Rebuilding the Region After Sandy

January 17, 2013

By Julia Nevarez

As New York and New Jersey rebuild the damage done by Sandy, both states should look to the lessons other cities and nations can teach us about reconstruction and sustainable infrastructure. The decisions made over the coming years will tell us whether or not we are serious about being prepared for the weather patterns of the 21st Century.

The impact of Sandy is as overwhelming, lasting, and layered for us as Katrina was and remains for New Orleans.  Katrina reduced the population of New Orleans by 29 percent and played havoc with the city’s housing stock and property values. The most affected, however, were the sick, elderly, underinsured or the victims of contracting scams. Thirty-three billion dollars were spent in New Orleans recovery from Katrina. Some of that money was used to transform four of the city's largest public housing developments into mixed-income complexes, while there is a high proportion of renters living in low-cost, often substandard housing.

The aftermath of Katrina can provide a realistic framework for recovery after Sandy. As is the case in New Orleans, many people will remain vulnerable to future storms unless serious precautions are set in place during the recovery and rebuilding efforts. An article in Newsweek magazine recommended several concrete measures to prepare for future storms, including maintenance of natural gas pipelines, bridges, dams, water and sewer mains, construction of riprap seawalls, replacement of power poles with underground cables, protection of sand dunes, vegetation, and marshes, and detailed emergency plans for natural gas, electric, water, and telecommunications utilities, among others.

Other cities already have taken steps to prepare for changing weather patterns. London is protected from the River Thames by the world's largest movable flood barriers, while in the Netherlands, the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier deters flooding. The Japanese have produced an anti-flood elevated house plans. An Australian architecture firm designed a house for floor-prone areas that provides flexible use of an elevated ground level for storage and cars. It is light, easy to transport, and it includes platforms for solar panels, and hot water systems. The materials used are sustainable and environmentally friendly. These alternative designs for houses are largely the result of rebuilding with climate change in mind without losing the opportunity to make obvious connections evident.

By openly addressing issues of climate change, experts can study and produce reports from which policies can be enforce. This will provide a much needed shift in focus and approach from the way infrastructure has previously been conceived. Outdated infrastructure can be replaced by a more organic, adaptable and intelligent one. This initiative to inform and link climate change to infrastructure could be supported by higher education institutions in New Jersey and New York. Considering alternative housing options that are adaptable to changing weather condition and developing communities of support to face the social and physical challenges of climate change seem to be the best path for the reconstruction and rebuilding of resilient landscapes after Sandy.

Resilience, understanding, and preparedness could elevate flood-prone areas into opportunities for sustainable design and alternative energy possibilities. In addition to the infrastructure that is required to confront future climate challenges, we also need resilient spaces where a strong sense of place and a community of engaged others galvanize the support needed. Communities of support are organically emerging to provide refuge and comfort by coordinating services in trying circumstances. Wouldn't it be ideal to seize this moment to generate sustainable houses and institutions that are part of the necessary revamping of the infrastructure in the road ahead? Looking at our global neighbors can offer important lessons. 


Julia Nevarez, an assistant professor at Kean, teaches sociology and anthropology.