12/10/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rebuilding After Natural Disasters: Harvard Panel Explores Policy Implications Post-Hurricane Sandy

In Hurricane Sandy's wake, issues of rebuilding and preparing for future disasters have re-emerged. The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health hosted "BIG WEATHER AND COASTAL CITIES: Resilience in the Face of Disaster" on Monday morning to address these challenges.

The webcast event focused on how residents recover after a natural disaster hits their city. As the forum described, "With millions of people living in coastal cities, coupled with changing weather patterns, natural disasters present significant public health and policy implications -- from managing crises, to safeguarding infrastructure, to bolstering and leveraging the resilience of people and cities."

The Harvard panel was moderated by HuffPost Senior Writer Tom Zeller, and participants included:

Richard Serino, Deputy Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Alumnus, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Harvard Schools of Public Health and Government

Paul Biddinger, Director, Emergency Preparedness and Response Exercise Program, Harvard School of Public Health, and Chief, Division of Emergency Preparedness, Massachusetts General Hospital

Jerold Kayden, Professor of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Daniel Schrag, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, Harvard University, and Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment

The panel first addressed preparations for Hurricane Sandy. Serino argued that a lot of planning was done ahead of time. "There were lives lost, but because a lot of people prepared and a lot of people listened, a lot of lives were not lost." He added that FEMA was just a small part of the response team, and the most important part of the team was the public.

Regarding hospital preparations, Biddinger explained that while thousands evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes for Hurricane Irene, questions were raised when the storm didn't strike New York with the intensity expected. Before Sandy, "people were trying to be very thoughtful about when and who to evacuate." Despite criticisms of the hospitals that did evacuate, Biddinger argued "there was a remarkable amount of order imposed on all of that chaos."

"The challenge now," he pointed out, "is that looking back to determine future preparations will not be enough," since "the future is changing."

Climate change was a hot topic in the discussion. Schrag noted that "for some reason, Sandy has been connected by the public to climate change in a way that other storms have not." The storm strengthened at a time it was expected to weaken due to warmer coastal waters, and it took a rare left hook towards the Jersey Shore -- one hypothesis connects this move to the Arctic sea ice retreat. "If we start steering storms into the East Coast, this could be really bad."

The panel also addressed rebuilding challenges. Schrag pointed out that "we rebuild, but we don't necessarily rebuild better." One reason is that "we're a country filled with compassion," and aim to immediately help those who are suffering. "In the heat of that moment, we don't think about raising the bar. It's hard to do that when people are suffering."

Coastal development has been hotly debated in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath. As HuffPost reported earlier, some of the damage from Hurricane Sandy was due to bad land-use decisions along with failures in emergency preparedness. "In the end, a pell-mell, decades-long rush to throw up housing and businesses along fragile and vulnerable coastlines trumped commonsense concerns about the wisdom of placing hundreds of thousands of closely huddled people in the path of potential cataclysms." As the climate continues to change and sea level rise threatens coastal cities, many experts warn both mitigation and adaptation are needed.

The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health hosts events with interactive webcasts to tackle health problems around the world. To learn more, visit their website by clicking here.



Hurricane Sandy