THE BLOG
11/30/2012 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2013

Sandy's Environmental Impact: What Are Your Officials Doing?

Superstorm Sandy plowed through the United States at the end of October, forcing families to live without basic necessities and leaving many unsure of what their lives would be like in the near future. In addition, many parts of New York, New Jersey, and the surrounding areas were damaged beyond belief. Former Vice President Al Gore estimated the damages of Sandy to be about $50 billion, not to mention all the money that was lost due to closed businesses and halted operations.

Now that Sandy has torn apart much of the East Coast, what are your local, state, and national officials doing about the environmental impact?

Many of us saw President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stand together during the disaster relief, ignoring party lines and working together to achieve a collective goal. As a result, New Jersey received the recognition, and the supplies, they needed. However, not even crossing party lines can lessen the impact of Sandy.

According to environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper, the damage caused by Sandy was "unprecedented." Toxic chemicals spilled into New York's Harbor due to the storm surge, as well as contaminants from subways and commercial structures -- and because the pollution has come from multiple places, it is harder to clean up.

New York City officials have lifted some local environmental regulations for the time being. For instance, the city has waived a permit for water pumping for homeowners and businesses who may be struggling with post-Sandy clean-up. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation also stated that all reasonable measures should be taken to collect and then dispose of materials before they are pumped out, such as contaminants like oil floating on water.

Pennsylvania has had similar restrictions waived due to the damages caused by Sandy. Lisa Kasianowitz, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, noted that the state is waiving disposal fees, as well as working with waste movers, allowing all parties to clean up areas without certain authorizations.

However, due to some poor decisions made in the past, not every area is fully salvageable. According to a Huffington Post report, environmental damage of a storm like Sandy was forecasted years ago, yet officials did little to solve predicted problems.

For example, a 2005 Princeton University study showed that, due to New Jersey's growing population in coastal areas, major environmental and property damage were set to occur if conditions were not improved. The study went on to say their findings were due to man-made structures, meaning environmental damage was predictable.

Was anything done to address this forecast? Little.

Many officials were surprised by Sandy's impact, despite lots of warnings, reports, and analysis beforehand. Suzanne Mattei, former chief of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's New York City regional office, even stated it was a shame we never seem to "take the kind of action we need to until something really awful happens."

In fact, the same Huffington Post report found the city sought funding to protect structures like the subway system in case of an environmental disaster, yet only received a portion of the amount. In addition, areas like the Rockaways, which requested beach replenishment, could have stopped some of the surge damage but went "largely unheeded."

What's the takeaway? Although many representatives and officials have worked hard during this difficult time, not much was done beforehand to take charge of potential environmental disasters. Even though efforts like PlaNYC have stated they are reviewing codes to prepare for weather events and mitigate the impact of climate change, more work needs to be done on a broader scale.

In the end, we should realize this sort of storm is likely to happen again. And, there are certain moves that need to happen sooner rather than later. Creating stricter building codes and regulations may help to prevent damage. Spending more money to reinforce public structures and prevent pollution can also help.

Other options may include the federal government bailing out communities or doing major cleanup on our waterways and shores. However, absorbing the consequences of poor planning by individuals and communities or taking our chances again to face the same sort of impact is a risky choice.

Depending on your stance, fixing present and future environmental problems may mean joining groups, signing petitions, calling up your representatives, and taking surveys. It means doing something about this issue, no matter what side of the issue you're on. In the event a similar superstorm happens, we will hopefully be prepared and avoid Sandy's devastation to our families, cities, and memories.

What do you think? How should our officials assist in Sandy disaster relief?

Rand Strauss is the President and CEO of PeopleCount.org, a nonpartisan organization that enables the public to communicate constructively by taking stands on political issues influencing the country today. Connect with Rand and PeopleCount.org on Twitter and Facebook.