History lessons: After the Superstorm

    Lessons from Superstorm Sandy’s devastation should fuel resiliency planning.

    As we mark the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, some people whose lives were disrupted by the storm are still struggling to come to terms with its destruction.

    Extreme weather events and their devastating aftermath demonstrate the need to rethink the way we prepare for disasters. City transportation, water, power, and communications infrastructure is already stretched to capacity, and the current level of public and private investment in the nation’s aging infrastructure still lags vastly behind. The American Society for Civil Engineers projects a funding deficit of almost $1 trillion for needed infrastructure projects by 2020.

    Merely treating the aftermath of severe weather events is not enough. Governments and communities are now looking at making vital infrastructure systems less susceptible to natural disasters with adequate resiliency planning. Planning initiatives such as Together North Jersey’s Hoboken Green Infrastructure Strategic Plan seek to identify viable climate adaptation steps and develop a framework for green infrastructure.

    There is still more we can do. If we embrace the concept of the “Resiliency Engine” as a driver for economic growth, we can enhance our infrastructure, improve the environment, and create new economic opportunities. Four key components are required to fuel the resiliency engine for growth:

    Alternative financing approaches to resiliency — A broader range of financing options could encourage private sector investment in infrastructure. The State of New Jersey has already created the nation’s first Energy Resilience Bank, a $200 million initiative to finance resilient power projects. New York and Connecticut have enacted or are launching microgrid initiatives exceeding $100 million.

    Closer engagement between policymakers and the engineering community — Industry practitioners, from scientists to engineers, and policymakers should actively collaborate to apply new design, engineering, and technology practices that re-envision our nation’s infrastructure. A model of this engagement is outlined in the BIG “U” concept identified within the Rockefeller Foundation’s Rebuild by Design competition, which blends city-making and resiliency planning to create intelligent designs for a more resilient Manhattan (see “Blueprints for recovery and resilience, Civil + Structural Engineeer, July 2014, page 52).

    Consider a regional cross-sectoral approach — While regions are made up of jurisdictions and borders, events such as Sandy reveal the common fragile connections across political boundaries and impacted sectors, from transportation and power to water. The Zhujiang Mega Delta region, for example, is working across provinces to strengthen its supply chains and enhance collaborative development for increased resilient growth. To compete globally, the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region cannot fall behind.

    Recognize the importance of insurance — Uninsured losses have become an increasingly greater portion of worldwide economic losses, whether as a result of direct property damage or due to disruption of business continuity. Enabling opportunities for innovative insurance, combined with risk reduction, can help fill insurance gaps and unlock economic potential.

    Focus on community engagement — Community-driven initiatives such as the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program can significantly help empower severely damaged localities to develop comprehensive and innovative recovery plans. Ultimately, community risks are business risks because both need each other to function.

    Our industry plays a central role in building more resilient communities, cities, and regions. Our role is not only technical. We also must play an advocacy role, working with private industry, insurance companies, and policymakers to educate, inform, and encourage investment in a more resilient future. Our communities deserve it.

    Niek Veraart is vice president, environmental planning with Louis Berger (www.louisberger.com).