By all accounts, the damage from Hurricane Sandy was enormous.
More than seven million homes and businesses were left without power and electricity, mostly in New York and New Jersey, at least four towns were submerged in six feet of water after a levee broke, 375,000 residents were told to leave their homes, the New York subway system was flooded, nuclear plants were shut down, trees and power lines were down everywhere and houses, schools, hospitals, roads, railway systems and other infrastructure sustained tens of billions of dollars in damage.
Of course, this damage pales in comparison to the lives lost – at least 46 were killed in the United States and 68 in the Caribbean. The human toll obviously matters a great deal more than any damage to buildings or infrastructure.
Be that as it may, the focus now shifts to the massive recovery and rebuilding task ahead.
First, there are the immediate needs, such as getting hospitals and emergency services back up and running fully and finding emergency shelter for those who have been displaced.
Then there are such tasks as getting the subway system back up and running – which could take some time, given that pumping all the water out before damage assessment can even occur could take days – as well as getting airports back up and running, getting schools back to normal and getting power fully restored.
Over the longer term, there is the necessary repairing and/or rebuilding of houses and infrastructure.
While the overall bill for damages and reconstruction is not known at this point, best guesses at this stage appear to land in the $US10-20 billion range.
During this longer-term process, it will be interesting to see how the US applies lessons learned from past experience. A study published last December by the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) looked at long-term recovery efforts from disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Midwest Floods, and the 2011 Alabama Tornadoes among others. The disasters studied spanned a seven-year period from 2004 to 2011.
That FEMA study described a number of important lessons, primarily aimed at the local community level, which it says are critical to a successful rebuilding process.
First, there must be a shared vision of what needs to be achieved and where both regions and individual communities want to go with their rebuild. Related to that, there must also be a written plan that is clearly understood by all involved in the recovery effort.
Partnerships are needed on many levels – federal, state, tribal, private and non-for profit across diversified sectors such as housing, economic and infrastructure. These partners must work together in a coordinated fashion.
The rebuilding process should take advantage of opportunities to build more resilient infrastructure and mitigate future risk where possible. All of this requires effective leadership.
Above all, it takes time, and builders and the community at large must be prepared for this. When the city hall of Palo, Iowa was damaged beyond repair by flooding in 2008 and the community decided to rebuild it in an area outside of the floodplain, for example, the process of evaluating sites, obtaining funding and designing the facility took almost two years, with ground breaking not occurring until May 2010.
Only time will tell whether or not the US can learn from the past seven years and deliver positive outcomes in this rebuilding process.
But one thing is for certain – the rebuild is going to take an enormous effort.