By Mike Sweeney, PE
Four months after Sandy, there is no shortage of proposed solutions to finance and rebuild the massive damage along New Jersey’s coastal region. New Jersey Gov. Christie and other leaders are supporting buyouts of entire neighborhoods that want to relocate. A recent joint Assembly-Senate hearing has included a proposal to increase the Governor’s contingency fund for expenses not covered by FEMA from $40 million to $100 million. Leaders of badly-flooded Highlands and Sea Bright are recommending permanently raising specific buildings or, potentially, the entire town.
While municipal government agencies in cities up and down the coastlines of New Jersey wait for recovery money to flow, they also should prioritize development of comprehensive recovery plans—to have at the ready—which can set the stage for a swift and efficient response, reduce the cost to rebuild, ease human suffering and minimize the after-effects of a future natural disaster.
Post-Sandy and pre-future disaster planning can ensure that ravaged communities quickly regain essential functionality and receive the full funding to which they’re entitled. Because disasters vary in size, scope and type, cities and towns should continuously identify potential threats and develop plans based on those public and private assets they most need to protect, both to minimize impact and to expeditiously restore infrastructure and services.
Effective planning requires collaboration between federal, state and local government agencies and specialized local knowledge from the private sector. Government agencies can benefit from the expertise of private sector engineers, public works experts, economists and other infrastructure experts who know the communities and have established trusted relationships that allow them to engage quickly to assess areas of risk and develop a customized recovery and rebuilding plan scope. Our economy and way of life depend on a strong and resilient public and private infrastructure that can rebound quickly from the ravages of disasters. All resources must be brought to bear to accomplish this critical effort in the public interest.
Based on our post-Hurricane Ike and Katrina work, we know that there is an important role for consultants who possess experience and specialized knowledge in managing, administering and maximizing cost recovery from FEMA, the Federal Highway Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies. These federal entities do not guarantee project funding, despite the total dollars approved by Congress. Instead, after the work has been completed, they review how resources have been expended and decide, based on certain established guidelines, reimbursement amounts to our communities.
In New Jersey, it’s important to engage qualified, experienced recovery and rebuilding professionals to bridge gaps between agencies and directly collaborate with state and local officials managing Sandy-related programs. This can increase the chances for communities to receive timely, full and maximum reimbursements by coordinating dialogue between agencies; soliciting input from stakeholders and residents; identifying policies and procedures that may positively affect communities’ recovery efforts; and determining roles and responsibilities to guide implementation of a holistic disaster response plan.
Recent history shows that incorporating planning into recovery efforts provides long-term benefit to disaster-stricken regions. For example, after 2008 Hurricane Ike tore an enormous gash in the riverbank in Beaumont, Texas, the city responded by incorporating concrete sidewalks and bulkheads into its restoration program for strengthening this critical public facility. Beaumont’s public works director acknowledges that there will be another hurricane, but says that the improvements position the city to avoid significant damage in the future.
New Jersey coastal communities should follow the examples of Beaumont and many other Texas and Louisiana communities that had to rebuild following Hurricanes Ike and Katrina. The cities and states that have engaged in inclusive, collaborative planning beforehand will have established processes for government and the private sector to work together to address the complexities of disaster response and redevelopment. While recovery may never be as fast as those affected would want it to be, having a plan that includes private sector expertise can certainly help streamline and strengthen the results.
Mike Sweeney, PE, a resident of Sayreville, N.J., is a well-known engineering and construction industry professional with long-standing ties to the Northeast. He is a senior vice president and district leader for HNTB Corporation in New York City. HNTB helped communities in Louisiana and Texas secure federal funding to rebuild following hurricanes Katrina and Ike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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