners, disaster and environmental experts and interested members of the public on Dec. 13 to lay out some of the ground rules for post-Sandy recovery.
Donovan was the keynote speaker at a conference called “New York City (S.O.S.) Sink or Swim” convened by the Municipal Art Society and by CURE, the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, to explore the immediate need to rebuild after Sandy and the long-term need to develop infrastructure that can withstand climate change.
The conference was held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City — a Zone A neighborhood that was under mandatory evacuation when Sandy came ashore.
“Sandy will be one of the most devastating and costly natural disasters in our nation’s history,” Donovan said. “To anyone who doubts that mitigation is necessary or still believes that it’s too expensive, I have one question. What happens next time? As often as we label Sandy a hurricane, it was in fact a tropical storm combined with exceptionally high tide when it hit these shores. As we know, the damage was tremendous and it could have been far worse.”
He said that Sandy would not be the last major storm that we could expect to see in and near New York City. “As a number of our region’s leaders have said, it seems like these days, the 100-year storms are coming every few years,” he remarked.
Donovan said that the response could not be “business as usual.” Even as federal, state and local governments are trying to help businesses and individuals recover from their losses, long-term planning can’t wait, he asserted.
“As I speak today,” he said, “there are more than 150 federal workers in New York and New Jersey that are focused entirely on the long-term recovery of this region.”
They are looking at housing, infrastructure systems, the vulnerabilities of small business and local industry, health systems and social services, natural and cultural resources and community planning and capacity building.
At the same time that residents and businesses smashed by Sandy are mourning their losses and trying to figure out how they can recoup from them, Donavan said that the federal government is also asking other questions.
“Can we rebuild what was there before, and more importantly, should we?” he asked. “We have to recognize that homes that wash away and substations located in flood zones must become a thing of the past.”
Donavan said that if rebuilding takes place in locations leveled by the storm, it has to be done with designs and construction methods that could withstand future hits.
On the Gulf Coast, he observed, homes that were raised and given stronger roofs were not subsequently damaged by storms, while those that were not mitigated were severely damaged or destroyed. He also commented that along the New Jersey shore, towns that invested in beach replenishment and larger dunes suffered considerably less damage than their neighbors.
He emphasized that while the federal government is coordinating rebuilding strategies and providing vital funding and technical assistance, “state and local governments must provide the vision for local communities.”
Donovan noted that the previous week, Pres. Obama had asked Congress for $60 billion in supplemental assistance to aid in storm recovery. The request includes funds for transportation, veterans at risk, support for the Small Business Administration to help local businesses harmed by the storm and a range of other critical priorities. Central to these other priorities, the president included $17 billion for community development block grant funding.
“It is critical that we all work to make sure that Congress passes this help as quickly as possible – literally before this session of Congress is out at the end of the month,” Donovan said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people, families, businesses, who literally cannot get on with planning their lives and their futures until Congress acts.”
He noted that FEMA is currently restricted to providing only $31,000 per homeowner for homes that were destroyed lacking flood insurance. With that limitation, “There is no way that you can rebuild,” he said, adding that there were similar restrictions in what FEMA could do for small businesses.
However, if the money comes through as requested, he remains hopeful about the outcome.
“The recovery must address the needs of the entire region — one of the most important economic powerhouses in the world,” he said. “If we get this recovery right, we will emerge more economically competitive than we were before Sandy overran the Battery walls just a few feet from here.”