Hurricane Sandy: Evaluating the Response One Year Later

On Friday President Obama issued a new executive order directing federal agencies to coordinate with state and local actors to increase the  ability to prepare for the impacts of climate change and to improve the resiliency of communities and infrastructure.  The order also establishes a task force, comprised of state, local and tribal officials that will advise the federal government on climate preparedness and resilience.  Such an announcement is timely as this past week marked the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and, at an estimated cost of over $65 billion, the 2nd most expensive hurricane in US history. Twenty four states – mostly along the eastern seaboard of the United States – sustained physical and financial damage from the storm. The impact of the storm highlighted vulnerabilities of key infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, sewage, water, energy systems) that stemmed in part from a lack of investment in sufficient hardening, giving rise to questions regarding our preparedness as a nation for natural disasters, our mechanisms of response, and the appropriate roles for federal, state, and local governments, philanthropic organizations, and private sector entities in such events.

Of course, over the previous decades Hurricane Katrina, other hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods and their associated costs repeatedly brought to light these very same issues. However, the ensuing national dialogue was a bit different after Hurricane Sandy. Whereas before the focus of the debate had often centered on whether storms were caused or strengthened by climate change, Hurricane Sandy brought to the fore a broader, sustained discussion on the need for adaptation and the importance of resiliency efforts that had long been debated in academic, corporate, and policy circles and in areas often hard-hit by hurricanes, like the Gulf Coast. After Hurricane Sandy, the focus was squarely on how to move forward with longer-term preparedness and recovery efforts.

Q1: What were the preparedness and response efforts by both the federal government and the state governments leading up to Hurricane Sandy?

A1: In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy pounded the east coast, severely impacting densely populated areas of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut with strong winds, heavy rains, and record storm surges; millions of people lost power, roads flooded so transport options were restricted, and thousands sought temporary shelter as homes and businesses were destroyed.  Nearly 160 people lost their lives in Hurricane Sandy and many communities are still rebuilding.

Learning from past challenges in preparing for, and providing relief efforts after, Hurricane Katrina, the federal government – led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with support from other federal departments – began to place staff and assets in the predicted impact areas before the storm made landfall and worked with state counterparts to coordinate potential emergency response and relief. On October 28, 2012, one day before the storm made landfall in New Jersey, President Obama signed emergency declarations for Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, allowing FEMA to transfer resources directly to state, local, and tribal organizations to make preparations in advance of the storm. He signed additional emergency declarations for other states, such as Delaware and West Virginia, in the following days. On October 30th, President Obama directed FEMA to create the National Power Restoration Taskforce, which was to minimize red tape, increase coordination among government agencies at all levels and the private sector, and rapidly restore fuel and power. Such actions show a marked change from the way authorities dealt with Hurricane Katrina, this time FEMA was proactive rather than reactive. This is due in part to legislation approved by Congress to restructure FEMA following the miscues of Hurricane Katrina, which allowed quicker access to federal resources and increased communication and partnerships between the federal, state and local agencies.

States also began anticipating response, relief, and longer-term recovery requirements, leveraging their existing relationships with private sector, community-based, philanthropic, media, and other organizations to communicate with residents and business-owners and to call in the necessary staff, first responders, and other disaster relief workers. Public-private partnerships, in particular, were a critical element to activate before disaster struck; those partnerships – coupled with disaster grants and volunteer organizations – were a key element of immediate response and longer-term recovery efforts.

Over the past year, the administration has provided over 230,000 people and businesses with assistance through its various departments (FEMA, Small Business Administration (SBA), Department of Labor among others).

Q2: Did Hurricane Sandy cause governments to approach natural disaster preparedness and management differently? 

A2:  The Federal government took several significant steps in the months that followed Hurricane Sandy, focusing primarily on legislative reforms, innovations, and public-private partnerships. In January 2013, President Obama signed two critical pieces of legislation: H.R. 41 (Public Law 113-1), which increased the borrowing authority of FEMA by almost $10 billion as an emergency requirement, allowing the agency to continue to pay flood insurance and other disaster-related claims; and the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act (Public Law 113-2), which provided $50 billion in funding to help rebuild the areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy. In February 2013, he created a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, chaired by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, to coordinate Federal support and to work with state, local, and tribal communities in the impacted states. In August 2013, the Task Force released a Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, which provides recommendations for the areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy to rebuild and better prepare for future extreme weather events.  Recommendations include: promoting resilient rebuilding; ensuring regionally coordinated and resilient approaches to infrastructure investment; providing families safe and affordable housing options and protections; supporting small businesses and revitalizing local economies; addressing insurance challenges; and increasing local government’s capacity to plan for long-term rebuilding and preparations for future disasters. The Strategy also assesses ways to harden energy infrastructure to ensure minimal power disruptions and fuel shortages and how to maintain continuous cellular service. These recommendations, if implemented fully, promise to go a long way in addressing key challenges demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy and other previous natural disasters.

In addition, microgrids were identified as a key way to improve energy resiliency and the Department of Energy announced in the summer of 2013 plans to partner with the state of New Jersey, NJ Transit, and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to install a microgrid capable of supplying power during a storm. Connecticut was the first state to establish a microgrid program and in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is looking to utilize private-public partnerships to put in place 800 megawatt installed capacity of microgrid and distributed generation systems by 2030.

In fact, New York City has been a leader in its efforts to better plan for the impacts from increased climatic events. In December 2012, NYC formed the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency and tasked it with assessing the risks faced by New York’s infrastructure, buildings and communities from the impacts of climate change in the medium (2020) and long term (2060s) and to produce a strategy to increase the resiliency of the city.  On June 11, 2013, Mayor Bloomberg released a report called “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” which has several initiatives that address coastal protection, insurance, utilities, community preparedness and response, transportation, telecommunication, water and wastewater as well as plans to rebuild communities that were hard hit in order to make them more resilient.

Friday’s Executive Order- Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, further highlights the attention being paid towards increasing the resiliency of communities and infrastructure and the need for greater investment by and coordination between federal, state and local actors to help prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Q3: How has Hurricane Sandy helped us to understand our energy sector vulnerabilities?

A3: Critical infrastructure was drastically impacted by Hurricane Sandy and some of the impacts, such as power outages, lasted several days. This blatant reminder of key existing vulnerabilities within our infrastructure prompted several studies designed to better understand these vulnerabilities and their potential knock on effects and to explore opportunities to improve the resiliency of these systems to ensure that in the event of a disaster (natural or man-made) that the necessary emergency response functions remain operational. For example, a study sponsored by the US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) prepared by ICF International evaluated the potential for combined heat and power (CHP) to mitigate the potential disruption of critical infrastructure. Another study, released in July 2013 by the Department of Energy called “U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather” was part of the administration’s national climate change adaptation plan as coordinated through the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force and Strategic Sustainability Planning (established under Executive Order 13512). The report identifies five key technologies that will be a key part of a climate-resilient energy system: upgraded power grid (via the development of microgrids and distributed generation), crisis hardened facilities (and the placement of critical electricity infrastructure in less vulnerable places), less-water intensive fracking, drought tolerant biofuel crops, and less water-dependent power plants.

Q4:  Where does climate fit in Obama’s second term?

A4: President Obama has long argued that climate change is a fundamental challenge of our time. In his first term, the Obama administration aggressively pursued cap and trade and clean-energy/low carbon policies only to have the landscape completely shift with the emergence of unconventional natural gas and a dramatic and prolonged economic downturn. Each of these challenged the narrative and the justifications used by the administration to aggressively pursue the decarbonization of the economy. However, with his re-election and his remarks about climate change in his second inaugural address and the state of the union, President Obama signaled that climate change was once again a component of his agenda. In June of 2013, the administration laid out its plan for dealing with climate change, committing to reducing U.S. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to nearly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The President’s Climate Action Plan was comprised of three key categories: carbon reduction, adaptation and preparedness efforts and international collaboration.

Q5: Did Hurricane Sandy change the debate on climate change?

A5: There has been an increasing shift in focus regarding climate change away from a mitigation mindset to a broader narrative that incorporates themes such as adaptation and resiliency.   Resiliency has increasingly become a buzzword, especially as climatic events occur with greater frequency.  Hurricane Sandy, while only one of many weather related events that impacted US energy systems in recent years, intensified the debate surrounding the need to harden our infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change that events prior had been unable to do. Thus, it would seem that Hurricane Sandy has helped recast the narrative for technologies such as smart grid, distributed energy and energy storage. Such technologies used to be marketed as a way to reduce carbon emissions and increase the penetration of renewable energy. Now, they are seen as key component of a climate-resilient energy strategy, and are now discussed as a way to introduce greater reliability and resiliency into the energy system.

It remains to be seen whether or not this shift is here to stay at a national level or if only those localities impacted by Hurricane Sandy will pursue resiliency oriented policies.  Historically, the attention span of the general populous has waxed and waned from crisis to crisis (we are in general reactive rather than proactive), making it difficult to sustain support (monetary as well as political) for implementing the changes required to create  a climate resiliency framework. However, it is worth noting that adaptation and preparedness are a major prong of the President’s Climate Action plan and locally, especially in areas like New Jersey and New York, the focus on resiliency has filtered into policy plans.

Molly A. Walton is a Research Associate with the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sarah O. Ladislaw is Co-Director of the Energy and National Security Program and Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Stephanie Sanok Kostro and Molly Walton