Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Speed of Long Term Recovery

Normandy Beach, NJ   Credit: Jeremy M. Lange
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy making its historic landfall in the mid-Atlantic region. There are numerous articles commemorating the event by examining the causes and impacts ranging from meteorological to psychological, in an effort to better understand what’s been done and what’s left to do. Regardless of the cause or reason, each article revolves around the theme that while steps towards recovery have been made, real issues continue to plague families struggling through the recovery gauntlet. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Sandy impacted millions of people, and did incredible damage to infrastructure and the fabric of communities, so where is it written that 364 days later everything has to be fixed? Most articles question the progress, or lack thereof and ask “what’s holding up the recovery process?” While valid, in reading those same articles I ask if anyone has stopped to consider that it may be dubbed “Long” Term Recovery for a reason, and that it could be due to the fact that holistic rehabilitation takes time.

Because recovery is unique to the community impacted, it’s tough to measure progress without benchmarks. And creating generic benchmarks can’t be done because in each community different demographic sets were impacted--differently. All you can do is track what’s been done on a timeline so that in the future you have something to measure against, to create community-specific recovery data that can be the beginnings of benchmark creation. The long-term recovery of a town or county is a herculean task, when you multiply that by the size and population density of Sandy impacted areas, the scale of recovery needed for the mid-Atlantic region borders on Sisyphean.

I don’t bring that up as a scapegoat for broken programs or inefficient bureaucracy, I bring it up because it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of the task when reading about how “little” has been done. So instead of adding to the cacophony of damning stats and stories of those still battling the federal government for recovery dollars, I choose to look at the two schools of thought that have added to the complexity of the recovery efforts and have helped set its tempo.

The dueling narratives at work in the mid-Atlantic region are not surprising, one focused on speed and the other trying to be more thoughtful in its approach to recovery. What is surprising is how they have the ability to spur progress and what directions that progress takes.

Restore the Shore
The cries that no act of god or mother nature will keep us from our homes are common as a community dusts itself off and sets about putting the pieces of their lives back together. Following Sandy the phrase “restore the shore” was adopted across NJ and could be felt in many other coastal communities as an unofficial mantra. For NJ building back along the shore wasn’t a question, the question was how quickly it could happen. This fixation on speed was amplified by statements committing resources to building back in the midst of early recovery chaos; oftentimes these proclamations of civic hubris are more about political theater than actually implementing recovery programming, but, it fed the mentality that there was no other course than to build it back, and to do so as quickly as possible. Part of the impetus for speed is due to many of the seaside communities relying heavily on tourism to keep their doors open and the boardwalk and other nostalgic throwbacks are what draw people to the shore year after year.

When Moore, OK was struck for the 5th time in just over a decade by an EF-5 tornado, people were throwing walls and trusses together to get on with their lives as soon as they could—just as they always had. However, it was only until some questioned whether repeating the storm/construction cycle that contributed to the loss of life and property was the best course of action, and asked whether changes should be enacted to building codes to mitigate future loss of life and property, did people pump the brakes on recovery. However, in the face of intense pressure, no changes to Moore’s building codes have taken affect, so all those who have rebuilt are not subject to any changes that would make their homes more resilient in the face of the next storm. Build it back and get on with life dictated the tempo in Moore and while I don’t wish a repeat storm, I don’t know what it will take for people to wake up.
Bob Bielk/The Asbury Park Press, via Associated Press
In September of this year the rebuilt boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, NJ burned down taking significant sections of commercial property along with it. The cause of the blaze was faulty wiring. Investigators found that wiring that had been completely submerged by the storm surge had not been replaced and was overlooked in the rush to reopen the boardwalk. While the loss of the newly built boardwalk and iconic businesses are tragic, some believe that instead of re-rebuilding a boardwalk that would get washed away in a future storm, maybe this is would be an opportunity to explore options that preserve the shore as an economic driver while also incorporating measures that would mitigate the damage form a future storm of equal or greater magnitude. Those hoping for a pause on construction were disappointed when Governor Christie promised additional recovery dollars to be earmarked for boardwalk construction in an effort to get ready for next year’s summer season.

While getting families back in their homes and re-opening businesses are the foundational elements of community recovery, the above are two higher profile examples of how haste can work against the underlying efforts driving recovery. 

Resilient Communities
The other narrative at play, one that’s not quite as popular as it doesn’t have a catchy slogan is the idea that seaside communities have been given an opportunity to rethink their future. That instead of building back to pre-storm conditions, new construction techniques and approaches to planning can make communities less susceptible to storm surges and high wind events, while fulfilling traditional civic needs. Some, like retired coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey take a stronger stance, urging people to retreat from the coast in advance of what will be stronger storms and rising seas. While Mr. Pilkey may be in the minority, there is a growing call for substantive action on the part of those in charge to restore natural marsh and wetlands. These natural sponges absorb storm surge and many were filled in for property development. Their return would be a natural mitigation measure that would lessen future storm impacts while improving the eco-systems of coastal habitats that help drive tourism. Another well-received natural measure is the creation of dunes to mitigate the impacts of high winds and storm surge. In addition to these natural solutions, there are design contests and other actions tied to the receipt of federal dollars that are trying to shake communities out of the build it back mentality.
Credit: CT Audubon Society
While the resilient approach to reducing impacts of future Sandy-like storms that will be the new normal seem like the only way forward, much of the call for building resilience into recovery has only been talk up to this point.

So how do you measure the speed of recovery? And whose benchmarks are you going to use? These questions are central to how the next 12 months will play out along the mid-Atlantic region. Many homeowners just want the ability to go home and are pushing for dollars to achieve that end, while others worry that the home they go back to will be at risk the next time a storm rumbles up the east coast.

Like most things in disaster response and recovery, there is no clear way forward. It’s up to those entrusted to oversee the process to strike a balance that works in getting people back in their homes while incorporating as many mitigation measures as possible to reduce future storm impacts.

Which side makes the most sense to you? 

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