Hurricane Sandy Recovery
Todd M. Richardson, Associate Deputy Assistant SecretaryFive months after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the state on October 29, 2012, my colleagues and I toured hard-hit communities in Ocean County, New Jersey. We started in Toms River and made our way north to Monmouth Beach before turning south to Seaside Heights, site of the iconic, now destroyed, JetStar roller coaster. Although multiple eastern seaboard states experienced Sandy’s massive storm surge, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut bore the brunt of the storm’s wrath. In all, HUD estimates that 190,000 primary residences were damaged, 119,000 seriously so, in addition to thousands of second homes.
At the time of our visit to New Jersey, much of the debris had been cleared, and residents were rebuilding, gutting, or waiting. For those waiting for resources or local decisions to be made before they move forward with their recovery, I believe the wait for this disaster will be shorter than for similarly large disasters for three major reasons – more recovery is planned for and pre-paid, public resources are committed to serve as a safety net and fill gaps, and strong leadership is engaged and making decisions.
Planned for and pre-paid recovery. A community that plans and prioritizes its recovery efforts and coordinates recovery decisions with its residents has a better chance of facilitating a cohesive, forward-looking recovery. To promote speedy, well-planned recovery efforts, HUD created a mapping tool in January 2013 identifying the most severely damaged neighborhoods. The first line of defense for long-term recovery is adequate insurance, which dramatically expedites recovery. HUD analysis shows that 65 percent of the owner-occupied units seriously damaged from Hurricane Sandy carried some insurance for the type of damage incurred (mostly flooding). By the end of April 2013, the National Flood Insurance Program had paid claims totaling $7.1 billion; the Insurance Information Institute estimates that private insurers will pay out an additional $15.9 billion in New York and New Jersey.
Safety Net. Other critical components of a disaster recovery safety net are U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans for homes and businesses and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recovery assistance. To date, SBA has approved disaster recovery loans totaling more than $2.1 billion for Sandy victims. Through its Individual Assistance and Public Assistance programs, FEMA provides grants for temporary housing and limited repair costs as well as public infrastructure reconstruction; these grants total $4 billion to date.
These resources are part of the standard recovery plan after most major declared disasters. Sandy was an unusually large disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 and appropriate $50 billion to various federal departments and agencies to support recovery efforts. HUD received $15.2 billion to disburse through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Hard-hit communities rely on CDBG funds to address their unmet housing, infrastructure, and economic revitalization needs. A recent study of CDBG disaster recovery after Hurricane Katrina provides some insights on different recovery strategies.
Local Capacity and Leadership. Local government capacity to quickly develop and implement a long-term recovery plan is essential. In the aftermath of major disasters such as Sandy, questions often arise: Should we rebuild here or elsewhere? Do we need to implement different building standards (such as elevating homes)? How can we use this event as an opportunity to build back better? Such questions are frequently countered with an equally strong urge to rebuild in the same place in the same way. Mediating the tension between building back and building better takes strong local, state, and federal leadership that can shape a vision that affected communities will trust and pursue.
After Sandy, the Obama administration recognized the need for swift federal leadership, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg saw the need for swift local action. To support the long-term recovery of the affected region, President Obama established the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which will “ensure that the Federal Government continues to provide appropriate resources to support affected State, local, and tribal communities to improve the region's resilience, health, and prosperity by building for the future.” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan chairs the task force, which includes representatives from most federal agencies. The task force is working with stakeholders in the region to deliver a comprehensive regional rebuilding plan within 6 months, cut red tape and reduce regulatory burdens, monitor progress, and provide communities with technical assistance and tools to help localities realize their vision for redevelopment and revitalization. The task force is also working with local officials on the important issue of how to apply and meet new standards for flood elevations.
This cross-agency engagement, communication, coordination, and forward thinking have expedited the availability of funds for recovery. HUD was able to allocate $5.4 billion in CDBG funds within 8 days of the President signing the law making the funds available. New York, New Jersey, and New York City were able to submit action plans for the CDBG monies to HUD on an expedited schedule, and all of the plans have been approved. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced more than $3 billion in awards to address transit and road recovery needs in the affected areas. Drawing from the experience of past grantees, HUD has provided “toolkits” so grantees can hit the ground running. The toolkits discuss typical obstacles and ways to address those obstacles.
Past experience indicates that success requires continued engagement from leadership, programs that are transparent and easy to understand, and well-organized and trained staff.
Recovery is slower in neighborhoods where a high percentage of homes are damaged and the damage is severe, as seen in the aftermath of Sandy. Recovery from Sandy will take time. I predict, however, that it will take far less time than the 10 years typical of severe disasters. Much of the recovery cost was prepaid through insurance; federal, state, and local leadership has been strong; and the federal government has provided adequate resources for a safety net. These are all good signs, and I am optimistic about a full and strong recovery for the region.