Learning to Rebuild with Resilience

Five years ago, Hurricane Sandy exposed the New York metropolitan region’s vulnerability to the impact of climate change. The storm sparked a review of what it means to be resilient, and the urgency of becoming more so. Sandy’s anniversary, and the recent spate of devastating hurricanes, highlight how important it is to continue to integrate resilience into recovery and rebuild in new ways.

As the world continues to warm, and our weather grows more volatile, cities must design and build infrastructure that is resilient to these extremes. The communities impacted by this year’s hurricane season have an opportunity to rebuild for this changing future.

In the New York metropolitan region, the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy gave rise to innovative infrastructure projects. Through the Rebuild by Design Hurricane Sandy Competition, launched in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, Sandy-affected states and communities were challenged to think differently about rebuilding. The competition was an experiment in building for the future and resulted in seven projects that, once built, will be the largest resilience projects in the United States.

Today, these plans are moving from conceptual designs to physical projects. The Rockefeller Foundation, Rebuild by Design, and the Georgetown Climate Center, collaborated on a report — Rebuilding with Resilience to capture the policy lessons that this process has generated. Drawing on the experiences of the City of New York and the States of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, the lessons are instrumental for policymakers in the region and could prove useful to federal agencies, cities, and states looking to rebuild with resilience after this year’s hurricane season. Most importantly, these projects demonstrate how officials at all levels of government can design and construct infrastructure projects that deliver multiple community benefits that enhance a community’s physical, economic, social, and environmental resilience.

As officials reconsider disaster planning and response amid the current and growing challenges of climate change, and other stressors of the 21st century, this report, and the Rebuild By Design projects, should serve as goal and guide:

  1. Align multiple streams of funding & administrative requirements: Implementing large-scale, multi-benefit projects will often require several funding sources. Federal agencies should coordinate administrative requirements of disaster recovery programs, where possible, and allow different funding streams to be combined. This will allow for the construction of more comprehensive resilience projects that can deliver more effective, holistic solutions.
  2. Achieving comprehensive resilience requires a long-term approach: Large-scale resilience projects often have to be constructed in stages due to budget constraints and changing conditions, including shifts in the scientific understanding of the effects of climate change. The most viable projects will be designed so that they can be progressively implemented over time as funds become available or as the impacts of climate change become more severe. Phased construction allows governments to develop long-term solutions without being overwhelmed by the large initial price tags for the needed investments. For example, The Big U project was designed in three “compartments” that could be build individually to enhance flood resilience along the lower tip of Manhattan. Construction of these compartments can stand on its own in terms of enhancing flood protection. Another example is the Hudson River Project in Hoboken, New Jersey. Flood protection barriers are being built with a larger base to accommodate future sea-level rise, ultimately allowing for height to be added in later years.
  3. Encourage coordination across agencies and levels of government: Complex resilience projects require unprecedented coordination across jurisdictions, agencies, and levels of government to permit, construct, and maintain these projects. The Hurricane Sandy projects demonstrate how implementing agencies can create vehicles for improving coordination at all stages of a project’s lifecycle. For example, the Rebuild by Design projects used technical coordinating teams of federal officials to promote interagency coordination and ease implementation . Allowing early access to regulators helped projects like Living Breakwaters address regulatory concerns about potential impacts to shipping channels and marine habitats early in the design phase. These projects also demonstrate the need for regional coordination across local jurisdictions to ensure that resilience projects are implemented at the scale needed to be effective. For example, the Living with the Bay project in Nassau County will result in a comprehensive restoration of the Mill River requiring coordinated implementation from dozens of local governments across the County.
  4. Create more flexibility for disaster recovery funding: Federal disaster recovery programs are not well suited for broader community rebuilding efforts. Federal agencies and Congress must find ways to provide cities and state governments with more flexibility to use disaster recovery dollars in ways that allows them to rebuild in more holistic and sustainable ways instead of merely in reaction to the last disaster.
  5. Design for and encourage projects that provide multiple benefits: With a changing climate, increasing urbanization, and budget constraints, infrastructure projects can no longer be built to only serve a single purpose. Governments need to demand that new infrastructure address multiple challenges and provide a variety of economic, social, and environmental benefits. For example, many of the winning Rebuild by Design projects include “berms with benefits”—flood control structures that not only reduce flood risks but also provide environmental and recreational benefits.
  6. Robust public engagement during project design leads to broad support and improved design: Broad, meaningful, and continued public participation and engagement throughout all stages of project design and implementation has led to broad public support for the RBD projects and has improved project design. Community organizations and local stakeholders informed the design of the projects and, as a result, have proven to be important advocates. Governments should encourage officials to move beyond historical practices of “checking” the public outreach box and rather treat the public as an important partner in the design and implementation of projects.