State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Post-Sandy Rebuilding for Resiliency: Lessons From Long Beach, NY

My small bungalow in Long Beach, New York, sits on a 60 by 40 foot plot of land one half block from the bay and one and a half blocks from the ocean. Long Beach is only two blocks wide in some parts of its west end. Hurricane Sandy required a gut renovation of my home’s ground floor and required my next-door neighbors to demolish their house and rebuild a new one. But rebuild they did. All over Long Beach homes are being lifted and new homes are being built higher and stronger to withstand the next flood. The damage to my house was below the 50% threshold required by FEMA to lift or demolish and so our summer home still sits about a foot off the ground.

All over town there are the sounds and sights of revival. The movie theatre has finally reopened. Construction workers and cement trucks are everywhere and many new homes have been built and sold. By the second summer after Sandy the boardwalk had been rebuilt, and today it’s better than ever. The entire boardwalk now does double duty as a sea wall. Dunes have been rebuilt, dune grass has regrown and in the parts of Long Beach that do not face the boardwalk, new wooden ramps and walkways have been built to allow people to walk over the dunes without damaging them. Trees have been replanted. A new bike share company has installed racks of bikes on the boardwalk.

Long Beach’s capable and competent city manager, Jack Schnirman, has engaged the entire community in a planning process to add new amenities and possibly commercial spaces to the boardwalk. Long Beach has a “council-manager” form of government which means that the partisan city council sets policy direction for a non-partisan city manager, who runs the place day-to-day. Sometimes the system works, sometimes it doesn’t. It is Long Beach’s good fortune that we are in one of those periods when the system is working.

When the weather has been warm and sunny this summer the place has been jammed with visitors. The beaches of Long Beach, like some of the beaches in New York City, are within walking distance of a train. It is a short walk from the Long Island Rail Road station to the boardwalk and by the looks of things the Manhattanites have returned in force. On most days you can see them stream out of the Long Beach train station with surfboards, coolers and beach chairs and march to the beach.

It is not that people have gotten amnesia and don’t remember the damage of Hurricane Sandy. Some homes are still being rebuilt and some people are still displaced. Moreover, the people who lead the shore towns in Long Island and New Jersey are speaking the language of climate resiliency. They know they must rebuild to withstand stronger and more frequent storms. Old political battles about sacrificing dune protection to enable better ocean views have faded. We can always walk to the beach to see the ocean. The nagging fear of the next storm is not far from people’s minds and is still discussed and considered in decision-making. Each hurricane season that passes without a superstorm is cause for a collective sigh of relief.

But as I expected in the aftermath of the storm, these communities simply mean too much to too many people to just fade away. I thought the personal memories of ocean breezes and of family and friends gathering would be too strong to resist, but it is much deeper than that. People were unwilling to give up a way of life. In Long Beach, the storm resulted in a revival of community spirit and a temporary decline in partisanship as people realized that more united them than divided them. It wasn’t just President Obama and Governor Christie working together in the wake of the storm – it was everyone. That was a factor I had not considered as I assessed the politics of reconstruction after Sandy. I knew people would not leave, but the positive energy that has emerged after the storm has been a pleasant surprise. People came together and helped each other and as they returned to their homes they reconnected with their love of their community. What had once been an ordinary gathering for a summer barbeque became something to reflect on thankfully and to savor.

Long Beach had an earlier “Kumbaya” moment in the 1980s when another nonpartisan and competent city manager, Ed Eaton, helped bring the town together and brought it back from near death. Both Schnirman and Eaton worked with business and community leaders to build consensus and move the town forward. Just as Senator Pothole (Al D’Amato) helped bring home federal assistance in the 1980s; his successor Chuck Schumer has played the same role in bringing federal funds to the town after Sandy. Those federal funds made the reconstruction of public facilities possible.

There are many parts of the restoration of the shore that could have been done better. It took some people far too long to receive the funding they needed to rebuild their homes. Certainly Coney Island and the Rockaways could have been rebuilt faster and Rockaway still has a way to go. The public housing in these neighborhoods needed renovation before the storm and still needs massive work today. But what has been striking and perhaps surprising has been the grassroots community spirit that has been sparked in many of these neighborhoods as they have rebuilt after the storm. It is an important factor to consider as our communities develop resiliency plans and prepare for storms to come.

There is a human dimension to climate adaptation that needs to be factored into resiliency planning and programs. People value their homes and are often emotionally attached to their communities. Some psychologists even speak about a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder that was caused by displacement after the storm. The other side of that trauma for some people seemed to be a period of reflection where they started to consider the community’s needs along with their own needs. That in turn created a political force that pushed the reconstruction and revival of these shore communities.

All over America we see the impact of floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes and other forms of natural disasters driving people from their homes and communities. Some of this is related to climate change causing changing patterns of rainfall and more intense storms. But some of this damage is also due to our patterns of land use development and the fact that we live in places that we didn’t live in fifty or one hundred years ago. I continue to believe that we need to recognize this fact of American life and create a form of federal reconstruction insurance to provide guaranteed funding to rebuild communities after disaster has struck. We cannot leave reconstruction finance in the unsteady hands of the U.S. Congress.

In Long Beach it has taken three years and intense political advocacy to fund reconstruction and to rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure. Security in one’s home is the irreducible central function of government. The value of effectively performing that function can be seen on the streets, boardwalk, and beaches of this town. The job now is to make sure that reconstruction becomes a right rather than a privilege.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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