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Sandy Rebuilding Task Force: Climate Change Must Factor In To Rebuilding Effort

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On Monday morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the recommendations of a task force dedicated to finding solutions for rebuilding in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Critically, the report recommends that rebuilding projects are able to withstand the impacts of a changing climate. The report makes it clear:

No single solution or set of actions can anticipate every threat, but decision makers at all levels 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change and the resulting increase in risks from extreme weather have eliminated the option of simply building back to outdated standards and expecting better outcomes after the next extreme event.

Hurricane Sandy was the most destructive and deadly storm since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — 159 people died and 659,000 homes were damages or destroyed.

The report prominently references the President’s Climate Action Plan’s statement that “climate change is no longer a distant threat — we are already feeling its impacts across the country.” HUD Secretary Donovan, the Chair of the task force, said in his opening letter that building for the future means making “communities more resilient to emerging challenges such as rising sea levels, extreme heat, and more frequent and intense storms.”

To that end, the report recommends 69 policy initiatives across almost 100 pages, spanning from planning for future risks, to restoring houses, and from helping small businesses to increasing data sharing between federal, state, and local officials.

In addition to future recommendations, the report detailed some policy changes that have already taken place and should be continued. When federal money is used to build major infrastructure projects, they now adopt stronger flood protection standards. One thing that will be helpful for planning for floods is a sea level rise modeling tool that helps planners predict where future flooding will likely be a problem. Building something that in 15 years will be at risk of flooding because of a rising ocean is wasteful. The “Rebuild by Design” competition for teams to find solutions to address coastal regions’ vulnerabilities, initially launched in June by the Task Force, got a recommendation to continue.

What can the federal government do?

  • Streamline reconstruction review processes to cut down on redundant reviews by different agencies, to avoid delays that could last as long as 4 years.
  • Improve the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program by speeding up approvals for qualified borrowers, further training loan officers, loosening eligibility for some loans, and setting up a separate process for small businesses that need money more quickly than homeowners to stay above water.
  • Revise federal mortgage policies to speed up the process by which homeowners get insurance checks.

What should local communities take away from the report?

  • Floods are going to happen more often on the coast, so investing in protection now is likely less expensive than cleaning up later. A 2005 report found that every $1 FEMA spends on hazard mitigation earns the country $4 in benefits.
  • Everyone could benefit from a more advanced electrical grid that is better able to react to a crisis such as Hurricane Sandy.
  • Flood insurance is tricky — many homeowners at risk of flooding in low-lying areas will not be able to afford both increased premiums nor structurally lifting their homes up on pilings. The task force did not have specific recommendations here.

President Obama praised the recovery effort and the Task Force, saying “We have cut red tape, piloted cutting edge programs and strengthened our partnership with state and local officials. While a great amount of work remains, we will stand with the region for as long as it takes to recover.”

The report focused on the region affected by Sandy, and the aid that Congress passed to make the region more resilient is of course marked mostly for New Jersey and New York. Yet the whole nation faces myriad climate impacts, from droughts to floods, sea level rise to heat waves. Many of the report’s recommendations can be useful for any community, and indeed, the report notes that “we give all communities the tools they need to make sure that when we rebuild, we build back stronger and smarter.”

Not all local leaders have made that connection. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in May that “I don’t think there’s been any proof thus far that Sandy was caused by climate change.” While no one is saying that the storm would not have happened at all without a changing climate, ensuring that communities rebuild resiliently — so that the impacts of climate change do not wipe away rebuilding efforts — is critical.

Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, points out that not everyone gets the same treatment in the wake of disaster. “Thanks to federal funds and expertise, New Jersey and New York will be more resilient to these threats,” he said, but “the rest of the nation also deserves such assistance to become more resilient to future extreme weather.”

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