Rethinking Disaster Recovery

New York is tackling social and economic vulnerability as it recovers from Superstorm Sandy

Rather than restoring the hurricane-battered neighborhood of Edgemere to its pre-storm conditions, New York City has developed a comprehensive plan to strengthen this isolated and underserved community and ensure it is less vulnerable in the face of future challenges.

Natural disasters are occurring with greater frequency and severity as a result of climate change, while expanding population centers put larger numbers of people and assets at risk in each event. Between 2004 and 2014, worldwide direct losses from natural disasters were estimated at US$1.4 trillion. But a single disaster striking a major metropolitan area can have outsized impacts. A 2014 analysis of the risks faced by 616 cities by Platform Partner Swiss Re found that, as major cities tend to develop along natural waterways, flooding threatens more people than any other natural hazard, followed by earthquakes, storm surges, and strong winds. While a disaster may strike many residents at once, it is most likely to have lasting effects on the poor and vulnerable who lack the means to adequately prepare or rapidly recover.

The metropolitan area of New York is home to over 23 million people, and responsible for a full 8% of the economic output of the United States. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy collided with the Eastern Seaboard, including New York, causing 160 deaths and US$71 billion of damage, and leaving tens of thousands homeless across the region. It destroyed over 300,000 housing units in New York City, many of which were home to economically disadvantaged households. While Sandy was only an average hurricane when measured in terms of its wind force, its path brought it into contact with large numbers of people and major global assets, and the breakdowns in critical infrastructure it triggered resulted in massive destruction.

New York, USA

One of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York was the waterfront majority-minority community of Edgemere, on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. Shoehorned between a defunct landfill and a 20-block-stretch of city-owned empty lots, Edgemere has long been one of the most isolated and underserved neighborhoods in the city, with high numbers of its 6,600 residents living in poverty. Further weakened by the 2008 economic crisis, Hurricane Sandy struck an especially vulnerable community with many abandoned, structurally unsound buildings and more than a few remaining dirt roads; weak infrastructure which suffered severe damage when the neighborhood was completely flooded by the storm. Given the limited resources of its residents, Edgemere struggled to recover — 30% of property still lay abandoned three years later.

In 2015, the city of New York, led by its Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and in collaboration with its Resilience Office, launched the Resilient Edgemere Community Planning Initiative, a collaboration between the city, community members, elected officials, and local organizations. The program aims to achieve multiple social and economic benefits as it helps the community adapt to sea level rise and prepare for the likelihood that Sandy will not be the last severe storm to batter the Rockaway shore. Much of the blight in Edgemere is on city-owned land, which presented an opportunity to pair the city’s recovery efforts with a long-term vision for investing in the community and making the lives of its residents better.

The city has designated more than US$85M to implement the plan over the next 10 years. It includes the elevation of homes, a raised shoreline, improvements to public housing and community centers, rededication of open land for use as public space, and improvements to Bayswater Park. Finally, to relieve some of Edgemere’s isolation, a function of its distance from the city’s economic centers, and years of disinvestment, the plan provides for improvements to streets and transportation and an increase in neighborhood amenities. At present, most residents must leave the neighborhood to shop for food or other basic items, while physical barriers like extensive highway guardrails and other structures prevent residents from even accessing the beaches and bay shores that surround them.

Acknowledging that Edgemere’s existing poverty and isolation exacerbated the impacts of Hurricane Sandy, New York is committed to tackling those underlying stresses as it also develops infrastructure designed to withstand future shocks, strengthening the community’s ability to thrive into the future.

Across the Network: Disaster Recovery

Other member cities are designing innovative models of resilient disaster recovery, including:

  • BOULDER is planning to partner with local businesses and associations to develop its post-disaster impact assessment capacity. The efforts will better position the city to assess the impact of disasters on businesses, and administer recovery funds as soon as possible. Complementing this work for the private sector, the city has partnered with its surrounding county to develop a “Home Preparedness Assessment program” that will help homeowners “bounce back better” from natural disasters and other stresses. Overall, Boulder’s Resilience Strategy advocates for a deeper understanding of the interconnectivity between economic resilience, natural disasters, and community resilience.
  • SAN FRANCISCO’s vulnerability to earthquakes poses challenges to planning for social equity and affordability. With preventing displacement as a central resilience priority, the city is supporting interconnected initiatives to meet its goal of safely keeping 95% of residents in San Francisco during times of disaster. For example, a new Citizens Advisory Recovery Committee (Recover-SF), will elevate local voices and improve connections between the city government and vulnerable residents. Additionally, a housing recovery plan will curb long-term displacement and expand shelter access.
  • SEMARANG’s resilience is threatened by tidal flooding and dengue fever, and the potential for these to grow more severe in the future due to increased rainfall flooding and land subsidence. Urban development along the coast and rivers has compounded the city’s geographic vulnerability, resulting in a range of Strategy initiatives prioritizing disaster and disease management. For example, Semarang has recognized the interdependent relationship between disaster recovery and community mobilization, and so is focusing on creating community-led disaster preparedness groups. Public awareness campaigns will also support participatory disaster mapping for shocks including landslides, flooding, and dengue outbreak, and strengthen coordination during and after emergencies through digital communications systems.
  • WELLINGTON is embracing a regional approach to disaster recovery, in recognition that working across jurisdictions strengthens a city’s resilience to shocks. To grow opportunities for better partnership and coordination across local governments and sectors, Wellington is developing a shared Pre-disaster Recovery Framework. On top of clarifying governance arrangements, the framework will enhance decision making and support linkages to resilience investments so that regional risks can be better identified and mitigated. Additionally, through a separate project, Wellington will launch a temporary housing study to better inform future recovery planning.