Masters of Disaster

An unprecedented superstorm with 1,000-mile-wide sustained hurricane-force winds demolishes the Jersey Shore and surrounding areas. Blizzards dump record snowfalls on Texas and Japan. A severe drought not seen since the 1930s holds more than a third of the U.S. in its arid grip.

We don’t know where all the climate-change skeptics have gone, but we don’t expect to hear from them again.

Most of us now accept the grim reality that weather patterns which have endured for centuries have dramatically and perhaps permanently shifted in our lifetimes. A national conversation has begun on the short- and long-term measures we must take to deal with this new normal.

From Washington comes news that the U.S. has signed an agreement with the Netherlands for broad collaboration on disaster mitigation and sustainable planning.

Water-logged Holland probably has more experience than any other nation on what needs to be done to combat rising sea levels in low-lying areas. The Dutch have erected the world’s most sophisticated network of dams, floodgates, storm-surge barriers and levees to manage the tidal flow of the North Sea into Holland’s ubiquitous canals.

Two gigantic moving sea walls, each of which cost billions, are now operational and can be closed to cut off the surge of water which periodically threatens Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. In the U.S., serious discussion has begun about whether it will be necessary to build a similar mega-structure to protect lower Manhattan, which when it was founded in the 1600s went by the moniker — irony alert! — New Amsterdam.

The good news is that all the talk about disaster preparedness has quickly focused on a central priority: we must engineer our ongoing disaster recovery response so that whatever emerges will have a much better chance of dealing with future onslaughts. When he announced this week’s agreement with the Netherlands, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan stressed that a key goal of the collaboration is “to mitigate the impact of future natural disasters.”

Business Facilities is doing its part to keep the conversation going. The keynote address at our annual LiveXchange event (May 19-21, Westin Stonebriar, Dallas, TX) will be delivered by John Copenhaver, the former FEMA director for the Southeast region of the U.S.

Mr. Copenhaver’s talk is entitled “Self-Reliance: The Key to Disaster Recovery.” He will focus on the need for locations big and small in vulnerable areas to make sure they have the resources in place to deal with the megastorms and other disasters to come. He also will explain why it’s critical to tailor today’s disaster recovery to produce a result that makes us safer when tomorrow’s natural catastrophes arrive.

The need to do this is being embraced on the state and local level as well as in the White House. At a public policy symposium hosted this week by the New Jersey chapter of NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, Gov. Chris Christie, NJ State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald each addressed the ongoing Sandy recovery with an eye towards the future and the big storms to come.

A $60-billion federally funded recovery effort is now underway in the NY-NJ region. To get a sense of the scope of this undertaking, consider these statistics cited by Gov. Christie in his keynote to the NAIOP gathering:

In the wake of Sandy, electricity was cut off to 7 million of New Jersey’s 8.8 million residents; 136,000 families were left homeless; more than 10 million cubic yards of debris had to be cleared from public property; the Jersey Shore, which generates more than $40 billion in revenue annually for the state, was decimated.

The night after the storm passed through, Christie said, he logged onto Google Earth and took a look at his state from space. “It was dark,” the governor said.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of Gov. Christie and many others, more than 1 million NJ residents were evacuated before the storm hit, limiting the death toll to 40; 95 percent of the power was restored within 14 days and the debris on public lands was cleaned up within 90 days. Now, the arduous task of rebuilding has begun.

Assembly Leader Greenwald emphasized that how New Jersey rebuilds is as important as how fast. “It is critical that the rebuilding be done in a way that diminishes the impact of future storms,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t have to spend this money all over again.”

In terms of climate, Sen. Sweeney noted, “the New Jersey we grew up in is not the one we live in now. We have to be ready for tornados, floods and everything else.”

Perhaps the most critical issue still to be resolved in the Sandy recovery is whether all of the damaged structures should be rebuilt in New York and New Jersey. NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing that the Empire State undertake a $400-million program to buy up the most vulnerable shoreline properties and convert them back to wetlands.

Asked whether NJ is considering following New York’s lead on this, Greenwald conceded that a serious discussion of whether to put limits on rebuilding has yet to take place in Trenton.

We’ll keep you posted.