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  October 29, 2016

Super Storm Sandy, 4 Years Later: Can New York City and New Jersey Expect More Like It In The Future?

Columbia University's Jeff Schlegelmilch underscores how many on the East Coast remain unprepared for the coming change in climate
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KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. October 29th marks the 4 year anniversary of Super Storm Sandy that devastated parts of the Northeast US in 2012, including coastal areas of New York City killing more than 120 people and causing some $70 billion worth of property damage. Now, 4 years on and more extreme weather events are ravaging the United States due to climate change such as the recent Hurricane Matthew that pounded the Carolinas and causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damage to buildings in North Carolina. Now a recent study from the National Academy of Sciences sought to figure out how much flooding like those caused by Hurricane Sandy in the US would impact states of New York and New Jersey. It found that hurricanes could start flooding New York City’s coastline as often as every 20 years due to the effects of climate change on sea level rise and hurricane activity.

So are we any more prepared to deal with mega storms and hurricanes since Sandy? And have the communities affected been able to recover these years later? Well with us to discuss this is Jeff Schlegelmilch he is the deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. And this role he oversees the operations and strategic planning for the center as well as the projects related to the practice and policy of disaster preparedness. Jeff, thanks so much for being with us.

JEFF SCHLEGELMILCH: Thanks for having me.

BROWN: Well, first can you talk about Super Storm Sandy in the context of climate change disruption or is it more appropriate to label it as an extreme weather event linked to climate change?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah, its very difficult to attribute very specific events especially very specific extreme weather events to climate change. One of the challenges with that is just that there isn’t a lot of historical data on extreme weather events and some of the modeling that’s used to make those attribution just has some challenges behind it. But I think its fair to say that with climate change we will see more extreme weather events. Those events can include those like Super Storm Sandy, in some parts of the country, in some parts of the world, but may also come about as drought and other places getting dryer as a result of it. But I think it is fair to say that the weather is a little less predictable than it has been in the past and as we see the effects of climate change we are going to see more extreme events.

BROWN: So there’s a lot of criticism at the time that FEMA did not move fast enough. And that it felt to volunteers and members of Occupy Sandy who were formerly Occupy Wall Street to step in and help people who are displaced by the storm. Can you comment on that?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah I think in a lot of disasters there’s an expectation of FEMA to be on the ground very quickly and I think that it is perfectly fair with the tax dollars that go into building our emergency response systems that we do expect a higher level of action and faster response from them. But its also worth noting that FEMA is actually not a 1st responder, per se. FEMA is a federal agency that’s brought in once the impacts of disasters are known and are able to be anticipated as a backstop once the local and state resources have either been exhausted or anticipated to be exhausted. So, with that being said, Occupy Sandy, community-based groups like Neighbors Helping Neighbors will always be the first line of defense against disasters. You’re always gonna be able to help out your neighbor and have them help out you, prior to FEMA coming onboard or any response agency being there first.

But with that being said I think that there has been a lot of criticism both in terms of the response of being able to get there quickly enough. But I think more importantly, in the recovery phase, where a lot of money is made available, but to this day, we still see thousands of people not yet able to return home as a result of the lengthy bureaucracy that’s involved in the recovery process. Some of that is owned by FEMA and a lot of the processes there but a lot of that also comes down through the states and through the localities and the programs that are set up to manage that which is what create additional layers as those pathways are used to try to get money to people to get them back in their homes.

BROWN: Does there seem to be, at least in your observation or experience, more of a priority to reopen sort of commercial areas rather more so as a priority to make sure, I’m talking about New Jersey for example, the boardwalk there that was washed away during Hurricane Sandy, I believe, that has been rebuilt if I’m not mistaken but yet there’s still thousands of people who are not able to return to their homes. Does there seem to be more of a priority from the state level to make sure that the commercial touristy areas are restored faster than those of the residential areas?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Well, I don’t know specifically what the decision-making was at the state level but I do know that there are times when you do need your economic base of the community to get back up and running very quickly because that’s where people work, that’s where the money comes through, that’s where the jobs are and things like that. So it is fair to say that in any recovery process, the economic recovery of a community is critically important to getting that community back up on their feet.

But there’s also definitely I think a bias, in terms of being able to manage the complexity of the recovery process if you’re looking for reimbursement, if you’re looking for projects to do, its one thing when you have an organization that has a team of accountants and lawyers who can kind of sift through the paperwork and the insurance policies and things like that but its very different if someone like you or I, who is trying to rebuild our home and maybe hasn’t looked at the insurance paperwork since it was filed away and that was lost in the flood, and then having to try and figure out what are the state procedures, what are the insurance companies requirements, what are FEMA’s requirements, it creates a burden at the individual level that you don’t have that kind of organizational backstop that a larger corporation might have as well.

BROWN: Now I understand that you and your team at the Earth Institute that you all at Columbia University, you guys have been involved for long term studies on the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, now what did you find in terms of long term effects on communities that were hit by the storm?

SCHLEGELMILCH: We’ve actually looked at not only Super Storm Sandy, but we’ve looked at Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill. And so we look at the long-term recovery processes after any of these disasters so we were able to apply some of this after Sandy for research of 1000 households in New Jersey and what the team did was actually to conduct door to door surveys to look at what were the impacts and what were the lasting impacts. Our [inaud.] always had a special focus on vulnerable populations especially children in disasters. Some of the findings that we had were that of the households that we interviewed only about a third actually complied with the evacuation order. So that’s really interesting right from the beginning because then instead of saying what was the strategy for communicating evacuation, why didn’t people evacuate?

We saw a large number that required assistance. We saw drops in household incomes. We saw in some cases where families weren’t able to afford basic necessities like food, transportation to and from work. But I think most importantly is with children and in the recovery process, children are very often sort of left out of the thinking or thought of maybe just as small adults when in fact they have very unique needs. Overall we find that children are 5 times more likely to suffer emotional consequences and mental health issues when they’re exposed to a disaster compared to their counterparts who aren’t exposed to a disaster.

But one of the more interesting things we found with Sandy was that we did see a higher increase of those reporting feeling sad or depressed after the storm for those households that suffered major damage, about 3 times more likely but if they suffered minor damage, they were 4 times more likely to express feelings of being sad or depressed. That was really interesting because it seemed that at least in terms of the mental health of the children in the household, if the household was totally destroyed, they still had mental health issues but not as high as those that only had partial damage to the household. We think that this may have to do with just the long-term uncertainty that the partial damage causes. The physical reminder in the home as well as potentially even some health consequence relating to mold and other persistent issues as a result of the storm.

BROWN: So there were nearly $9 billion in funds awarded by the federal government to New Jersey for recovery. So what did the New Jersey Sandy Transparency Project and the funds reach the people who needed it, did that money get to the people who were looking for it?

SCHLEGELMILCH: It definitely took a long time for all of the funding to reach people. Really all the jurisdictions have not received it and I think that was a big criticism and one that we really looked at closely as well on the 2 year anniversary of Sandy. We’ve seen a lot more movement over the last 2 years than we have been in the 2 years prior to that. But if you look at the Sandy Transparency Project you still do see a lot of numbers there where there are still, in some cases, money has flown through and it has gotten where its supposed to and all the awarded money has now been spent and obligated. But in other cases as you’re seeing millions of dollars of difference that’s been awarded but has yet to be obligated and yet to be spent. Now in some cases that may be appropriate because they may be planning to use that money over a longer period of time but I think its worth asking some really important questions about is there money available that people need that they’re not getting access to. And I think its fair to say that while a lot of improvement has been made in the recovery process, we’re very far from making sure that the money is reaching all of the people who need it and that people are able to get home and able to start their lives again.

BROWN: So you’ve actually looked at climate change and disaster preparedness at a national scale for some time now. Can you talk about what you have found like how prepared are most Americans for disasters?

SCHLEGELMILCH: We look at disaster preparedness, we look at climate change as potentially an amplifier for different kinds of disasters that we can face but even if we just look at disaster preparedness alone, we find that since 9/11 that despite the billions of dollars of investment, the number of households reporting that they have a disaster preparedness plan and have a disaster preparedness kit is largely unchanged. Our survey that we’ve done, a national opinion data, we’ve been tracking it for 10 years now shows that number at about 35 percent. Our number is a bit lower, FEMA’s surveys and other surveys out there show that number at 50 percent. They ask the question, “Do you have a plan?” we ask a follow up question to ascertain the quality of that plan if it has everything necessary.

So our numbers are at 35 percent and to be honest I think that number’s a little bit high just because of some of the biases and the way that people respond to certain instincts and that tend to play out things that would otherwise be seen as negative. So we see the majority of Americans still don’t have a plan or a kit in place to be prepared for disasters. We find that the children in disasters, the National Commission of Children in Disasters listed recommendations 5 years ago to the President for approving preparedness for children in disasters but the sake of children report card shows us that nearly 80 percent of those recommendations still haven’t been implemented and 18 states and the District of Columbia don’t have minimum standards for preparedness for [inaud.] serving institutions.

Whatever angle we look at preparedness at, there is good work being done out there, I don’t wanna take away from the hard work the disaster professionals that are working to move the [inaud.] but we’re just not seeing it on the national data yet but there’s a tremendous amount of work to do to figure out how we support communities in becoming more prepared through our national systems, our national policies.

BROWN: You know when we have those annual National Disaster Preparedness Awareness weeks or days, et cetera, and they always put out the checklist of stuff that you should have, I always come up pretty woefully lacking when it comes to what you actually need, because you don’t know. Its good that we have very good weather predicting systems now but sometimes when you just don’t know how severe these events will be until they actually hit and by that time its you and the entire neighborhood trying to go to the store to find some bottles of water because the water’s been cut off. And a variety of different things can arise. So what do we need to do nationally or federally to better prepare FEMA’s and the government’s role and the community’s ability to make sure that they are prepared when these disasters inevitably come?

SCHLEGELMILCH: So we have a project that we’re doing funded by GSK called the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative and we’re actually looking at this question specific to children in disasters and it comes down to community empowerment that we have these national resources but at the end of the day as we started off this interview talking about local responders and Neighbors Helping Neighbors and what do we do to support and to celebrate that, because all disasters are inherently local. One of the things that we’ve developed is this National Children’s Resilience Leadership board and they convened and came back with a couple of different priorities but I think one of the most important once is to elevate the work that’s going on in our communities.

There are good examples of preparedness happening of resilience being built and instead of trying to find answers in the C-SPAN, Homeland Security hearings, why don’t we look into the communities that are doing this work and what kind of resources do they need, what kind of support would they benefit from, from these national systems. Whether its funding or expertise or providing exercises or inclusion of conversation and allow communities to be the models for other communities. So we feel very strongly that it really has to begin at the community level and that the role of these national systems is ultimately, as they’re designed to be, to supplement the local and the state systems in the time of a disaster.

BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Jeff Schlegelmilch, he is the deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Jeff we certainly appreciate you taking some time to speak with us today, thank you.

SCHLEGELMILCH: Thank you, and thank you for covering this important issue.

BROWN: Absolutely, and thank you for watching The Real News Network.


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