Environment

From Katrina to Sandy: Better than where we were

Commentary: Hurricane Katrina helped change FEMA's mandate to include adapting for climate change

A FEMA worker photographs a damaged house in Seaside Heights, N.J., Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, two weeks after the region was pounded by Superstorm Sandy.
Mel Evans/AP

Last week, New York City officials announced plans to resurrect an 80-acre swath of waterfront on Far Rockaway in Queens that Hurricane Sandy, one year ago, had pummeled. A kinked boardwalk designed to break up storm surges; water basins; and a small canal to help discharge rainwater will replace the splintered boards knocked into the sea by Sandy. Nearby, new lifeguard stations have been raised to unprecedented, floodproof heights.

On the eve of Sandy’s anniversary, such progress is something we should celebrate, while, of course, acknowledging it as only part of the picture. Damage remains behind closed doors and in depleted bank accounts. “The clean streets give a false sense of OK-ness,” said Terri Bennett, a project manager with the post-Sandy recovery outfit Respond & Rebuild. “Inside their homes, people are still dealing with immense amounts of damage and stress.”

But while thousands across the region are still struggling to come home, the region has no doubt returned to life. For that, we should thank the people of the Gulf Coast. They lived through a federal failure of proportions never seen before or since — and because of that, those in Sandy’s path did not have to.

In the eight years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and caused federal levees to fail, the government has learned quite a bit about responding to natural disasters. In 2006 — with still-fresh memories of televised images showing hungry people piled into an overheated, powerless Superdome while Air Force One jetted overhead — Congress approved legislation to restructure the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It became easier to send in federal resources before a disaster struck. New partnerships between state, local and federal agencies quickened response times. Congress made a law specifying that FEMA administrators must have five years of relevant experience. (Before President George W. Bush made him the director of FEMA, Michael “Heckuva Job, Brownie” Brown had been a commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.)

“The low point for FEMA probably in its history coincided with one of (the) largest storms in American history — Katrina,” Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told CQ Quarterly last December. “There has been a substantial amount of rebuilding of that vital agency, and we saw the consequences of that effort (during Sandy).”

But to residents, urban planners and scientists concerned with adapting for changing climate and increasing our resiliency against the next hurricane, the most meaningful long-term reforms to FEMA may reside in a remarkably uncontroversial piece of legislation that has, in effect, redefined how the federal government responds to natural disasters.

The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Jan. 29 as part of a $50.7 billion Sandy disaster-relief appropriations bill, is a critical legal affirmation that part of FEMA’s job is to adapt for climate change — not simply to pick up the pieces after disasters strike. 

Gulf Coast residents lived through a federal failure of proportions never seen before or since — and because of that, those in Sandy’s path did not have to.

It is hard to believe, but until this year’s legislation, the Stafford Act, which regulates how federal assistance goes to rebuild disaster-struck public facilities, had actually penalized communities for attempting to adapt structures for a changing climate.

Under the Katrina-era Stafford Act, for instance, a local government could not decide to relocate a hospital situated in an area vulnerable to rising sea levels without incurring a 10 percent penalty paid out of public assistance funds. Likewise, if a city decided to modernize and "green" aging infrastructure, it would have to go through another round of deliberations to get FEMA approvals on a plan that looked different from the system that had been there — and failed — before the storm. As a reporter covering New Orleans’ recovery for the nonprofit news site The Lens, I saw the red tape paralyze progress in neighborhoods desperate for signs that they were returning to normalcy.

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Mark C. Smith, public information officer for the Louisiana agency that hands out federal infrastructure-rebuilding funds to local governments, described the situation this way: “If you had a 1981 Chevrolet Chevette with a leaky radiator, FEMA will buy you a 1981 Chevrolet Chevette and poke a hole in the radiator.”

Arguing, loudly, against the Stafford Act’s arcane limitations was probably the best thing former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did while in office. Unfortunately for Nagin — and, more important, for New Orleans — it took until Sandy for the federal government to catch up to what mayors, even bad ones, knew: We must adapt for climate change. Building the way we have is no longer going to cut it.

Last week I took a train from Philadelphia, where I live now, to New York for a conference about how exactly to fulfill this daunting task of adaptation. While there, I had a chance to hear sociologist Eric Klinenberg speak about Rebuild by Design, a regional recovery design competition sponsored by the president’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation. Following Katrina, similar initiatives were launched with the goal of spurring more resilient rebuilding, the most famous and best funded being Brad Pitt’s Make It Right design competition in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Many initiatives, however, never got farther than the planning phase, with privately funded designs left on the shelf without the financial support to get shovels in the ground. Rebuild by Design seeks to break that cycle by ensuring that the winning designs will be implemented using federal disaster-relief dollars already set aside for the project. Observers hope it will produce on-the-ground results that were all too often missing on the Gulf Coast, where projects lacked coordination and the cash necessary for building. At one point Klinenberg said, referring to the recovery process, “If we do it the way we did it after Katrina, we're in trouble.”

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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