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Photo of a woman walking with her dog behind the boardwalk destroyed by hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

A woman walks with her dog behind the boardwalk destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 in the Rockaways section of the borough of Queens in New York.

Photograph by Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

Ben Jervey

for National Geographic

Published October 26, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

When the waters finally receded, Mantoloking, New Jersey, resembled a war zone. All 521 houses in the borough, a seaside enclave on a barrier island about halfway down the state's coast, had suffered damage. Sixty cottages had gone up in flames after natural gas lines ruptured.

A week after Superstorm Sandy struck, when residents were finally bussed back to survey the damage, there was no power or running water. Massive piles of debris filled streets, yards, and patios. Boats from the local yacht club were piled on top of each other like toys.

Now, as the one-year anniversary of Sandy arrives on October 29, officials in Mantoloking and surrounding Brick Township are finalizing plans to build a massive $40 million sand dune, anchored by a four-mile (6.4-kilometer) steel seawall. (See "How (and Why) to Build a Dune.") The steel will climb 16 feet (5 meters) above the beach and will be piled high with sand, paid for by federal and state dollars.

Brick Township was one of the spots hardest hit by the so-called superstorm, largely because it lacked the beach and dune systems that helped protect other towns along the Jersey Shore.

But the impulse to minimize risk from future superstorms and hurricanes, even amid the rush to rebuild from Sandy, is not unique to Brick or the Jersey Shore. Up and down the eastern seaboard, coastal communities that took Sandy on the chin have transitioned from urgent disaster response to thinking about how to build more resilience into disaster preparedness and infrastructure, especially in the face of increasing threats like climate change and sea level rise. (See "Rising Seas" in National Geographic magazine.)

The efforts stretch from the local to the federal level, and as their implications begin to come into view, they're raising questions about just how much the nation has treated Sandy as an environmental wake-up call.

A Lesson to Be Learned

Days after the storm, as water was still pumping out of New York City's tunnels and while much of Long Island still lacked power, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was among the chorus of public officials saying that Sandy marked a turning point.

"There is a wake-up call and a lesson to be learned here," he said at the time. "There is a reality that has existed for a long time that we have been blind to. And that is climate change, extreme weather, call it what you will, and our vulnerability to it."

The government's responsibility, Cuomo said, is not to debate climate change's causes, but to prepare for its consequences: "How do you do your best to make sure it doesn't happen again or reduce the damage if it does?"

Cuomo's call to action was echoed by leaders nationwide.

"Sandy was a wake-up call, and not just for the eastern seaboard but for communities all over the country that we need to start preparing for climate change now," said Brian Holland, Climate Program Director at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, an environmental association of cities and counties.

While the months immediately following the storm may have been an ideal time to issue such warnings, they were a tough time for action.

"What we learned very quickly is that the first three to six months is not the time to be having those discussions at the local level," said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that promotes responsible land-use policies. "Everybody is dealing with relief issues and personal issues."

That means the central challenge for cities and towns, according to Kasabach, "has been to try to get your town back to some kind of normalcy without overinvesting in things that are just going to get wiped out the next time."

Uncle Sam has helped local governments focus on that goal. Indeed, the biggest evolution in disaster-related policymaking post-Sandy isn't some change to a zoning law or flood insurance plan, but a wholesale shift in how the federal government approaches local planning.

For the first time, the feds are urging local leaders to get serious about climate change planning in very specific ways.

In August, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force—convened last year by U.S. President Barack Obama—laid out 69 policy recommendations that would guide recovery. The theme underlying the document: in an age of warmer temperatures and rising seas, plan for a future with stronger, more frequent storms.

"Decision-makers at all levels," the report said, "must recognize that climate change and the resulting increase in risks from extreme weather have eliminated the option of simply building back to outdated standards and expecting better outcomes after the next extreme event."

The Brookings Institute's Robert Puentes says that the strategy laid out in the task force's report "emphasizes a bottom-up approach" that breaks with 100 years of top-down managing.

"It understands that there's a different role for the federal government, that not all decisions will be dictated," says Puentes, who directs Brookings' Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative. "Local leaders and local communities are the ones who are going to be leading in the rebuilding.

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said as much in a letter introducing the report from the federal task force, which he chaired.

"Local governments and community leaders are the front lines of disaster recovery," he wrote in the August letter, "and it is the job of the Federal Government to have their back by supporting their efforts, providing guidance when necessary and delivering resources to help them fulfill their needs."

New Model in Action

The battered seaside borough of Mantoloking provides a glimpse of this new model. Local leaders learned the value of dunes from data shared by state and federal sources, which showed that towns with dunes fared much better in the storm.

After many community meetings, Mantoloking authorities decided to work with Brick Township leaders to build a dune of their own.

The legwork—hosting meetings, selling the plan, securing easements, wrestling through eminent domain proceedings—has been led by locals. But when it's time to bury the massive steel wall into the beach, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will step in, and the federal government will pick up the bill.

In New York, Governor Cuomo is using federal money for an innovative local program, also illustrating the bottom-up approach to Sandy rebuilding. In January, the governor made headlines by offering to buy flood-ravaged properties in particularly high-risk locations from homeowners at prestorm market prices.

With funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program, the first offers were sent to homeowners in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island.

Roughly 185 homeowners have opted for the buyout, and the first sale went through a few weeks ago. A new set of offers landed in 600 Long Island mailboxes this month. Once the property of the State of New York, the houses—or what's left of them—will be demolished.

The land, Cuomo says, will be "given back to Mother Nature."

Design Competitions and Sea Level Calculators

Other aspects of the federal task force's recommendations may be getting close to reality. The group organized a Rebuild By Design competition that selected ten teams to propose planning that makes coastal areas more resilient.

The teams have been at work for months, and on October 28 each team will unveil a single design concept to focus on for the rest of the process, which will be their official entry into the contest. All ten teams will then go to work with the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association, and Van Alen Institute, all nonprofits that advocate for smarter urban planning and design solutions in New York City and the surrounding areas, to connect with potential partners within Sandy-impacted communities and further shape the projects to local needs and site specifics. Next year, a handful of the designs will be selected as winners, and will be implemented in local communities, all courtesy of federal funds.

The task force also set into motion a free, map-based sea level rise planning tool, built by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with help from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, to facilitate smarter long-term decision-making at the local level.

The new maps show expansions of coastal floodplain boundaries that could be used by local planners, and a sea level change calculator that gives site-specific details on projected flood elevations from 2010 through the turn of the next century, which is useful in determining how tall to cut the stilts for a rebuilt beachfront house.

The most lasting impacts of the task force's recommendations are likely to come from guidelines that the federal government is now hashing out for new development and rebuilding along the coast. Many guidelines dovetail with those laid out in President Obama's Climate Action Plan, announced in June.

That includes the minimum flood risk standard that will ensure that all rebuilding projects relying on federal funds must be elevated or flood-proofed in accordance with FEMA's latest flood mapping guidance.

The task force is recommending that all infrastructure projects in coastal areas be held to new resiliency guidelines, though so far the guidelines are only applicable to projects that take federal Sandy relief funds.

The federal government is also working to restore some natural resiliency measures to the coastal landscape. Just this week, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an additional $162 million in federal funding to pay for the restoration of marshes and wetlands along the coast, and to rebuild shorelines to better protect coastal communities.

"What we witnessed during Hurricane Sandy was that our public lands and other natural areas are often the best defense against Mother Nature," Jewell said before her visit to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, New Jersey, where she made the announcement.

A Slow Process

Of course, big announcements and sweeping recommendations have come after other big disasters. Think of the lofty Gulf Coast plans after Katrina, which aside from the reinforcement of levees, have largely been left to languish. How much the Sandy recovery winds up changing disaster preparedness and infrastructure is yet to be seen.

Some argue that the federal government has already been too slow to turn recommendations into action.

"It's been a slow process," said Holland of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, "partially because federal agencies have been hamstrung by Congress. From the sequester to the shutdown, the federal agencies haven't been empowered to implement these things as quickly as they've needed to."

Some task force recommendations, like mapping tools, can be implemented with relative ease (NOAA's sea level rise tool is now readily available and state-specific models have already been released in New Jersey and Massachusetts), and executive orders can ensure that taxpayer dollars don't pay for wrecked homes and roads that could be flooded anew.

But beyond projects funded by Sandy-related relief funds, there are no enforceable guidelines yet. "Rutgers put out a flood mapping project" said Kasabach, referring to a project called NJ Floodmapper, "but nobody is compelled to use it at this point."

Back in Mantoloking, it's easy to see how federal resiliency guidelines could play out.  Homeowners who do choose to rebuild, if they take federal relief funds, will have to elevate their homes and utility boxes in accordance with FEMA's flood projections.

Still, most cities and towns across the country are still ill prepared to deal with the worsening impacts of climate change. JoAnn Carmin, a Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at MIT, has studied climate planning on the local government level.

In a recently published report, Carmin found that only about half of the 298 American cities she surveyed has any climate planning underway, and that just 13 percent had completed an assessment of local vulnerabilities and had approved long-term plans.

Carmin's survey started in 2011, and she hasn't secured funding for a follow-up, so she can't say whether there had been an increase in such planning since Sandy. But she says the views of local planners and officials she talks to have been impacted by the storm. After Sandy, she said, "there has been a much greater awareness on 'preparedness' than on 'adaptation.'" Communities are far less likely to do anything to "adapt" to a new climate normal that may be perceived as decades away, explained Carmin. But "storms and disasters are imminent," so governments are motivated to be prepared for extreme weather events.

While cities and towns wait for federal guidance, many are taking matters into their own hands, signing onto a Resilient Communities for America campaign organized by ICLEI, which invites collaboration between communities and offers planning resources to help local leaders make smarter decisions. The campaign also advocates for stronger standards and guidelines, and for better support from federal and state governments.

On paper, the White House and the task force are pushing for the same things. A year after Sandy, it remains to be seen whether these proposals are put into action or back on the shelf.

Follow Ben Jervey on Twitter and Google+.

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