Opinion: Avoid Penny-wise, Pound-foolish Approach to Resiliency

Chris Sturm | May 16, 2013 | Opinion, Sandy
Modest initiatives in planning can help future-proof communities against tomorrow's extreme weather

The billions of dollars funneled into Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts — including the $1.83 billion recently made available by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan — are a human and humane response to the urgent needs of tens of thousands of people.

They also can be considered a down payment on the past; that is, they’re intended to help homeowners, renters and businesses put back what was in place before the superstorm made landfall.

Preparing for the future is not complicated, but it’s also not sexy or exciting. But now that those short-term funds and programs are in place, it’s time to look forward.

How can we translate our heightened awareness of risk into tangible, practical steps that will make our communities stronger and safer? How can we ensure that the remaining billions in federal rebuilding funds enable a fundamental, longer-term shift in state and local government decision-making?

The devastating effects of both Hurricanes Irene and Sandy have laid bare the fact that what our governments have been doing so far has not been enough — our communities are not sufficiently resilient or sustainable But significant change can come from careful, systematic steps. We’ve identified four initiatives that can lay that groundwork, and that should be supported by federal rebuilding funds:

Hazard mitigation planning and implementation: This is the bread and butter of preparing for disasters. Hazard Mitigation Plans, or HMPs, make state and local governments eligible for federal predisaster mitigation funding.

The state of New Jersey and 20 of its 21 counties have HMPs that meet the letter of the law. But they fall short in three significant ways. First, their scope has been limited to emergency response rather than addressing the broader question of how to reshape communities and natural systems so people, buildings, and infrastructure are safe. Second, HMPs have not been integrated into the everyday government plans, regulations, and investments that control zoning, investments in open space, or designs and locations for critical infrastructure like power substations. Third, most plans fail to incorporate the critical details about individual towns — the level at which most decisions about growth take place.

We need to integrate hazard-mitigation planning with every other kind of decision-making. Updates to the state and countywide HMPs now underway could be done well, but only if those entities are provided with adequate funding to ensure a broad focus across issues; robust engagement of all levels of government with decision-making; clear deliverables; and accountability driven from the top down.

Regional resource centers: Coastal towns share common problems. Flood-prone urban communities share common problems. Each could benefit from a dedicated regional resource center with staff focused on helping them move forward. These centers can assess the precise nature of the risks affected towns face, identify regional solutions, promote best practices, and foster coordination. An Urban Waterfront Resource Center and a Coastal Resource Center” would represent a forward-thinking, strategic investment of federal and state rebuilding funds that would support and help towns solve problems that cross municipal borders.

Municipal recovery activities No matter how good regional resources are, municipalities are still on the front lines of problem-solving. They must address location-specific issues within the narrow constraints of finances, politics, and community desires. Many couldn’t afford adequate staff before the storm, and now are in crisis mode as they scramble to recover. Federal and state funds should be used to expand municipal planning and rebuilding capacity, so that they are better equipped to guide their communities through the necessary decision-making and implementation.

State-level planning for coastal regulation, waterfront development, shore protection, and property buyouts: The NJDEP is responsible for ensuring that its regulations and massive investments in buyouts and protective systems like dunes deliver real protection for taxpayers. This involves not only analyzing the scientific data on coastal geomorphology, storms, and rising sea levels but also figuring out how to apply a range of solutions most effectively. DEP’s budget has shrunk steadily over the years, so federal resources could provide a much-needed short-term boost to its capabilities.

The level of federal funding that is being committed to post-Sandy rebuilding creates a tremendous opportunity to improve government decision-making in New Jersey. In the urgency to get money out the door for the immediate big-ticket items like building elevation and dune replenishment, let’s not be penny-wise and pound-foolish about the modest investments in planning that can ensure that those larger sums are spent well and keep us safe for the long term.