Preparing for a Stormy Future: Obama's Sandy Rebuilding Strategy

“Hurricane Sandy was the worst disaster for public transit (e.g., bus, subway, commuter rail) in the nation’s history.” - Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy

As my colleague Rob Moore wrote about this week, multiple Obama Administration agencies released the remarkably dense and useful report quoted above, covering recovery activities to-date and planned. 69 recommendations, and their status (whether adopted or pending) are detailed in its 200+ pages. In addition to the laudable water-related items Rob singled out, I briefly profile others below and urge you to take a look at the report (which thankfully has an executive summary!).

1)      Data collection, aggregation and sharing: The final section details various new means for improved sharing of data and information (on current and future risks) between agencies and with the public, to increase accountability to citizens and boost effectiveness of agencies. Authors saw fit to include a particularly colorful detail regarding the difficulty of accessing some government data sets, describing frustrated New Jersey state officials who struggled to find the “magic words” that would unlock the data doors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

To blow the doors open, the Administration proposes one template form for agreeing to share data, creating a “data hub” among federal agencies authorized to engage in disaster recovery, and hiring “data stewards” to ensure data is in quality shape and shareable format. All of this can be facilitated by using existing tools such as the site wisely set up for one-stop shopping for government information. One note of caution, having worked for government – the “steward” position, while a good idea, should have clearly defined responsibilities that prevent it from becoming an additional bottleneck.

The report also contains some good, commonsense policy concepts such as using “consumer speak” when clarifying and educating people about flood insurance and risks, and adopting a “no wrong door” policy for public responses. My 1990s tenure in state government was very brief in part because I tired of the unnecessary use of jargon and the “not my department” crap that bogs bureaucracies down.

2)      Partnerships with local, state and regional players:  Much of this is reminiscent of the Recovery Act, which as I’ve written deserves more credit for the transparency via regarding where our tax dollars went. The Administration also learned from that program in the way it intends to invest transportation dollars, namely by use of a TIGER-like competitive process by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This oversubscribed program has worked well, and tightened relations between DOT and grantseekers.

There is quite a bit in here about more explicit and purposeful collaboration with philanthropic institutions, some of which commented favorably on the report itself. Foundations are particularly interested in rebuilding with resilience and sustainability in mind. The Administration also mentions the importance of working with state programs such as the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program and New Jersey Resilience Partnerships, as well as nongovernmental organizations such as New Jersey Future. There is also explicit recognition in here that serious regional planning capacity is necessary to ensure strategic alignment of local decisions, a big challenge since metropolitan planning organizations are often ignored or ineffective.

3)      New initiatives: The report documents the establishment of several noteworthy new initiatives, such as “Rebuild by Design,” in which HUD will issue grants competitively based on resilient and sustainable designs, using the web site. This program, and several others described herein, will use a special category of Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) since they are very flexible. And to accelerate outlays from this program, HUD has also created “programs in a box,” a set of pre-approved programmatic activities. Meanwhile, for those keeping score, the useless House of Representatives has recently proposed slashing CDBG funding.

The Administration also proposes using such funding to bolster state infrastructure banks, explaining that – as many including yours truly have written – a national infrastructure bank would be a useful supplement to these entities but Congress has repeatedly balked at authorizing one. Meanwhile, on a lighter note, FEMA would also run a “Prepare-a-Thon” with the help of Al Roker, to spur virtuous competition between communities as they prepare disaster recovery and rebuilding plans required by law.

There is also plenty in here about new means for expediting permitting and project delivery, especially leveraging Executive Order 13604 mandating it. There is much in here about achieving programmatic agreements, better coordination between federal agencies, and building capacity to perform reviews more quickly. Some of this makes me nervous, and on the other hand it seems like a recipe for reduced bureaucratic delay without sacrificing environmentally beneficial outcomes. And it certainly seems like smarter and more effective policy than anything that “broken branch” (i.e., Congress) could ever agree on. The only thing missing, I think, is explicit inclusion of local, state and regional jurisdictions in such improved procedures. They can be just as bureaucratic and slow as the feds.

In sum, there is much to comment and follow up on here. And there’s no time to waste, as evidenced by shortcomings such as FEMA’s failure to renew flood-risk maps for 25 years before Sandy hit. We all need to pitch in to better prepare for the next superstorm.