Coasts should prepare for rising seas

5:18 AM, Aug 20, 2013   |    comments
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Coastal communities should assume floods are going to happen more frequently and realize that spending now on protective measures could save money later, according to a report issued by a presidential task force charged with developing a strategy for rebuilding areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Most of the report's 69 recommendations focus on a simple warning: Plan for future storms in an age of climate change and rising sea levels.

It calls for development of a more advanced electrical grid and the creation of better planning tools and standards for storm-damaged communities. "If we build resilience into communities, then we can live along the coast," said Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, who discussed the report Monday with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "We can do it in a way that saves lives and protects taxpayer investments."

Donovan was appointed chairman of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force by President Barack Obama. Some of the group's key recommendations are already being implemented including the creation of new flood-protection standards for major infrastructure projects built with federal money and the promotion of a sea-level modeling tool that will help builders and engineers predict where flooding might occur in the future.

The group also endorsed an ongoing competition called "Rebuild by Design" in which 10 teams of architects and engineers from around the world are exploring ways to address vulnerabilities in coastal areas. "We're always going to have people, I think, want to live in areas that are problematic from an environmental point of view," Bloomberg said at Monday's news conference. Earlier this year, Bloomberg unveiled a $20-billion proposal that would create floodwalls and marshes and stormproof vulnerable neighborhoods.

The task force report didn't delve deeply into what types of infrastructure might be best suited to protect the shoreline. It endorsed use of natural barriers such as wetlands and sand dunes but said better tools were needed to help planners evaluate what works. It said the government should find ways to encourage the private sector to develop fuel distribution and telecommunications systems that are less likely to be crippled by extended power outages. A large section of the report dealt with how federal authorities should respond once a storm has struck.

Among the recommendations: 

  • Federal agencies should streamline their review processes for reconstruction projects related to Sandy. It said that if standard government permitting timelines are applied, some rebuilding projects might have to undergo redundant reviews by multiple agencies and could be held up as long as four years.
  • Federal mortgage policies should be revised so homeowners can get insurance checks faster.

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