Revisiting Lessons from Sandy in the Wake of Harvey and Irma

As the wind, rain, and storm surge of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have receded, millions of people across the South are turning their attention to recovery and resilience. Nearly five years ago, Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for the New York region. RPA and the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy produced a report, Lessons from Sandy, which identifies the policies, regulations, and administrative practices federal agencies can adopt to improve preparation, response, and recovery from climate change-related natural disasters. The report recommendations include:

  • Anticipating future climate impacts during the disaster recovery and rebuilding processes
  • Reducing risk through actions like removing incentives to develop in hazardous areas
  • Enabling effective urban infrastructure and development patterns including supporting strategic investments in energy resilience

With Hurricane Harvey alone now surpassing the property damage of Sandy and Katrina to become the nation’s most expensive, it’s worth taking a closer look at which lessons we’ve learned, and which we haven’t yet.

Encouragingly, the New York Times reports that “The United States appears to be improving in the way it responds to hurricanes, at a time when climate scientists say the threats from such storms, fueled by warming oceans, are growing only more dire.” Technology and experience enabled authorities and residents to make well-informed decisions throughout the storms.

But resilience is about more than just recovery, it’s also about preparing before a disaster. The fact that Houston has had three storms in three years that surpassed FEMA’s “500-year flood zone”, flooding hundreds of homes without insurance, indicates a need for better information before the next storm. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration budget cuts funding for updating the FEMA flood maps, as well as cutting the budget for the agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. In addition, just days before Harvey flooded Southeast Texas, President Trump rescinded President Obama’s executive order on Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which had boosted project permit requirements to account for future flood risk.

While some communities and institutions have invested in making themselves more resilient, others have been slower to adapt. Houston’s massive Texas Medical Center has invested in adaptation measures like flood doors and elevating generators, and Broward County, Florida, is developing more forward-looking flood models to better understand its risks. The community of Marco Island, Florida, was devastated over the weekend by Irma. A barrier island town that replaced the native mangrove swamps that help mitigate storm surge, the development patterns and minimal flood risk requirements left the community particularly vulnerable. While many utilities and agencies in the Northeast shaken by Sandy have begun incorporating climate projections into their projects, the parent company of Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light (FPL) rejected a plan last year to produce annual climate change impact reports, arguing that the impacts were too far in the future to be relevant.

Five years later, the New York region is still working to implement the lessons it learned from Sandy and RPA will be building off of those lessons in our fourth regional plan to plan for a resilient region over the next 25 years.  Resilience isn’t easy, but the sooner these lessons are understood by the federal government and communities across the country, the more prepared we will be to weather the next big storm.


Photo: metamatic


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