Visiting my summer home in Long Beach, New York this weekend, I once again came face to face with the aftermath of what we've come to call Superstorm Sandy. My neighbors continue to struggle to bring their lives back to normal. Many people have not returned home and many spend every spare moment they have trying to repair and restore their still-damaged homes. While the federal, state and local governments did an excellent job making sure that people were protected, fed and housed during and immediately after the storm, they have done a horrendous job helping our shoreline communities rebuild.
It all started with the disgusting delay in funding Sandy relief by our pitiful, dysfunctional Congress. That was followed by the usual confusion in getting funds through the federal bureaucracy and out to the states. Last week, six months after Sandy, New York State was able to announce a $1.7 billion grant program to help homeowners and businesses rebuild. At about the same time and after half of a year of planning, discussion and delay, contractors finally began a $42 million effort to rebuild Long Beach's century-old boardwalk. Why did it take so long to get these funds out the door? Why can't we develop a rapid response approach to rebuilding after these storms? I hope the people now suffering flooding in the Midwest are paying attention to all of this.
To get a sense of how ridiculous all of this is, one need only follow the timeline of events detailed by the excellent reporting of Anthony Rifilato and Alexandra Spychalsky in the Long Beach Herald. Remember that the hurricane hit this region on October 29, 2012. According to Rifilato and Spychalsky's report on Governor Cuomo's April 26 announcement of the $1.7 billion aid package:
[Long Beach] City Manager Jack Schnirman said that the money will be allocated for New York residents through the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program, and will help with reconstruction and rehabilitation of single- and multi-family homes as well as businesses... The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 29, included $16 billion in CDBG-DR funding. The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the first allocation, totaling $5.4 billion, to five states and New York City eight days later. New York state submitted its required action plan, describing how the funds would be used, on April 3, and HUD conducted an expedited review to enable the state to access the money as quickly as possible. "It is incredibly significant," Schnirman said, adding that eligible homeowners can receive up to $150,000 to elevate their homes. "It's the relief that we've been waiting so long for; it's the relief that Congress should have passed much earlier. What it means is, residents can apply for it and get the money they need to fix their homes going forward.
• Sandy hits New York and New Jersey on October 29th;
• Congress passes an aid bill three months later on January 29th;
• On April 3, after two more months have passed by, New York submits a plan detailing how it would spend the money; and
• After an "expedited review", taking another 23 days, Governor Cuomo and HUD announce approval of New York State's Action Plan on April 26th.
I suppose by the standards of slow-moving, leaden bureaucracy this was lightening fast, but six months is just too long to wait to get money in place to help people. Keep in mind that this is just the start of the process. People must file complicated and incomprehensible forms to receive aid. Then the forms must be reviewed by the proper authorities (I certainly hope the review is "expedited"), and then if all goes well, the homeowners and businesses will receive the cash, and then the restoration work can finally begin.
For people with savings and cash on hand at the time of the storm, their homes and businesses are already repaired. They have opened their stores and in many cases have resumed living in their homes. Unfortunately, the people without those resources are at the mercy of a poorly designed, poorly funded, and wholly inadequate program of community restoration.
A reasonable response to my analysis might be: " What's the rush? Shouldn't we take our time and be careful about how we spend money and rebuild? Perhaps we shouldn't even rebuild shorefront communities? Won't this just happen again?" My response is that the delay accomplished nothing and only compounds the pain and sense of hopelessness. People suffer, lives are disrupted, and in the end, we will still end up spending the same amount of money. And when you do the math, far too many Americans live near rivers, oceans and lakes to retreat from our shorefronts. Abandoning these communities is not a real option. We need to build a stronger and more resilient waterfront and do a better job of pre-planning and pre-funding restoration work. Rebuilding should begin in 30 days, not 180 days.
We are going to see more of these weather-related emergencies in the coming years. A combination of climate change, increased urbanization, and more complex infrastructure will ensure that these "emergencies" become routine. We need to develop a dedicated revenue stream to fund restoration and clearly we need to develop a set of rapid response mechanisms to ensure rapid community restoration. Our first responders have managed to do that. They pre-position supplies and equipment. They conduct training simulations, and they have plans to deploy personnel during emergencies ranging from floods to terror attacks. The agencies responsible for helping communities rebuild must do the same.
There were two sources of delay in post-Sandy restoration relief. The first 90-day delay was caused by Congress. The second 90-day delay was caused by the Obama administration's ill-prepared and slow-moving bureaucracy. When Congress was playing politics with the Sandy aid bill I wrote that:
A principle that must be accepted is that the national government has a major responsibility to fund communities that have been struck by disaster. The spectacle of mayors and governors going to Congress to beg for money must come to an end. We need an agreed-to program of national disaster relief. It should be funded by a trust fund that all of us contribute to as part of our tax burden. Today New York and New Jersey need money. Tomorrow it may be Florida, California and Arizona. If we all pay into this fund, it will spread the costs of disasters across the whole country and across time. If we make it part of normal government operations and insure our communities through a super-sized trust fund, we can move more quickly from disaster to recovery...The point is that all of us will need to pay. If payment is spread wide enough, all of us will benefit from the presence of insurance against the most unpredictable force we know -- the force of nature. Along with requirements for more extensive insurance coverage, our society could develop a more realistic array of rainy day funds. Access to these funds would be similar to payment of insurance claims and removed from political gamesmanship.
Over the past 90 days we have learned that just having the funding in place is not enough. We need a new and more certain approach to restoration relief. We need to put in place adequate capacity to rapidly assess damage and a set of standard procedures to provide pre-determined assistance for particular forms of damage. The restoration agencies must learn to respond nearly as nimbly and rapidly as first responders.
The disruption Sandy caused to lives and communities has been unnecessarily and unacceptably long. The primary job of government is to provide security and protection for people and communities. While government did a superb job of preventing harm during and immediately after the storm, it has a lot to learn about long-term cleanup and restoration after the storm. Let's learn from this experience and change the way we do this before the next Superstorm hits.