One year ago, Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coast, wreaking havoc across the mid-Atlantic region and racking up a preliminary bill of $50 billion in damages — making it the second-costliest hurricane to strike the United States since 1900, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The superstorm, as it was dubbed, marked a turning point for Democrats who had previously trod lightly when talking about specific severe weather events and climate change in the same breath.
“The fact that sea levels in New York Harbor are now a foot higher than a century ago — that didn’t cause Hurricane Sandy, but it certainly contributed to the destruction that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and under water,” President Barack Obama said on June 25 when announcing his plans to curb the carbon pollution that fuels climate change.
But since Congress signed off on $60.4 billion in disaster aid in January, lawmakers have done little to build on the preliminary investments in creating an infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather.
The Obama administration has made resiliency one of the three pillars — along withcutting carbon pollution and leading global efforts to reduce emissions — of the president’s climate change agenda. And strengthening infrastructure to stand up to severe weather also was a focus of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force that Obama commissioned after the storm.
But with the appropriations process in disarray, Congress and the White House have been stymied from providing more money to help states and municipalities prepare for the next major storm. Instead of asking Congress for additional funds to promote resiliency or laying out a mechanism for future funding, the administration has focused on how to use available funds to rebuild communities in ways that will help them survive future storms.
“One of the shortcomings of the president’s climate action plan is the fact that they purposely don’t ask for new money, and politically that makes sense,” said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. “But that means the communities are not going to get the assistance they need to become more resilient.”
The White House has baked resiliency strategies into its Sandy recovery efforts. The rebuilding task force made 69 policy recommendations intended to guide the expenditure of the congressionally approved disaster funding. One suggestion that the administration has said would have the largest impact on federal funding is a process to prioritize large-scale infrastructure projects and track the connections among them, in addition to setting guidelines to ensure that all the projects are constructed to endure climate change impacts.
Federal agencies have rolled out additional rounds of funding for recovery and resilience projects in advance of the storm’s anniversary. Last week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced $162 million in funding for 45 research and restoration projects designed to rebuild shorelines and wetlands on the mid-Atlantic coast and modeling mitigation of storm surge impacts.
“By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands, and improving the resiliency of coastal areas, we not only create opportunities for people to connect with nature and support jobs through increased outdoor recreation, but we can also provide an effective buffer that protects local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods when a storm like Sandy hits,” Jewell said.
Much of what the Sandy rebuilding group recommended was wrapped into Obama’s climate action plan. Through the plan, the president directed agencies to streamline their policies as needed to support local government investments in resiliency upgrades and announced the launch of a climate data initiative to influence the private sector to innovate climate preparedness strategies.
The White House ensured that much of the Sandy aid money went toward disaster resilience efforts as well as recovery, Weiss said. “That will save a lot of money in the long run,” he said.
Obama also called for a short-term task force of state, local and tribal officials to advise the federal government on steps it can take to help communities bolster their defenses against climate impacts. The administration is expected to announce the panel’s members soon, which will likely include governors and mayors of areas that have experienced extreme weather events or have begun investing in ways to protect citizens from future disasters.
“The White House has an opportunity to bring together the support of governors and mayors of both parties behind an effort to increase federal investments in resilience,” Weiss said.
Hardening Energy Infrastructure
Resiliency is not limited to construction initiatives and restoration of natural barriers — and that’s where government involvement gets tricky.
Officials are especially interested in hardening energy infrastructure so that communities — and their critical services such as hospitals — can keep the lights on even during extreme weather events. Priorities also include ensuring access to liquid fuels, which was interrupted in the aftermath of Sandy when gas stations ran out of fuel or had no electricity to power the gas pumps.
Democratic New Jersey Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. introduced a bill (HR 2962) that would commission a $2.1 million federal study to examine the construction and technical development stages, as well as the costs and energy savings, that could come with fully upgrading the nation’s power grid. The measure has some Republican support — Reps. Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Peter T. King of New York are co-sponsors — but it has yet to receive a hearing in the Homeland Security Committee.
Wrapped up in the resiliency debate are insurance challenges, particularly with the federally funded National Flood Insurance Program. Congress overhauled it last year to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to raise premiums for some policyholders to actuarial rates, but a coalition of lawmakers is pushing to delay the rate increases until their impact on affordability can be studied. Louisiana’s delegation has led on the issue, but Northeasterners who represent areas rebuilding from Sandy are joining the fight to postpone the rate increases.
Other bills that would authorize short- and long-term resiliency investments have floated around Capitol Hill since the storm. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even designated a bill number (S 7) at the beginning of the 113th Congress for a broad legislative effort prepare communities for a changing climate while taking steps to promote clean-energy technologies.
As of now, it’s still a placeholder.