To Protect Coastal Communities, Change Federal Policy

Hurricane Sandy highlighted just how vulnerable the New York metropolitan region is to extreme weather and sea level rise. While the federal government marshaled resources in times of crisis like Sandy, the economic and environmental devastation and loss of life brought home the need for an examination of the federal policies that affect the resiliency of our coastal communities. On January 14, Regional Plan Association, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and our partners at Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation  hosted a forum in Washington, D.C., to discuss how federal policy can be shaped to support coastal climate resiliency.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, in a keynote address, emphasized the need for coordinated, long-term preparation to protect communities from severe weather. Donovan, who is leading President Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, noted that for every one dollar invested in hazard mitigation, we save at least $4 down the road. Regional partnerships are vital, he noted, because neither the federal government nor local jurisdictions can address the threats of climate change and severe storms in isolation from one another.

As Donovan and other experts at the forum observed, the fundamental challenge that planners and policy makers face is how to integrate resiliency work into the everyday construction of homes, office buildings, roads, parks, and public infrastructure such as power plants and waste treatment facilities. But too often, laws and policies are outdated or effectively discourage property owners and local governments from making resiliency investments. Environmental benefits aren't necessarily factored into federal standards. Criteria for decision making are too broad, and funds sometimes are allocated over too-short time frames to have a real impact.

Through panels and workshop discussions, participants suggested ways in which federal policy could be rethought to promote a more unified and anticipatory response to climate resiliency, and in particular to extreme weather events.

The discussions at the event helped to inform recommendations that the Lincoln Institute and RPA will be publishing in the coming weeks on how federal agencies can better support resilient coastal regions.  

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan delivered the keynote address at a forum for climate resilient coasts in Washington, D.C., on January 14. Photo: Lucrecia Montemayor