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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.