10/29/2013 09:57 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

Sandy's First Anniversary: Rebuild by Design

A year ago, on October 29th, Thomas Cunsolo of Staten Island, NY prepared to evacuate. Several 2013-10-28-ThomasCunsolo.JPGpacked bags sat on the kitchen counter, ready to be moved to the car. The year before, in anticipation of Irene, the Consolos had done a lot more preparation, moving furniture to the second floor. When the storm passed them by there were glad they had stayed home because some deserted homes were looted. Having dodged the Irene bullet, Thomas was lulled into a false sense of security when it came to yet another impending tropical storm.

Sandy proved to be another story. When its winds ripped out the Cunsolo's electric box on the side of the house, they lost power but noticed that their neighbor still had his. So Thomas went searching for a long power cord to plug in next door and at least keep his refrigerator going. When he stepped outside, there was two feet of sewage covering the ground, transformers started blowing up and his neighbor's house caught on fire. "We gotta go" he told his wife. When she attempted to grab the packed bags he yelled, "Leave 'em."

"We drove away in two feet of water," told me, "I looked in my rear-view mirror and there was a ten-foot wave coming. I didn't tell my wife because she was freaking out enough. I hit a patch of ground just high enough to get going and I was able to get to my nephew's house to safety. But I couldn't sleep all night because I knew my neighbor didn't get out. So the next morning as soon as there was light I took my nephew's large SUV and went back to try and get him. No matter where I went I couldn't get there -- too much water. I saw a fire truck abandoned, a rescue truck abandoned. I finally saw a rescue boat with eight people clinging. There was no one to take the people to safety so I spent the day taking people from that point to the shelters." The Cunsolos lost everything. But out of it Thomas Cunsolo became the founder of the Staten Island Alliance, a grassroots organization that is championing the wishes of the residents as, a year later, plans are starting to be revealed for the reconstruction of the damage wreaked by Sandy along the East Coast.

Today I attended a breakfast reception for the unveiling of the early plans resulting from President Obama's target Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. The rapid establishment of this group as opposed to the slow response to Katrina is one lesson learned by this administration. Another lesson was to involve the people who lived in the devastated areas in the design. The results were a competition called Rebuild by Design where scientists, designers, engineers, and social scientists collaborated with residents of the devastated area to figure out what was needed to allow more resilient recovery from storm surges in the future. Planning is not just about mitigating the results of disastrous storms. It includes factoring in the culture of people who live near the ocean and looking at other issues such as infra-structure.

The ten presenting design teams were winners of a competition that originally had 148 entrants. One design had man-made barrier islands, 10 miles off shore with windmills to generate electricity. Another has power plants being moved away from the flood plains of New Jersey. The idea is not to prevent complete destruction but to hedge one's bets and build in resiliency.

2013-10-28-Sandyimage.JPGThe design process was overseen by social scientists. Dr. Eric Klinenberg of New York University movingly summed up his experience:

We care a lot about design and we know a lot about cities, but we're specifically interested in the relationship of the places to the people inside of them. ..This was not just a collaboration between designers and scientists in ivory towers .. we were out all over the region on multi-day field trips... We can't just design climate security to protect our city and region against storm surge. We have to take this moment to improve the quality of life all of the time. It's not just the hard infra-structure but the social infra-structure as well. A library is not just a place to take out books but a place where people can connect with each other. A landscape along the river may be able to protect against a surge but also provide a place for recreation. How are we going to live inside the places we make in anticipation of the weather that is to come?

He ended with a request for people to look at the plans and give feedback.

The crowd that filled the room stayed after the panel discussion, studied the posters that lined the walls and asked questions of the designers. I again ran into Thomas Cunsolo, who is living in a small-two bedroom apartment, still waiting for his insurance money so that he can tear down his ruined home and start rebuilding. Red tape and delays have been rubbing salt on the wound of unbearable losses for him and so many others.

"What did you think of the presentations?" I asked him.

"I'm optimistic," he smiled. All he wants is for the concerns of the residents to be heard. So far so good. It looks like the Rebuild by Design teams have been listening.