Rebuilding for the future and improving responses to disasters are expected to be key themes in a major report by the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force being released publicly Monday.
The report, which is the last duty for the task force created in December by President Barack Obama, is designed as a long-term rebuilding plan that includes input from state and local leaders.
Exact details of what the report will contain have not been released, but U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan has given a few preludes during speeches in the past few weeks.
Among the likely recommendations in the report are plans for strengthening the power grid and other critical infrastructure to better withstand future storms. The report also may contain more detailed guidelines on how the state and federal government should spend future allotments of billions in Sandy aid dollars, Donovan said during a speech in New York City earlier this month.
Of the approximately $60 billion aid package approved by Congress in January, the federal government still has about $40 billion to spend.
Additionally, the report may contain regional suggestions for rebuilding issues that address existing and future risks, according to the executive order.
The Sandy Recovery Task Force includes representatives from 16 federal agencies and staffers in the six states most affected by Sandy. Local officials from 37 towns and counties, representing the areas hardest hit in New Jersey, New York and four other states, make up an advisory board.
For months now, the task force has solicited suggestions and guidance from public officials and advocates on lessons learned from the storm and how government policies and legislation could be improved so that recovery from future storms is made easier.
Sweeping task force reports often have been commissioned by the president or Congress following major natural disasters. However, the last report that involved multiple federal agencies at the level expected of the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force's plan was published in 1994, after the 1993 Mississippi River flooding.
What resulted from that report, "Sharing the Challenge: Floodplain Management into the 21st Century," were dozens of recommendations, including ways to strengthen the National Flood Insurance Program and encourage communities and homeowners to adopt tough flood-zone standards. Written under the direction of U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Gerald Galloway, the report warned "the United States simply has lacked the focus and incentive to engage itself seriously in floodplain management."
However, there has been little or no progress on other findings and suggestions in the 1994 report, a 2009 letter to Congress shows. "The majority of the recommendations and their supporting analyses remain valid and still warrant implementation," then-Assistant to the Secretary of the Army John Paul Woodley wrote in 2009 to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who had requested an update on the 1994 report.
While these reports highlight past mistakes and provide suggestions for how to make changes for the future, the findings are not always popular, said Galloway, now an engineering professor at the University of Maryland.
"Many of these solutions require people to change the way they're doing things, and people don't like change," Galloway said. "That's going to be the struggle with whatever comes out of Sandy."
Some New Jersey and federal experts who have been tapped to speak before the task force's fact-finding committees say they think the momentum behind the report shows the Obama administration is serious about ensuring rebuilding efforts go beyond past policies.
Already the Sandy Recovery Task Force has helped the federal government put into action a uniform standard for rebuilding the areas flooded by Sandy. The standard - the most current base flood elevation, plus an additional foot - was adopted earlier this year as a requirement for any project built or repaired using federal dollars.
The standard was modeled after an emergency order issued by the Christie administration in January. Critics contend the standard is not aggressive enough for future conditions due to sea-level rise and climate change. But the standard was the first of its kind to apply to projects funded through all federal agencies.
"I can't help but give applause to the administration for trying to work with the states, trying to figure out long-term solutions," Galloway said. The new elevation standard, he said "is an absolutely remarkable step forward."
Peter Kasabach, director of New Jersey Future, says he hopes the report suggests counties beef up hazard mitigation plans. The plans typically are used to help communities prepare for and, in some cases, respond to various types of disasters. New Jersey is set to update its plan by April.
Kasabach suggests the plans include measures for recovering from disasters as well as identifying vulnerable places so local officials can make land-use decisions for well into the future.
Among the topics the task force is supposed to examine are how rebuilding efforts should incorporate preparing for future storms and the effects of climate change and sea-level rise.
"What we're hoping is that they look at (those issues) seriously and they are aggressive," Kasabach said. "We should be using the best science available, and we should be looking out at a 50-year horizon."
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who was one of the local leaders appointed to the task force, said he had no suggestions for the report because the county's existing disaster plan was sufficient.
"We did not have any issues as far as Atlantic County was concerned," Levinson said. "We were supposed to come up with recommendations, and we didn't come up with any recommendations because what they had worked."
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