In The Wake of Sandy, How Can Regions Prepare for Next Time?

11.8.12 | BRR network member Amy Liu spent six years studying the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and drawing lessons learned from the people in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. Her book chronicles what we’ve learned and the capacities needed to rebound.

Listening to Liu, and others like her, has, of course, become even more important after witnessing the regional devastation and suffering in New York and coastal New Jersey in the wake of Sandy. Many have noted that these disasters seem to becoming more frequent. And it’s hard now for anyone to deny the mounting evidence of the effects of climate change. Cities and regional leaders need to be prepared to respond, rebuild, and build their resilience capacity for the future.

Liu had an important piece at the Brookings Institution this week summarizing what she’s learned. She says our government’s capacity to respond to large-scale disasters has actually improved since Hurricane Katrina, though I’m not sure how much solace this will bring to those still suffering on the East Coast, hit with another cruel snowstorm yesterday. But Liu points to the legislative and policy efforts put in place since Katrina aimed at streamlining the Federal emergency response to disasters like these and to help empower states and localities to take advantage of Federal help and prioritize and deploy resources from the government, private sector, philanthropy, and community groups.

Liu stresses the importance of a strong Federal response, as the only level of government who can provide timely and predictable resources at the needed regional scale:

[S]uch massive disasters require not just emergency aid to families and the restoration of basic public services.  They also trigger the simultaneous need for short- and longer-term resources to rebuild bridges, tunnels, homes, hospitals, neighborhoods, and other key facets of community and economic life.  This is complex and costly work, requiring coordination across many actors and across a vast geography of destruction.

In her book “Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita,” Liu argues that disasters can sometimes present an opportunity for regions to clean the slate and start anew, rebuilding in a healthier way, and addressing longstanding problems.

Her research chronicles how citizens and leaders in New Orleans have used the crisis as a chance to address decades of high poverty, racial and economic disparity, and unstable development patterns, for example. She sees early evidence that these reforms are working.

“While reversing those outcomes will take time, New Orleans is in the midst of a series of systemic reforms that may put them on the path to healthier outcomes,” she told BRR in an interview last year.

Urban planning scholar Richard Florida makes a similar point about the New York region’s recovery from Sandy in this piece at the New York Daily News.

“Great cities don’t restore themselves according to their original blueprints,” Florida writes “they adapt to new circumstances and change.”

After 9/11 and the Great Recession New York is already proven itself to be a very resilient region, Florida says, pointing to ways the region’s characteristics have helped it survive — urban systems, for example, that allowed infrastructure – bridges, tunnels — to “fail safely,” or density:

After the electricity, the Internet and the cell phones went down, the most densely populated parts of the city were able to bounce back quickest. Density makes it possible for people to improvise ways to get around, even when communication and transportation nexuses fail — they car-pool, ride bikes, walk.

Though Florida’s praise might not be matched by all of those on the ground, (see this moving piece about the difficulty of coordinating recovery efforts in Queens), Florida’s points about rebuilding and what’s needed now are well taken.

With all eyes on the region, what’s critical now he says is that the city needs to show the world how to rebuild “smarter and greener.” His suggestions include innovations in flood control, reducing the region’s carbon footprint, and bolstering resilience capacity with a less centralized power grid, and regulations that discourage development on floodplains.

For more on rebuilding regional capacity, BRR network member Kathryn Foster has developed a Regional Capacity Index, a tool to measure how well positioned regions are to respond and recover effectively from a shock, like a change in the economy or a natural disaster.  The tool includes information on 361 U.S. metropolitan regions.  Regional leaders can compare their region’s capacity profile to that of other metropolitan areas based on indicators in three categories:  1) the regional economy, 2) social and demographic factors, and 3) community connectivity. See how your region compares here.

Photo/  Larry L.

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