Coastal communities need to prepare for climate change and future storms as they rebuild from Hurricane Sandy, but they shouldn’t make their plans without consulting their neighbors, according to a sweeping federal report released Monday.
Communities also need access to the most current flood-risk information, and Congress needs to help ensure lower-income coastal residents will not be priced out of flood insurance costs.
These are the two key messages in a 200-page report issued Monday by the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force, which was formed in December through an executive order by President Barack Obama.
“Still much work remains, and now it’s time for us to finish the job together,” said Shaun Donovan, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary and chairman of the task force. “We can do it in a way that helps the region recover faster, but also builds back stronger and smarter.”
The report, referred to as a rebuilding strategy, has 69 recommendations to communities, states and federal agencies for how to speed recovery, ensure rebuilding dollars take into account future conditions and even how to reduce red-tape and bureaucratic delays. The report also includes several recommendations for homeowners, including ensuring that those with federally backed mortgages have access to insurance payouts faster.
Donovan also noted that many of the recommendations included in the report already have been, or are in the process of, being implemented.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese referred requests for comment to Gov. Chris Christie’s office. Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan declined comment, saying the agency was still reviewing the report. Christie’s office did not issue a statement on the report, nor return requests for comment.
Among the recommendations are ensuring that billions of dollars in federal disaster aid approved by Congress in January are spent in line “with local rebuilding visions,” helping communities work on a more regional basis for preparing for the coming effects of climate change, cutting red tape for homeowners trying to make repairs and working with Congress to help manage the looming cost increases for federal flood insurance.
“This important report lays out where we are in our Sandy recovery and what lessons we can learn from our experiences thus far,” U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. “As this report indicates, the administration recognizes the need to address the escalation of flood insurance costs.”
The task force included an advisory board made of 37 local officials in the six most-affected states. Among the board members was Cape May County Freeholder Chairman Gerald Thornton, who said he was encouraged that the report discussed flood insurance affordability. “The alignment of local, county, state and federal policies is key to success with a planning effort of this scale,” Thornton said. “It is imperative that moving forward we aggressively explore ways that seek to prevent (flood insurance) premiums from exponentially increasing.”
The report notes that many of the recommendations will apply to disaster recovery nationwide, not just in the Sandy-affected region.
“Natural disasters do not respect state or local boundaries, thus rebuilding plans cannot be bound by jurisdictional lines,” the report states. “Major rebuilding decisions made by community leaders should not be considered in isolation.”
Among other recommendations in the report:
* Creating a standard policy among all federally backed mortgage programs so that natural disaster-affected homeowners can more easily refinance their loans or postpone payments.
* Developing a single policy among mortgage companies regarding how insurance settlements are disbursed so that homeowners can rebuild faster, potentially without having to pay for repairs up front.
* Asking Congress to develop a solution to looming flood insurance increases so that low-income homeowners and seniors on a fixed income can afford flood insurance in the future.
* Streamlining the permit process across federal agencies for major infrastructure projects, particurly for those projects that will be rebuilt to higher standards.
* Helping smaller communities find the resources to better plan and prepare for future events, as well as ensuring that those communities affected in future disasters will have money for specialized staff to help recovery.
* Ensuring that communities, states and homeowners have the latest information regarding flood risks, sea-level rise and climate change. Among the ways the report proposes that happen is through mapping tools created through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New Jersey’s tool, njfloodmapper.org, was created through Rutgers University and the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve.
“The report is very strong in tackling climate change and its impacts head-on,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “The plan seems to call for long-term regional intergrated planning for how we manage the coast, and that’s a place where New Jersey is really falling down.”
The last time a report of this size was commissioned and released following a natural disaster was in 1994 after the 1993 Mississippi River floods. That report, known as the Galloway Report, contained 109 recommendations for how the federal government could help reduce future flood losses.
However, in 2009, a report to congress noted that few of the recommendations had been fully implemented, and those that had the most significant effect had only partial implementation or had been completely forgotten.
The Sandy response plan was designed with implementation in mind, Donovan said Monday during a conference call with reporters. As such, each recommendation contained specific actions that named federal agencies needed to do. Additionally, Donovan said, a high-level White House committee would meet every few months to examine the progress.
Donovan said there is a “hunger” among the public and private sectors for detailed information on how high buildings should raised up to reduce future flooding risks from sea-level rise. However, Donovan said, all entities involved with specific projects need to discuss what any unintended consequences could be so that one town doesn’t build something that affects another.
Towns along the New Jersey coast are moving toward the next phases of recovery and recognizing that they need more help. Little Egg Harbor Township has signed an agreement with planning group New Jersey Future to bring in a specialized disaster recovery manager, who will help the township plan for the future. And Avalon has consulted with high-ranking Dutch officials for advice on how to reduce flooding.
“We think it’s important to have this kind of document at this time,” said Chris Sturm, senior policy adviser with New Jersey Future. “We hope that this (report) is a challenge to New Jersey, in all of this, and what we’ve learned so far in the recovery.”
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