Lindsay Kishter

When Hurricane Sandy sent sea water surging into New York City in 2012, it poured in through subway entrances and stairwells where it never had before. Electrical substations dry in previous storms flooded and electrical equipment corroded, extending power outages for days. And critical sites that had stocked 48 hours of fuel to run generators found themselves in a bind when the power did not come on as quickly as planned.

In short, the disaster overwhelmed the region’s existing planning and preparation, and exposed new critical failure points in large infrastructure. With the federal government’s $50 billion Sandy relief package, it also created a window of opportunity to rebuild, putting in place infrastructure that will have to withstand the next 50-100 years of storms and disasters. The drumbeat imploring the region to “rebuild smarter” started almost immediately after the stormwater receded. But cities, states, and homeowners faced a universal problem: how do you rebuild smarter when you don’t know the new standard to build to?

If they are going to truly build stronger infrastructure in the place of old, owners and operators need access to better flood and weather forecasts and data on climate change impacts that can inform new standards and industry best practices. This is an area where federal government can provide its expertise and resources to improve regional and local disaster planning. It’s well on its way.

This week, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, launched in February of this year, released its Rebuilding Strategy. Among its key recommendations are to increase resilience by using “science-based tools and the best available data” to anticipate future risk and adopt innovative technologies to mitigate it. Key examples of progress include:

  • The task force set a first-of-a-kind uniform Federal Flood Risk Reduction Standard for all projects rebuilding with supplemental funds.
  • A new Sea Level Rise Tool developed by FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) combines numerous data sets to provide communities with the best available data on projected sea level rise in their community.
  • The task force launched its Rebuild by Design competition to attract innovative design ideas to mitigate the region’s vulnerabilities to future storms.

This is great progress. But taking these steps only after a major disaster is still reactionary. Aging infrastructure is replaced and new projects are launched every day across the nation, and regions need access to the best available data on their distinctive risks so that every infrastructure investment—not just every infrastructure repair—is an investment in future resilience.