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Mixed Reviews for Report from Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force

Gov. Chris Christie with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan (right).
Gov. Chris Christie with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan (right).

In the weeks since the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force released its 200-page report filled with 69 recommendations to guide the recovery, environmental and planning advocacy groups throughout the state have been poring over the findings.

Generally, they’re pleased with what they’ve read. They're also unsure of how, or even if, all the recommendations will be implemented and what the impact on New Jersey will be.

The Task Force was created by President Barack Obama last December to help ensure that the $50 billion of emergency aid is well-spent, and to come up with guidelines to safeguard the nation against climate change. It included representatives of nearly two dozen federal departments and agencies, as well as contributions from state and local officials.

The group’s recommendations include hardening the power grid, developing mortgage policies to help homeowners struggling as a result of the storm, and addressing the affordability challenges presented by recent changes to the National Flood Insurance Program and the adoption of the new FEMA flood maps.

Both the study’s authors and watchdog groups say they hope the recommendations will be fully implemented so New Jersey -- and the nation -- will be better prepared for future storms. But Gov. Chris Christie has in the past expressed opposition to some of the policy recommendations. While he’s now publicly pledging his support, his office has not responded to repeated requests for more detailed reaction to the task force’s findings. In the months ahead, all eyes will be watching to see how things play out in the Garden State.

Speaking at a press conference in Little Ferry with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, the day after the report was released, the governor said New Jersey has learned from all the storms it’s experienced over the past few years. “Our response to Irene was good, our response to Sandy was better, and our response to whatever comes next will be better if we prepare the right way to make sure that we have a plan that is really seamless,” he said.

Part of that plan, according to the report, must involve the various levels of government taking a more regional approach to the recovery. “Natural disasters do not respect State or local boundaries, thus rebuilding plans cannot be bound by jurisdictional lines,” it states. “A series of uncoordinated hazard mitigation measures may yield unintended consequences and could ultimately decrease resilience in the long-term. Major rebuilding decisions made by community leaders should not be considered in isolation.”

But Christie has previously been opposed to regional efforts, including the creation of a Coastal Commission, which he feels could detract from the “uniqueness” of individual shore communities.

“We don’t need new government, more government. No, that won’t happen under me,” he told the "Asbury Park Press" last January. The regional planning route has always been a tough sell in New Jersey, where the tradition of home rule reigns supreme and many individual towns are fiercely protective of their way of doing things. To help circumvent this opposition, recommendation eight on the task force’s list involves establishing a Sandy Regional Infrastructure Permitting and Review Team, consisting of representatives of nearly a dozen federal agencies. As the storm recovery continues, the group will provide oversight for the reconstruction of “infrastructure projects of national or regional significance” -- particularly ones that require reviews from multiple jurisdictions or are particularly costly -- to ensure that they’re built to comply with best practice standards.

According to the Executive Order that created the steering committee, much of its focus will be on “sectors including surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resource projects, renewable energy generation, electricity transmission, broadband [and] pipelines.”

The task force has also created the New Jersey Local Resilience Partnerships to support cross-jurisdictional collaboration. Drawing on the resources of several private-sector planning organizations, as well as the New Jersey Recovery Fund (from which NJ Spotlight has also received funding), the partnerships will consist of "voluntary associations of small groups of adjacent communities that share common geography, flood risks, recovery challenges, and other characteristics." They'll have a bottom-up structure, with individual towns retaining local control over land-use decisions, but are intended to encourage sharing of planning and engineering services and know-how so towns can "cooperate in securing -- rather than competing with one another for -- limited resources."

Another area where the task force’s findings seem at odds with New Jersey’s approach thus far is climate change. The report places sea-level rise and climate change at the front-and-center of all of its recommendations, noting that it’s “no longer a distant threat.” “While scientific evidence does not yet tell us definitively whether storms like Sandy are growing more common, evidence indicates climate change is already altering environmental conditions in a way that suggests there may be changes in the frequency, intensity, duration, and timing of future extreme meteorological events, which may lead to unprecedented extreme weather events,” it states.

On this note, one of the Task Force’s recommendations that’s already been adopted and implemented is the creation of a web-based map and sea-level rise calculator to help local engineers and floodplain managers plan for climate change in their communities. Peter Kasabach, Executive Director of New Jersey Future, said in a press release that his group is eager to see how these tools will be put to use.

“We are still waiting to see how the Christie administration will incorporate sea-level rise into its long-range planning, and how they will help folks at the local level to do the same,” he said. “For example, we have not yet heard whether the state Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) currently under revision and the $2.5 million grant program for county HMPs (which is mentioned in the task force report) will include sea-level rise among the risks considered."

For his part, when asked about the role of climate change in the aftermath of the storm, Christie has had various answers. He has called it an “esoteric discussion,” claimed it’s “above his pay grade,” and attacked a questioner for being a member of what he claimed was the liberal media. He continued that stance at the press conference in Little Ferry, saying that he hasn’t changed his mind about anything and calling it "a scientific discussion and debate that I'm simply not engaged in."

While not using the language of environmentalists, the governor did acknowledge, however, that it’s clear something unusual is going on. “I wish I could stand here today and tell you that we’ll never have another storm like Sandy. I can’t,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing this ‘hundred-year-storm’ garbage. I’ve been governor for three-and-a-half years, I’ve had three hundred-year-storms.”

Coming to Christie’s defense, HUD Secretary Donovan downplayed the disagreement and did his best to sidestep the subject, despite the weight given to it in the task force’s own report. "When you talk to a homeowner or business owner, they don't care about the causes. They don’t care about where this is coming from,” he said. “What they care about and they know, based on these storms, is that they're at risk." Noting that he’s “spent a lot of time with the governor on this issue,” Donovan added that “we need to focus on what we agree on here, which is that communities are at risk, that we have to rebuild smarter and stronger.”

All parties seem to agree that the key now is ensuring this isn’t just another study that sits on a shelf. “Implementation is key,” said Chris Sturm, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Future. “And keeping sort of a high level of visibility on how progress is being made is going to be essential. You know, the report needs to be more than a set of recommendations. It needs to be something that’s acted on.”

Indeed, a report of this type was issued by a federal task force after the 1993 flooding along the Mississippi River. It contained dozens of recommendations to strengthen the National Flood Insurance Program and adopt stricter flood zone standards, but 15 years later, the Assistant Secretary of the Army wrote to Congress that little or no progress had been made.

Sweeping recommendations also came out after Hurricane Katrina. The levy system was rebuilt in response to those recommendations, but many other proposals to protect the Gulf Coast have yet to yield results.

HUD Secretary Donovan said he’s personally committed to make sure that doesn’t happen this time. According to President Obama’s Executive Order that created the task force, its report is nonbinding and unenforceable, so there are no mechanisms in place to enact penalties if New Jersey or other states were to violate any of the findings.

But many of the recommendations will be carried out on the federal level, with or without the participation or cooperation of state and local officials. Donovan also said various mechanisms are in place to guarantee that all of the findings are put into practice, including detailed action plans for each one and quarterly meetings of the president’s entire cabinet to provide oversight.

Implementing the plan over the long term is sure to be costly, and this report doesn’t promise any new federal funds for improvements over the long-term, but Donovan said there’s a great financial incentive to taking action. “For every dollar that we spend on smart mitigation today, we save four dollars the next time a storm hits,” he said.

Plus, he added, he expects his feet will be held to the fire by residents and elected officials in areas still recovering from the storm. “The people of this region deserve no less,” he said, and the recommendations are far too important to ignore.

This article was revised and edited after it was originally published.

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