Playing politics is nothing new in Washington, D.C. But earlier this week, while watching the debate on the Superstorm Sandy disaster relief package, after weeks of previous negotiation, I was reminded of a common phrase – it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, or in this case, $150 million of badly needed assistance.
Part of the House’s relief package included funding through NOAA for important tools that coastal states and regions can use to rebuild smarter and stronger – money for shoreline mapping, assessments of coastal flooding vulnerability, strategic restoration of habitat that provides protection from storms and flooding and assistance for state and local decision-makers to plan better for future disaster reduction. In such a divided Congress, this measure not only garnered bipartisan support, but the backing from groups like the Reinsurance Association of America (RAA).
However, this tool was taken off the table with the addition of an amendment by those who oppose many of the president’s policies, including the National Ocean Policy. In other words, while many communities are still struggling to recover from this disaster, political games got in the way of preparing for the next. “RAA believes this amendment could actually increase costs to taxpayers in the long-term since it will reduce readiness for futures storms,” the group wrote in a letter to Congress ahead of the vote.
Communities along the coast face increased risk every day from challenges like of extreme weather, sea level rise and coastal flooding. And Sandy won’t be the last major storm to hit the Northeast – rebuilding without proper protections is simply increasing the price tag on future disasters.
The pattern of protection was clear as communities assessed post-Sandy damage. As the New York Times reported, small communities like Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach in New York, which all invested in enhanced sand-dune buffer habitats, suffered relatively little damage compared to nearby Long Beach which decided against maintaining a sand dune buffer and suffered $200 million in property and infrastructure damage according to initial estimates.
City and state officials recognize the need for these preventative measures and the resources needed. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “But we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably.”
Congress needs to get on board. With the Senate expected to take up the relief package next week, it’s not too late to provide the much-needed resources to the Northeast to help reduce future storm damage. We ask that the Senate not only act quickly, but also allow for all tools and opportunities available to be at the communities’ disposal – including services like mapping, coastal vulnerability assessments and habitat restoration.
If we rebuild in the same way, why should we expect a different outcome? We need a different approach – one that uses all of the best tools, including using coastal habitats to rebuild in more resilient ways that will save lives and property when the next storm comes. It’s not a question of when the next disaster will hit, but when. If don’t take precautions now, we might as well pour those dollars directly into the ocean.