Thursday, November 15, 2012

Divergent Initial Approaches to Rebuilding in NJ and NY after Sandy

Following the immense challenges of providing emergency assistance in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, government officials face a new set of challenges in the subsequent weeks and months: they must respond to the difficult questions regarding whether, where, and how to rebuild.  In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) thus far effectively has answered "yes," "everywhere," and "immune from existing permitting requirements," all to the chagrin of many professional planning experts and environmental advocates.  New York, however, appears to be taking a decidedly different, more precautionary approach.

Last week, with the backing of New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin signed an administrative order authorizing local governments to replace public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and bulkheads, for up to six months in the same vulnerable areas in which they were destroyed without having to secure environmental permits aimed at protecting flood zones, coastal areas, and freshwater wetlands.  In issuing the order, Commissioner Martin stated that “for emergency repairs, we cannot let bureaucracy get in the way,” emphasizing that “red tape should not and will not hold up this vital work.’’ 

The Commissioner’s order has generated harsh criticism.  According to Bill Wolfe, the director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “The order amounts to a total abdication of DEP’s responsibility to supervise responsible planning and environmentally sound permitting of critical public infrastructure.”  Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, has suggested that the order “sends a message of rebuilding quickly and rebuilding like it was previously ... when there are programs and processes that can be brought to bear on all of those kinds of infrastructure to make them more safe and resilient.”  Jeffrey Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, lamented that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes.”

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has offered a starkly different vision.  In an op-ed published in the Daily News, Governor Cuomo wrote that “Extreme weather is the new normal….We need to act, not simply react…. [W]e must begin by thinking about where and how we rebuild. The next generation’s infrastructure must be able to withstand another storm.”

It remains to be seen what role state environmental agencies ultimately will play as the larger recovery plans take shape in New Jersey and New York moving forward.

-Tim Mulvaney

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