Superstorm Sandy's devastation has prompted calls for emergency Federal funding to make up shortfalls in agency funds and to speed the region's recovery. But the disaster has also spurred critics to question whether it's wise to build — and rebuild — on the fragile, vulnerable ocean shore. The New York Times has this story: ("As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why," by Justin Gillis and Felicity Barringer). The Times considers the example of Dauphin Island, Ala., where Gulf hurricanes have destroyed roads, sewers, and other infrastructure along with houses — nearly a dozen times in four decades. "Yet time and again," says the Times, "checks from Washington have allowed the town to put itself back together."
A federal law called the Stafford Act provides subsidies that cover three-quarters of the cost to local governments of infrastructure repairs after natural disasters. Sometimes, the federal treasury will pick up 90% of the tab. Says critic Eli Lehrer, a member of a Washington, D.C., coalition called SmarterSafer.org, "We simply can't go on subsidizing enormous numbers of people to live in areas that are prone to huge natural disasters."
Dauphin Island, a fragile barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, has been on the receiving end of destructive Gulf storms "roughly every three years" in recent decades, notes the Times — and has gotten tens of millions of dollars from the Federal government for rebuilding and repair, even as many oceanfront properties have been submerged under the encroaching Gulf.
But Dauphin Island is an extreme example; of the $80 billion spent by the Federal government since 2004 on disaster recovery, much has gone to places hit by inland flooding such as Nashville, Tenn., or damaged by other hazards such as blizzard, fire, or tornadoes. And while Stafford Act funding may be poured into the repair of, for example, the subway tunnels under New York's East River connecting Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, it seems unlikely that anyone will seriously advocate a retreat from those boroughs in the face of the flood threat.
Still, even if a decision is deliberately made to pay for storm rebuilding, the pace of the rebuilding, and the character of the construction are open to debate. In New Jersey, authorities have waived permitting requirements for reconstruction and repair activities for six months, as long as the work does not change the footprint of the previously existing work. That has critics wondering if New Jersey will lock itself into its past mistakes, yet again, reports the Newark Star-Ledger ("Experts question order allowing immediate reconstruction of N.J. infrastructure that failed during Sandy," by Stephen Stirling).
Throughout last week, says the report, "Gov. Chris Christie and state officials ramped up rhetoric about the need to rebuild the New Jersey shore smarter and stronger in the wake of the storm. But at the same time, an order was signed that temporarily waives permitting requirements, allowing for the immediate reconstruction of the public infrastructure that failed and washed away in the storm's path. It shows a state, experts say, bending to the overwhelming sense of urgency towns and residents feel toward returning to some semblance of normalcy but at the same time potentially jeopardizing long-term efforts to safeguard New Jersey's prized coastal assets against future storms."
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Larry Ragonese said the state is trying to strike a balance: "This is not a blank environmental check we're writing. This is us saying, 'Do what you need to do to get your town running again. We don't want to stand in the way.' There's nothing that can guarantee that everything will be done exactly as we want it. But in the effort to be smart, in the effort to help people who are in dire need, we're going to take a gamble with folks."
But Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is worried, reports the Star-Ledger. "This absolutely sends the wrong message," says Berginnis. "I have great respect for government officials in crisis, but I think it's confusing when an administrative order comes out that seems to fly face of what's been said publicly about smarter rebuilding."