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What New Jersey’s Sandy Recovery Experience Has Taught Us for the Future

Experts list key lessons learned for handling disasters yet-to-come


This is the second story in a two-part series. Read the first part.

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy caused enormous destruction in New Jersey, damaging or destroying some 365,000 homes up and down the coast and leading to an estimated $37 billion in losses.

That was bad enough.

But then came a manmade disaster of sorts.

Storm victims were forced to spend month after month standing in lines, waiting on hold, and taking days off from work to fill out reams of paperwork, only to later be told their files had been lost. Some residents were denied for funding but later found out they should have been accepted. And people struggling to make ends meet -- displaced and having to pay for rental housing while simultaneously paying a mortgage and taxes on their old, unlivable homes -- have endured lengthy delays to get money to rebuild without ever being given a clear indication of what’s holding up the process or where exactly their application stands.

The sad fact of the matter is that this is hardly a new or unique story. Even worse delays have plagued New York City’s Sandy recovery; there were numerous stumbles in Texas after Hurricane Ike; and a myriad of problems continue to hold back Louisiana from fully recovering, even now, nearly a decade after Katrina.

So why can’t we ever get disaster recovery right? Is there any solution, or are we simply doomed to repeat the mistakes?

In partnership with WNYC/NJ Public Radio and public radio station WWNO in New Orleans, NJ Spotlight has been investigating the roots of the problems and figuring out how to avoid them in the aftermath of the next big storm.

It appears there’s no one, single solution, but rather a variety of steps that must be undertaken on both the state and federal levels to ensure things go more smoothly the next time. Some of the recommendations involve changes to how we lay the groundwork, preparing for disasters before they occur. And experts say we need to thoroughly rethink every stage of the recovery process, from planning to hiring decisions to management oversight if we hope to be more successful the next time a major storms hits the coast.

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs -- which is overseeing much of the state’s recovery – declined several interview requests for this story, and the governor’s press office has also turned down or ignored multiple requests in the past to interview anyone in the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding. New York City’s current and former Sandy Czars did speak to us, however, as did several other experts and advocates in New Jersey and Louisiana. What follows is a summary of the key recommendations they made to ensure that future disaster recovery is handled in a more timely and efficient manner.

The first big issue that nearly everyone agrees needs to be fixed is reducing the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy.

For example, attorney Jeffrey Thomas unrolled a long chart he received from a private contractor when he worked for the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The document shows all the public hearings, environmental checks, reports, and other steps required for spending aid money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Thomas said his office got to work immediately, streamlining and applying for waivers.

“We spent months taking the seven-foot flow chart and trying to make it five feet,” he said, “but to the public this is all lost on them. This is just delay.”

Thomas explained that as officials, consultants, and contractors touted their Katrina experience for the Sandy recovery, they weren’t saying everything was rosy.

“It’s based on the premise that there is inherent inefficiency to the resources you’re going to be given, and we know how to help you get through it more effectively,” he said.

The federal government says this mountain of rules is intended to prevent fraud and ensure compliance with historic and environmental regulations, but New York City’s former Sandy Czar Brad Gair thinks some of them are just ridiculous. For example, before he was able to secure a waiver from the federal government, he had to send notices to Native American tribes in case there were human remains or other artifacts at the rebuild sites, even when people were just repairing their ceilings and walls.

As for concern about potential abuses by homeowners, Gair thinks it’s easy to go overboard.

“There’s always going to be fraud in every program,” he said. “We spend way more money trying to prevent fraud than we would lose if there was some fraud that just couldn’t be avoided.”

To Attorney Adam Gordon with Fair Share Housing -- a group that’s advocated on behalf of storm victims throughout New Jersey -- some of the problems with the recovery could have potentially been avoided and repairs could have been done for less money if we had worked more with homegrown organizations that already knew the geography and the culture of the region.

“I think undoubtedly the state needed to hire some outside contractors,” he said, “but there needed to be more of a balance with people who had actual experience on the ground in these communities.” Gordon acknowledged that nonprofits like Catholic Charities probably couldn’t carry the entire load, but he said they at least need a seat at the table.

Brad Gair agrees. “The nonprofit sector, the religious-based sector needs to be brought into the fold and not just be out there on the fringes trying to pick up the pieces around what the governments are trying to do” he said. Such organizations, he added, have a good understanding of what people need following a disaster and how to work effectively on a community level.

Gair said that after Sandy, the city partnered with several local groups to help with mold remediation. The project went well, but it was a pretty straightforward program funded by a private charity rather than governmental money. For larger-scale projects, he worries there might be a steeper learning curve.

“By being nongovernmental organizations, they sort of inherently don’t know how government works all the time,” he said. “So when you then try to throw them into this arena, they could do it. They could catch up eventually. But I think we’d be much better off if we started off with getting those groups involved before a disaster happens and figuring out what role they can play. Habitat for Humanity is building homes all the time all over the country. There are groups like this that could play a big role -- both homegrown and national -- if we had a coalition that was ready to stand up and do this. It’s like anything else. If you come to them on the fly and ask them to do it, you can get mixed results.”

Amy Peterson -- who took over for Gair as the director of New York City’s housing recovery when Bill de Blasio became mayor -- agrees that there may have been too much reliance on outside contractors. But the bigger concern, she said, was that the city didn’t watch over them closely enough. Both the blessing and the curse of consultants, she added, is that they’ll do exactly what you tell them to do.

“There’s no kind of nuanced understanding of how to move people forward, how to have a bit of flexibility across this very complex program with lots of regulations,” she explained. But if you add more oversight, when the outside contractors hit roadblocks, government supervisors can step in and use their discretion to change rules as needed and get money out the door more quickly.

Another example of a lack of oversight, said Fair Share’s Adam Gordon, is that some of the state’s requests for proposals from these contractors were poorly written and nonspecific to begin with, so the companies were unclear on exactly what they were supposed to do. He said the state’s expectations were constantly shifting, leading to confusion and frustration for all parties involved.

An additional recommendation experts say would help with more-efficient recovery from future storms is having a better-trained workforce that specializes in post-disaster skills. Local governments hire outside consulting companies because they don’t have enough staff to process paperwork on their own. But the private companies often end up hiring their front-line staff through temp agencies anyway, and spend little time training them. With storms like Sandy and Katrina becoming increasingly common, it’s important to make sure there are enough adequately qualified workers in the pipeline. Certificates and college programs are emerging to fill precisely this need. The irony is that part of the solution to the problems of the disaster industry may be to make the disaster industry bigger and more permanent in the long run.

One final lesson from Katrina and Sandy is that states and cities need a better cookbook instructing them in exactly what to do after following a major storm.

“When you start a big, new program or you’re not set up to review people’s insurance and personal records and come out and inspect their homes for totally different sorts of things than you normally do, and make up the rules as you go, mistakes happen. It’s inevitable,” said New York City’s Gair, who worries that we keep reinventing the wheel. The federal government gives states like New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana the freedom to design their own housing recovery programs, and Gair appreciated that flexibility when he was the city’s Sandy Czar, but he thinks in retrospect that it actually made things way more complicated than they needed to be.

“We’ve got to figure out how to build these programs at the federal level, have them off the shelf, ready to be implemented, turned on right after the disaster and not try to build a program from scratch on each, single disaster. It just doesn’t work,” he said. After Sandy, the federal government did release some model recovery programs that it said could be used as templates adaptable to local needs. While he’s not one to advocate for increased red tape, Gair thinks that in this case, more rules and less flexibility might actually be beneficial.

The way things currently operate, in order for officials in each state to design their own housing recovery, they need to come up with a plan, hold hearings, get approval from the government, and navigate a myriad of federal regulations to make sure state laws are in compliance. And all that consumes valuable time for storm victims desperately in need of funding to rebuild their homes.

Scott Gurian is the Sandy Recovery Reporter for NJ Spotlight and NJ Public Radio; Eve Troeh is the News Director of public radio station WWNO in New Orleans; Janet Babin covers economic development issues for NJ Spotlight partner WNYC.

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