As public officials try to piece back together the areas hardest hit by Sandy, they should keep the Hippocratic oath in mind: First, do no harm.
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin issued an administrative order on Nov. 2 aimed at getting critical infrastructure back in place as quickly as possible. The order allows county and local governments to sidestep the usual environmental permit process if they make in-kind replacements of bulkheads, roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Martin's order seems well-intended - but it's worrisome.
In the post-storm emergency that many coastal communities face, there is a pressing need to restore access and basic functions for residents. But the wholesale suspension of the normal regulations guiding development in flood zones is a potentially dangerous move.
The permit process exists for a reason. The wrong kind of development in vulnerable areas can increase the likelihood of flooding. And while displaced residents are understandably eager to get things back to normal, normal may be exactly where we shouldn't be trying to go.
Environmentalists say that much of Sandy's devastation can be traced to haphazard and poorly planned development in coastal and flood-prone areas.
They correctly point out that the storm is both an argument for better planning and an opportunity to do that planning, to have a serious discussion about what should be rebuilt and where.
Martin's order seems to discourage such an effort by making it easy to replicate the infrastructure that failed to stand up to Sandy, and therefore harder to make smart improvements.
Changing the location, elevation and nature of roads, bridges or wastewater treatment facilities would require time for study, new plans and designs and the normal environmental permit process. The easiest path is to rebuild everything exactly as it was. But that means rebuilding it in the same places and with the same vulnerability to future storms.
There is also the danger that the reconstruction work itself could contaminate or damage sensitive areas, including valuable wetlands. And, environmental groups say, the order may in fact violate federal laws and agreements on which disaster aid depends.
At the very least, the DEP should accompany Martin's order with a total review of coastal building regulations. We must ensure that the next hurricane that strikes New Jersey finds a state that is better prepared.