Three years ago today, Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Northeast, devastating countless homes, businesses, and communities in its path. Over the past three years, and indeed, since President Obama took office, the Administration has invested in hard-hit communities with a single focus: to ensure that affected communities don’t just rebuild, but rebuild smarter.
We’ve seen the alternative. In 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina, officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation gathered in Biloxi, Mississippi to assess damage to the US-90 bridge, where surge and waves had knocked the bridge decks off their foundation like a set of dominoes. Looking just to their right, the officials saw something else: ruins of the previous US-90 bridge, demolished by Hurricane Camille just 36 years prior. The bridge had been rebuilt at the same elevation as the one destroyed in 1969.
That experience, and many more like it, have informed how the Obama Administration prepares for and responds to natural disasters. Recovery can’t just be focused on short-term needs, but on long-term risk and vulnerabilities, which continue to rise as a result of climate change. That’s why the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force required that all Sandy-related rebuilding projects funded by the Federal Government meet a single uniform flood risk reduction standard informed by the best science and best practices.
“We’re going to keep doing what it takes to rebuild all the way and make it better than it was before, make it stronger than it was before, make it more resilient than it was before.”-President Obama, May 28, 2013
To ensure communities are better prepared for the impacts of climate change today and tomorrow, we continue to ensure that we are making decisions based on the latest science and data, we are responding to community-driven priorities, we are doing all that we can to serve vulnerable communities, and we are collaborating with partners to maximize impact.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Federal agencies incorporated the best available science and data, including sea level rise projections and climate resilience, into project planning and design. Building upon the immediate recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy and to ensure that we are better prepared before disaster strikes, we announced this year the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. A key deliverable of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, the national Standard directs agencies to account for the latest scientific projections and adopt stricter siting, design, and construction standards for all Federally-funded projects.
Over the course of the past six years, this Administration also has been steadily creating programs in partnership with the communities they intend to serve. For instance, as a part of the Hurricane Sandy Task Force’s Rebuilding Strategy, we brought a wide range of stakeholders—from State and local elected officials to non-profit organizations to science and policy experts and other community organizations—to the table to ensure their efforts were coordinated, that particular attention was paid to already disadvantaged and struggling communities, and that they were helping each other as they helped themselves. Working with these communities, the Administration has removed barriers to investments in resiliency, modernized Federal grant and loan programs to support local efforts, and developed effective, actionable information and tools.
And today, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is releasing a Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems, which provides a practical six-step process for communities to develop long-term resilience goals based on their individual social and economic needs, particular hazard risks, buildings and infrastructure systems, and the community’s operations and available resources.
Recognizing that low-income and underserved communities are often less equipped to prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change, the Obama Administration has made equity a priority. From the Resilience AmeriCorps pilot, which provides much-needed capacity for vulnerable communities to address climate-resilience planning and implementation, to coordinated interagency assistance to high-need communities through smart growth strategies, the Administration is committed to ensuring that communities develop forward-looking strategies and partnerships for building climate resilience.
We also know that we can’t do it alone, so we’re working hand-in-hand with nonprofit and philanthropic partners to advance shared priorities. In 2013, for example, we created Rebuild by Design to improve the physical, ecological, and economic resilience of coastal areas. The competition has produced regional, cross-disciplinary collaborations between state and local governments, design teams, regional nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and the public. In the Bronx, for example, the Hunts Point Project will build off recommendations from a Rebuild By Design proposal to invest in resiliency measures around the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, which serves as the food supply for over 22 million people.
Since Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the national dialogue about recovery and resilience has shifted. The Obama Administration has led the Federal government in integrating resilience into the fabric of how we build, rebuild, plan, and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
However, the stakes continue to grow. The National Climate Assessment shows that the changing climate is creating drastically different conditions across the United States; deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, and more powerful storms are putting our communities at risk. Current projections estimate that unabated climate change would cost the global economy over four percent of global GDP each year by 2100. With the costs of climate change adding up, the failure to invest in climate solutions and climate preparedness is fiscally unwise.
Through lessons learned from storms like Hurricane Sandy, we can take on the hard choices necessary to make our communities more resilient in the face of these mounting risks. We simply can’t afford to rebuild the US-90 bridge in Biloxi at the same elevation time after time. We have an obligation to protect the planet for the next generation, and it starts by ensuring our communities are more resilient to the emerging challenges of climate change.