Hurricane Sandy showed that our rebuilding efforts need reform

Commentary: The US needs to create a trust fund dedicated to disaster relief and reconstruction

The remains of the famous Rockaway boardwalk are seen October 19, 2013 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A year ago the Eastern seaboard of the United States was hit by Superstorm Sandy, and our state and local governments and first responders did a magnificent job of getting people out of harm's way and caring for them in the storm's immediate aftermath.

However, the same cannot be said about rebuilding efforts. Government, especially at the national level, failed to aid reconstruction efforts quickly and competently after the disaster. It is time to apply the same energy, funding and brainpower to reconstruction that we have successfully devoted to emergency response. Superstorms will not come every year, but they will become more frequent and more likely to hit population centers.

The world's population has more than doubled in my lifetime — from around 3 billion people in 1960 to more than 7 billion today. In 2007, for the first time in human history, most of the planet's people lived in cities. Our climate and seas are getting warmer and our storms are becoming more frequent, intense and destructive. The odds are greater today that storms will hit metropolitan areas, because there are more people living in more and bigger cities. Since 1980, the U.S. alone has seen 136 weather-related disasters with damages for each exceeding $1 billion. The total cost of post-disaster reconstruction for these events is nearly $900 billion. The current estimate for Sandy's total cost is over $60 billion.  

New York offers a clear example of a city that is excellent at handling emergencies, but bad at rebuilding after them. Especially since 9/11, New York's disaster preparedness is strong. In the days before Sandy hit, the city successfully evacuated 218,000 people from "Flood Zone A" — areas subject to flooding from the 1 percent annual chance of a flood event such as a hurricane or massive storm. (This zone now includes 398,000 New Yorkers, due to recent updating of flood maps.) Government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels — including the Office of Emergency Management, the New York Fire Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard, the New York Police Department, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority — led a coordinated effort to prepare the city for Sandy. They helped 4,500 patients evacuate hospitals, led public housing residents to shelters and moved subway trains to higher ground. These actions and others proved government's merit for disaster preparedness.

Our rebuilding efforts after disasters, however, illustrate our government's weaknesses. Since such efforts are largely dependent on federal funding, they are processed far too slowly and are too dependent on the political whims of Congress. When the legislative branch is gridlocked from partisanship and dysfunction, as it is now, there is little recourse for those who need immediate assistance after disasters, since Congress controls the federal purse. After Sandy, only home and business owners who had cash sitting in the bank could rebuild quickly and enjoy the luxury of waiting for reimbursement from federally backed insurance plans. Those without their own funds, on the other hand, had to wait. And wait they did. 

People who are victims of disaster should not be forced to beg government officials to help rebuild their homes and communities.

The National Flood Insurance Plan, the federal program that supplements private, costly flood insurance, was projected to run out of money by the beginning of January and was not replenished until later that month. The first $9.7 billion approved by Congress was not enough to meet demand, and so many of those affected by the disaster had to wait again, until Congress passed the complete $60 billion relief package later that month.

But that was not the end of difficulties. Once signed by President Obama, the usual confusion associated with moving funds through the federal bureaucracy to the states ensued. For example, not until six months after Sandy did the state of New York announce a $1.7 billion grant program for Sandy relief. This was reviewed in an "expedited" fashion by Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration, which delayed funding for another 23 days. After government setbacks were out of the way, and funding in place, individuals still had to wait for their requests to be reviewed by officials. Maybe this is "expedited" in terms of the usual interminable process for allocating government funds, but as emergencies from natural disasters become more routine, even faster methods should be established.

The federal government should create a dedicated, well-financed trust fund, paid for by new national taxes, that provides direct relief to citizens based on clear, well-defined criteria. People who are victims of disaster — whether floods, hurricanes, tornados, severe droughts, Nor'easters, or God forbid, an act of war — should not be forced to beg government officials to help rebuild their homes and communities. Nor should such people be victimized a second time by Congress's political theater and become pawns for party hacks who fight against Sandy funding because it would go to their political opponents but support relief funding for their own states when hit by natural disaster.

Rather than moving dollars slowly through state governments, this new fund should provide cash directly to people and localities that have suffered significant damage. Those who have lost their homes should not have to wait for nine months or more to get the funds needed to rebuild. Since the amount of money needed to rebuild will remain unchanged, why add to the final bill unnecessary and demoralizing delays? With a trust fund, moreover, money pegged to disaster relief can be invested and grow over time.

With the growing climate change crisis, the stakes are high. Superstorm Sandy was not the last natural disaster we face in the United States; it was, rather, a sign of more to come. On the Sandy anniversary, many commentators are asking if we are ready for the next Sandy. But how could we be, if there are Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey who still need money to rebuild? Sandy was just one extreme event — extreme in size but increasingly less extreme in frequency — and there are several other climate risks for which we need to prepare. In the same way that the federal government protects farmers from the impact of seasonal droughts, we need to protect our citizens and our assets from climate threats. Since we will eventually spend money to rebuild from these looming events, why not prepare to spend it more efficiently, so that the suffering for our fellow citizens is alleviated more quickly? Today New York and New Jersey need money. Tomorrow it may be Florida, California and Arizona. Since there is more rain to come, it is time to prepare a better rainy day fund.

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

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter