On Sandy fixes: Pay now, save later, says HUD chief

U.S. Secretary of housing and urban development Shaun

U.S. Secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan speaks about Sandy Recovery during a panning discussion at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in Manhattan. (Jun. 20, 2013) (Credit: Anthony Lanzilote)

For every dollar the federal government spends on flood mitigation, like home elevation grants, it saves $4 in disaster relief after the next devastating storm like Sandy, the chairman of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force said Monday.

Paying now to save later is among the recommendations in the federal government's strategic plan for rebuilding the New York region as presented Monday by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, the task force chair.

The plan has 69 recommendations that focus on resiliency and building back smarter in preparation for future storms, which are expected to be stronger due to climate change.


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A key component of the strategic plan was protecting critical infrastructure such as the electric power grid. More than 9 million people lost power after Sandy, and long gasoline lines resulted from power-starved gas pumps not being able to get fuel from storage tanks.

"The strategy outlines steps to make our electrical power grid more flexible and smarter, and to protect the liquid fuel supply chain," Donovan said.

The approach would change power grids so that treatment plants, hospitals and public buildings would be able to isolate power failures while residual power could be dispatched to maintain essential services.

"We are not just focused on speeding relief to families and communities," Donovan said. "We are also focused on protecting communities from the risk of a changing climate."

The plan includes hardening the Internet and the cellphone network so that power failures don't knock them out of service after a storm.

"We must ensure we do not lose our ability to communicate with loved ones or access our critical systems when it's necessary," Donovan said.

Many of the plan's recommendations have already been adopted by various federal agencies in response to Sandy.

For example, communities that are rebuilding with federal money have to build back to a standard elevation of 1 foot beyond the existing flood elevation standard because of the rising sea level, Donovan said.

One thing not in the plan is a wholesale evacuation of the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey. Building back smarter and with resiliency will make retreat from the coast unnecessary, Donovan said.

"We are pursuing buyouts in areas that shouldn't be rebuilt," Donovan said. "But we also recognize that that's a very small share of the coast. The vast majority of places along the coast you can live safely. We can do it in a way that saves lives and protects taxpayers' investment."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed.

"We're always going to have people who want to live in areas that are problematic from an environmental point of view," Bloomberg said. "The question is finding a balance."

Donovan used the roof of a building under construction in Long Island City, Queens, with a view of New York City's wastewater-treatment plant to announce the rebuilding plan.

The city's treatment plant remained working throughout Sandy's wrath on Oct. 29, 2012, mostly because it didn't lose electrical power, Donovan said.

Around the state, at least a dozen wastewater-treatment plants -- including Nassau County's Bay Park plant -- reported flooding, and 10 released partially treated or untreated sewage.

Mary Rowe, managing director of the Municipal Art Society of New York, praised the plan based on its ambition.

"If there's anything to come to terms with, it's that we need intervention that addresses all things at once," Rowe said. "There's not one single fix here."


Highlights of task force recommendations

Make the electric grid smarter and more flexible, and protect liquid fuel supply chain to better prepare for future storms

Develop a resilient power strategy for telephone and Internet communications so they are available when needed most after a disaster

Provide a forum for discussion of large-scale, regional infrastructure projects

Establish guidelines to ensure infrastructure projects are built to withstand existing risks and future climate change

Align federal funding with local rebuilding visions

Cut red tape and get assistance to families, businesses and communities

Aid so far

$50 billion approved by Congress for Sandy relief

$5.2 billion for Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief in New York State, New Jersey and NYC

Source: Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force

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