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What City Planners Can Learn From Hurricane Sandy

Thaddeus Pawlowski and Donovan Finn
|October 18, 2022

flooding in nyc street from hurricane sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused unprecedented flooding in New York City in 2012. Photo: Patrick McFall via Flickr CC

Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy crashed into the nation’s largest city and forever changed the way many New Yorkers see the future. But after billions of dollars spent on a recovery process that is now considered officially complete, many households and businesses still struggle to find a new normal, to say nothing of actually recovering.

For journalists: As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, check out our list of experts who are available to comment.

As for resilience against future hazard events? Unfortunately, New York may be no better prepared for climate-induced disasters than it was a decade ago. Reflecting on these realities, this somber anniversary presents a valuable opportunity to think carefully about what changes the planning profession as a whole must make to prepare for an uncertain future disrupted by climate change.

Sandy should have been a wakeup call for New York City. And the alarm sounded again during Hurricane Ida in September 2021 when 13 working class New Yorkers drowned in basement apartments during a brief but powerful thunderstorm. Despite many laudable Sandy recovery success stories, Ida showed that larger issues of social vulnerability and environmental injustice are simply outpacing the city’s ability to address them, leaving the poorest residents most at risk from climate-induced hazards.

Learn more: A conference on October 28 and 29, co-hosted by the Columbia Climate School, will further explore recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy. What worked and what didn’t? Who has benefited and who has been left behind? And what have we learned? The event is free and open to the public. Register here

A complex challenge

The failure to harness the full potential of planning in a moment of crisis after Sandy has many drivers. Some were unique to New York, including the scale and complexity of the challenge: 51 square miles flooded, tens of thousands of buildings damaged, and more than $15 billion in federal recovery funds to administer. But there are other causes for the lack of progress on this urgent issue in a city that, by most metrics, should be a leader in climate solutions. While individual planners worked tirelessly to facilitate equitable recovery and make the city more resilient — and there were certainly successes — there were also many missteps, delays, and sometimes outright failures.

What can planners elsewhere learn from New York’s experience? As longtime observers and participants in the city’s planning efforts, we understand how complex this challenge was. Thad is a veteran of the NYC Office of Emergency Management and Department of City Planning, as well as the post-Sandy Housing Recovery Office. Donovan has spent his career as an academic studying how communities including New York respond to challenges like disaster recovery and climate change adaptation.

We are optimistic that the profession will lead on making cities more resilient. But the decade since Sandy provides a useful lens for identifying some daunting constraints on planners’ ability to effectively confront societal risks from extreme events.

Reimagining the systems that create and perpetuate inequitable risks is a task for which planners are uniquely qualified.

Federal funding is indispensable for local recovery planning, but much of what localities can do is constrained by convoluted federal regulations that hamper both immediate rebuilding and the implementation of long-term resilience measures. FEMA and HUD are “hamstrung by rules that often make little sense, even to the officials in charge,” the New York Times noted earlier this year. Former HUD official Holly Leicht published a well-circulated white paper in 2017 after spearheading the agency’s Sandy regional recovery efforts for three years. She compared disaster recovery to the challenge of “building the plane while it’s in flight” and advocated no fewer than 41 recommendations to refine the federal recovery apparatus. Five years later, little progress has been made.

A short-sighted focus on single-family homes

Perhaps most salient after Sandy, most federal programs are designed primarily with single-family homeowners in mind. But New York is a city of more than 60 percent renters, and only a quarter of its 3.6 million homes are in standalone or two-unit buildings. While New York’s recovery programs also focused on other housing types, significant pressure from local officials meant that efforts largely converged on one easily quantifiable mission: Make every homeowner whole.

The $2.2 billion HUD-funded Build It Back (BIB) program, though agonizingly slow, ultimately repaired, rebuilt, or elevated thousands of homes in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Those dwellings now rise many feet above grade on concrete pier foundations, with recovery costs sometimes exceeding the homes’ pre-storm values.

The focus on single-family homes brings up a larger issue that transcends New York’s specific housing typologies. Even if every homeowner can ultimately return to their own house, perhaps made more resilient to subsequent flooding, does that mean the community has recovered? The dilemma is that BIB’s managerial, house-by-house approach — as shaped by federal guidance — effectively sidelined the opportunity for more holistic community-wide planning.

A home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Vadim C/Flickr CC

For instance, an effort to elevate the below-grade bungalow communities in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in their entirety was deemed to be outside HUD’s funding mandate, even though a more community-wide approach would have made homes safer and more accessible. Instead, each modest home was elevated individually at ultimately greater total cost and without the attendant co-benefits of improved infrastructure, like drainage and access.

Taking the longer view, a focus on protecting every single structure at all costs is fiscally unsustainable. It is also inequitable.

As damages increase (and they have), is focusing on single-family homeowners, who typically have lifelines like savings and insurance, the best use of scarce public resources? Or should investment instead focus on those in the most tenuous housing circumstances and address inequitable planning decisions from the past?

Some post-Sandy efforts like the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development Resilient Edgemere Community Plan are promising models of holistic resilience planning for frontline neighborhoods. But this plan is the rare exception that proves the rule.

Our own experiences from some of the city’s most heavily damaged neighborhoods suggest that federal investments after Sandy, in part, simply helped to accelerate the pattern of previous disasters: The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In addition to hastening “climate gentrification,” finite recovery funds spent on single-family homeowners siphoned away the ability to address other issues.

While BIB was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit for homeowner recovery, 60,000 low-income residents living in some of the 400 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings damaged by Sandy waited years for essential services to be restored. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the waterfront was aggressively rebuilt and emerged as one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying hotspots.

Meanwhile, the nearby NYCHA Red Hook Houses relied on polluting temporary boilers for years, until post-Sandy construction finally began in summer 2020. The first step was to swiftly cut down hundreds of century-old trees that had shaded apartments, playgrounds, and streets from the oppressive summer heat and filtered air contaminated by the port, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, toxic soil, and a proliferation of e-commerce warehouses.

While city efforts contributed to soaring home values for the upwardly mobile on the waterfront and developers reaped the attendant benefits, mere blocks away, lifeline services, housing security, and even the quality of the public realm have consistently declined. And because federal recovery funds could not be used to address NYCHA buildings’ other underlying issues like deferred maintenance, the recovery process ultimately perpetuated an unjust status quo rather than being used to efficiently address fixing deep-seated inequalities.

To avoid these challenges after future disasters, planners need to take principled stands with federal and local policymakers and help them understand what planners already know: Rebuilding in place without thinking about the broader implications of such decisions can be dangerous. That is especially true for economically vulnerable residents who are most harmed when disasters strike, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 2015.

Two steps forward, one step back

Luckily, reimagining the systems that create and perpetuate these inequitable risks is a task for which planners are uniquely qualified.

At the same time, planners need to recognize the profession’s past mistakes — from the overwhelming hubris in trying to control nature to misguided schemes like urban renewal, which still casts a pall over any effort to comprehensively redesign certain communities affected by disaster. Engaging in concerted dialogue with communities can help mitigate perceptions that planners are imposing these changes on residents, but New York City’s historical paucity of effective participatory planning made this challenge even more difficult after Sandy.

Efforts like the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency and the state’s NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program attempted to facilitate engaged recovery efforts while still acting quickly and efficiently. Of course, that balance is never easy and some residents faulted the city and state for not doing enough. At the same time, planners were understandably hesitant to ask recently traumatized residents to further contemplate a frightening future of sea level rise and storm risk.

More successful were programs like the Sandy Neighborhood Design HelpDesk, a city and nonprofit partnership that provided recovery counseling to over 500 residents in late 2013. But while this well-received effort had more direct benefits, it was resource-intensive and logistically challenging. Other times, opportunities were squandered by more powerful forces.

A yearslong community planning process for the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency project was initially viewed as a rare success story, but in 2018 Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration secretly and unceremoniously revamped the plan in favor of one they argued was more feasible, generating lacerating pushback from some residents who had spent countless hours helping to co-produce the original plan.

Trust local communities with funding and planning

Ultimately, planners engaging in disaster recovery will need to find new, better, and more context-appropriate ways to engage diverse publics and advocate for recovery solutions that make sense logistically and financially — and foreground justice and equity. This means not only improving participation, but also focusing on hyperlocal contexts.

To successfully address the threats of climate change, post-disaster planning requires a paradigm shift in the distribution of power and resources.

Federal disaster recovery programs are designed to work everywhere. As a result, they often don’t work particularly well anywhere. Even at the municipal scale, few policies can effectively address fine-grained nuances that vary from block to block. This was certainly true in New York, where the 17 percent of the city that was flooded encompassed a dizzying mix of physical, demographic, and economic characteristics.

Recovery resources typically flow from Congress and ultimately to city agencies, who then seek community input at the end of the line. But the planners tasked with implementing Sandy recovery projects often lacked nuanced understanding of the neighborhoods that needed recovery assistance the most. To successfully address these challenges in the context of rapid climate change requires a paradigm shift in the distribution of power and resources.

Recovery funds, for example, could instead flow directly to community-based organizations to manage recovery in close partnership with municipalities. In a post-Sandy model worth emulating, the nonprofit New Jersey Future hired local recovery planning managers who worked for two years as adjunct staff for six small, low-resourced coastal communities.

Neighborhoods would be even better equipped to shape their own recovery if they had pre-existing civic planning expertise and strong social capital, before recovery is an urgent concern. That means working closely with vulnerable communities on resilience now. The NYC Department of City Planning’s HUD-funded, post-Sandy Resilient Neighborhoods program was a notable innovation in that regard, especially for a city that has historically mostly equated planning with zoning, and this kind of commitment to targeted planning in at-risk neighborhoods with unique land use issues and building typologies is a good first step that could pay large dividends when the next disaster occurs.

Going further, no one knows the challenges faced by the most at-risk neighborhoods better than the people who call them home. Diversifying the planning profession — racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically — is also imperative for building a more effective and empathetic planning workforce to confront these daunting challenges.

With climate change accelerating and its effects becoming more pernicious, disaster recovery has become increasingly central to the work of planners. After Sandy, New York’s planners were primarily tasked by elected officials with helping communities rebuild and with protecting the status quo. But subsequent challenges like Hurricane Ida, the COVID pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and anti-Asian hate crimes have exposed how the crises in housing, energy, transportation, food security, policing, racism, genderism, and sexism are intertwined with the climate crisis.

There can be no real recovery from these events, and no future urban resilience, unless planning acknowledges and addresses past inequities. Lessons learned from the Sandy recovery process will not be enough to instantaneously overcome centuries of structural racism and entrenched economic and social inequality that shape disaster vulnerability. But over time, they can help planners refocus their efforts on the people who need recovery resources the most.

Thaddeus Pawlowski is the managing director of Columbia Climate School’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes.

Donovan Finn is an assistant professor at Stony Brook University, where he directs the undergraduate major in Environmental Design, Policy, and Planning.

This article was originally published as “Hurricane Recovery Fails the Financially Vulnerable,” and is reprinted with permission from the American Planning Association.

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