A woman walks with her dog behind the boardwalk destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 in the Rockaways section of the borough of Queens in New York.
From National Geographic (by Ben Jervey)
Photograph by Shannon Stapleton, Reuters
When the waters finally receded, Mantoloking, New
Jersey, resembled a war zone.
All 521 houses in the borough, a seaside
enclave on a barrier island about halfway down the state's coast, had
Sixty cottages had gone up in flames after natural gas
A week after Superstorm Sandy
struck, when residents were finally bussed back to survey the damage,
there was no power or running water.
Massive piles of debris filled
streets, yards, and patios.
Boats from the local yacht club were piled
on top of each other like toys.
Now, as the one-year
anniversary of Sandy arrives on October 29, officials in Mantoloking
and surrounding Brick Township are finalizing plans to build a massive
$40 million sand dune, anchored by a four-mile (6.4-kilometer) steel
The steel will climb 16 feet (5 meters) above the beach and will be
piled high with sand, paid for by federal and state dollars.
Township was one of the spots hardest hit by the so-called superstorm,
largely because it lacked the beach and dune systems that helped
protect other towns along the Jersey Shore.
impulse to minimize risk from future superstorms and hurricanes, even
amid the rush to rebuild from Sandy, is not unique to Brick or the
Up and down the eastern seaboard, coastal communities
that took Sandy on the chin have transitioned from urgent disaster
response to thinking about how to build more resilience into disaster
preparedness and infrastructure, especially in the face of increasing
threats like climate change and sea level rise.
efforts stretch from the local to the federal level, and as their
implications begin to come into view, they're raising questions about
just how much the nation has treated Sandy as an environmental wake-up
Flooded homes in Tuckerton, N.J., on Oct. 30 after Hurricane Sandy made landfall
on the southern New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29, 2012.
(US Coast Guard via AFP/Getty Images)
A Lesson to Be Learned
"There is a reality that has existed for a long time that we have been
blind to. And that is climate change, extreme weather, call it what
you will, and our vulnerability to it."
government's responsibility, Cuomo said, is not to debate climate
change's causes, but to prepare for its consequences:
"How do you do
your best to make sure it doesn't happen again or reduce the damage if
Cuomo's call to action was echoed by leaders nationwide.
was a wake-up call, and not just for the eastern seaboard but for
communities all over the country that we need to start preparing for
climate change now," said Brian Holland, Climate Program Director at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability
, an environmental association of cities and counties.
the months immediately following the storm may have been an ideal time
to issue such warnings, they were a tough time for action.
we learned very quickly is that the first three to six months is not
the time to be having those discussions at the local level," said Peter
Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future
, a nonprofit that promotes responsible land-use policies.
"Everybody is dealing with relief issues and personal issues."
means the central challenge for cities and towns, according to
Kasabach, "has been to try to get your town back to some kind of
normalcy without overinvesting in things that are just going to get
wiped out the next time."
Uncle Sam has helped local
governments focus on that goal.
Indeed, the biggest evolution in
disaster-related policymaking post-Sandy isn't some change to a zoning
law or flood insurance plan, but a wholesale shift in how the federal
government approaches local planning.
Hurricane Sandy, one year later
For the first time, the feds are urging local leaders to get serious about climate change planning in very specific ways.
The theme underlying the
document: in an age of warmer temperatures and rising seas, plan for a
future with stronger, more frequent storms.
at all levels," the report said, "must recognize that climate change
and the resulting increase in risks from extreme weather have
eliminated the option of simply building back to outdated standards and
expecting better outcomes after the next extreme event."
The Brookings Institute's Robert Puentes
says that the strategy laid out in the task force's report "emphasizes a
bottom-up approach" that breaks with 100 years of top-down managing.
understands that there's a different role for the federal government,
that not all decisions will be dictated," says Puentes, who directs
Brookings' Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative.
"Local leaders and
local communities are the ones who are going to be leading in the
Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said as much in a letter
introducing the report from the federal task force, which he chaired.
governments and community leaders are the front lines of disaster
recovery," he wrote in the August letter, "and it is the job of the
Federal Government to have their back by supporting their efforts,
providing guidance when necessary and delivering resources to help them
fulfill their needs."
Lavallette rebuilds boardwalk destroyed by Sandy
New Model in Action
battered seaside borough of Mantoloking provides a glimpse of this new
Local leaders learned the value of dunes from data shared by
state and federal sources, which showed that towns with dunes fared
much better in the storm.
After many community meetings, Mantoloking authorities decided to work with Brick Township leaders to build a dune of their own.
legwork—hosting meetings, selling the plan, securing easements,
wrestling through eminent domain proceedings—has been led by locals.
But when it's time to bury the massive steel wall into the beach, the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will step in, and the federal government
will pick up the bill.
In New York, Governor Cuomo is
using federal money for an innovative local program, also illustrating
the bottom-up approach to Sandy rebuilding.
Once the property of the State of New York, the houses—or what's left of them—will be demolished.
The land, Cuomo says
, will be "given back to Mother Nature."
Design Competitions and Sea Level Calculators
Other aspects of the federal task force's recommendations may be getting close to reality.
teams have been at work for months, and on October 28 each team will
unveil a single design concept to focus on for the rest of the process,
which will be their official entry into the contest. All ten teams
will then go to work with the Municipal Art Society
, Regional Plan Association
, and Van Alen Institute
all nonprofits that advocate for smarter urban planning and design
solutions in New York City and the surrounding areas, to connect with
potential partners within Sandy-impacted communities and further shape
the projects to local needs and site specifics.
Next year, a handful of
the designs will be selected as winners, and will be implemented in
local communities, all courtesy of federal funds.
The task force also set into motion a free, map-based sea level rise planning tool
built by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
with help from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, to facilitate
smarter long-term decision-making at the local level.
new maps show expansions of coastal floodplain boundaries that could
be used by local planners, and a sea level change calculator that gives
site-specific details on projected flood elevations from 2010 through
the turn of the next century, which is useful in determining how tall
to cut the stilts for a rebuilt beachfront house.
most lasting impacts of the task force's recommendations are likely to
come from guidelines that the federal government is now hashing out for
new development and rebuilding along the coast. Many guidelines
dovetail with those laid out in President Obama's Climate Action Plan
, announced in June.
includes the minimum flood risk standard that will ensure that all
rebuilding projects relying on federal funds must be elevated or
flood-proofed in accordance with FEMA's latest flood mapping guidance.
task force is recommending that all infrastructure projects in coastal
areas be held to new resiliency guidelines, though so far the
guidelines are only applicable to projects that take federal Sandy
The federal government is also working to
restore some natural resiliency measures to the coastal landscape.
we witnessed during Hurricane Sandy was that our public lands and
other natural areas are often the best defense against Mother Nature,"
Jewell said before her visit to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
in Galloway, New Jersey, where she made the announcement.
A Slow Process
course, big announcements and sweeping recommendations have come after
other big disasters. Think of the lofty Gulf Coast plans after
Katrina, which aside from the reinforcement of levees, have largely been left to languish
How much the Sandy recovery winds up changing disaster preparedness and infrastructure is yet to be seen.
Some argue that the federal government has already been too slow to turn recommendations into action.
been a slow process," said Holland of ICLEI-Local Governments for
Sustainability, "partially because federal agencies have been hamstrung
From the sequester to the shutdown, the federal agencies
haven't been empowered to implement these things as quickly as they've
Some task force recommendations, like mapping tools, can be implemented with relative ease (NOAA's sea level rise tool is now readily available
and state-specific models have already been released in New Jersey and
Massachusetts), and executive orders can ensure that taxpayer dollars
don't pay for wrecked homes and roads that could be flooded anew.
an interactive mapping website to visualize coastal flooding hazards and sea level rise
beyond projects funded by Sandy-related relief funds, there are no
enforceable guidelines yet. "Rutgers put out a flood mapping project"
said Kasabach, referring to a project called NJ Floodmapper
, "but nobody is compelled to use it at this point."
in Mantoloking, it's easy to see how federal resiliency guidelines
could play out.
Homeowners who do choose to rebuild, if they take
federal relief funds, will have to elevate their homes and utility
boxes in accordance with FEMA's flood projections.
Still, most cities and towns across the country are still ill prepared to deal with the worsening impacts of climate change.
, a Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at MIT, has studied climate planning on the local government level.
a recently published report, Carmin found that only about half of the
298 American cities she surveyed has any climate planning underway, and
that just 13 percent had completed an assessment of local
vulnerabilities and had approved long-term plans.
survey started in 2011, and she hasn't secured funding for a
follow-up, so she can't say whether there had been an increase in such
planning since Sandy.
But she says the views of local planners and
officials she talks to have been impacted by the storm. After Sandy,
she said, "there has been a much greater awareness on 'preparedness'
than on 'adaptation.'"
Communities are far less likely to do anything
to "adapt" to a new climate normal that may be perceived as decades
away, explained Carmin. But "storms and disasters are imminent," so
governments are motivated to be prepared for extreme weather events.
While cities and towns wait for federal guidance, many are taking matters into their own hands, signing onto a Resilient Communities for America
campaign organized by ICLEI, which invites collaboration between
communities and offers planning resources to help local leaders make
The campaign also advocates for stronger standards
and guidelines, and for better support from federal and state
On paper, the White House and the task force are
pushing for the same things.
A year after Sandy, it remains to be seen
whether these proposals are put into action or back on the shelf.