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How Hurricane Sandy Changed the Way We Respond to Disasters

November 4, 2022 by Judi Pickell
Policy/Legislative

Described by National Geographic as a “raging freak of nature,” Hurricane Sandy’s size and strength were unprecedented. The tropical cyclone formed in the Caribbean on October 22, 2012, and combined with another, unusually cold storm system before reaching the U.S. Sandy’s occurrence during the full moon phase caused very high tides, which magnified its power.

When it made landfall in New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City (after already causing loss of life and property in the Caribbean) on the evening of October 29, it carried with it sustained winds of 80 miles per hour. As it tracked west-northwest over the next few days, it left behind a wide swath of damage and destruction.

Now, 10 years later, we look back on the making of a superstorm, both as a weather event of massive proportions and as a potential watershed event, impacting how planners and governments at every level approach post-disaster recovery.

A new level of collaboration led to the creation by FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create the National Disaster Recovery Framework and the Recovery Support Function Leadership Group to promote interagency coordination and easier access to program information. In a first, Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding was given directly to a city, as well as states, with New York City receiving $4.2 billion.

In all, Congress allocated $50 billion for recovery from Hurricane Sandy, but some say it failed the most financially vulnerable.

Its size was unparalleled: The diameter of its wind field was more than 1,100 miles, with the strongest winds forming a circle about 900 miles in diameter. By contrast, NASA charted the strong wind circle of Hurricane Katrina — another extremely large and destructive storm — at about 300 miles in diameter. At landfall, Sandy covered an estimated 1.8 million square miles.

While Sandy raised water levels along the entire U.S. Eastern seaboard, the highest surges were recorded in the New York City metro area, including New Jersey and Long Island. At the Battery in Lower Manhattan, for example — home to the Financial District and extensive transportation infrastructure — the storm tide was more than 14 feet above the mean lower low water level, exceeding the previous record, set in 1992, by more than four feet.

Damage from Superstorm Sandy

Sandy caused extraordinary amounts of rain and snow, setting precipitation records for October 29th in Washington, D.C., Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City and dumping more than two feet of snow in some locations. FEMA issued disaster declarations for Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sandy is the fourth most costly U.S. tropical cyclone on record, with both insured and uninsured losses estimated at $81.9 billion in 2022 dollars. More than 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and about 8.5 million U.S. customers lost power.

Estimates of deaths vary by methodology, but the CDC put the U.S. total at 117, including 53 in New York and 34 in New Jersey. The Obama Administration estimated a total of at least 159 direct and indirect deaths.

Federal response for recovery

Federal funding for response and recovery from natural disasters such as hurricanes is governed primarily by the Stafford Act, established in 1988. In theory, states contribute up to 25 percent of disaster spending, but Congress has the authority to adjust or waive this cost share, and often uses it. Sandy triggered some changes in the federal approach that have salience for planners.

In January 2013, Congress approved the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, along with a supplemental appropriation. The “Sandy Supplemental” provided $15.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding to affected states.

New York and New Jersey received $4.5 and $4.2 billion respectively. To manage their large allocations and work with local governments and other groups, the New York and New Jersey governments established state offices — the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding — both of which remain in place today. While CDBG-DR funds typically go to states, New York City also got its own direct allocation of $4.2 billion.

Beyond providing money to affected state and local governments, the legislative package was intended to streamline FEMA’s existing response and recovery programs and give the agency more flexibility to administer them.

Policy and design expertise

In August 2013, the Obama administration released the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy (HSRS), developed by the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force chaired by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The strategy emphasized collaboration, innovation, and community participation as well as a focus on enhancing resilience rather than simply rebuilding in place and in kind.

One example was the HUD-led Rebuild by Design competition, which leveraged $3.5 million from the Rockefeller Foundation to facilitate a participatory planning process to allocate $1 billion for resilience projects.

 

Linda McIntyre is a New York-based planner and freelance writer.

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