Current and future leaders convened at Yale to explore a proactive approach to natural disasters.
It’s been six months since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast, but its impact can still be felt. Recently, members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network held a conference at Yale University to consider the policy implications of the disaster. New Haven Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro set the stage for the conference with a keynote reminding us that “disasters test contracts of citizenship.” This notion was embodied in student presentations on ongoing policy work influenced by actions that governmental and non-governmental agencies took to manage the crisis.
A guiding principle behind these student policies and the speaker presentations: planning efforts for a natural disaster are hardly limited to trouble-shooting the problem when it occurs. As future policymakers, we must have thoughtful disaster plans in place, anticipate factors that contribute to the occurrence of natural disasters, and forecast the ramifications of rebuilding an area after a disaster strikes.
Sandy was an opportunity for citizens to pull together in the face of adversity. This positive outcome aside, we should not lose sight of why community members had to create ad hoc campaigns in the first place: they were filling gaps in formal disaster relief efforts, some of which still haven’t even been identified. Students advocated for increased efficiency in relief plans to help neglected segments of the population, with one calling for an assessment of the role of civilian first responders in order to understand what public agencies can do to organize this manpower going forward.
To take one example, Sandy separated many mental health patients from their caretakers and limited their access to medicine. As one student policy pointed out, well-intentioned individuals tried to fill the void, but they lacked the background to handle these situations. Speaker Mary Casey Lockyer, Manager of Disaster Services for Health Services at the Red Cross, explained that while many Red Cross volunteers are registered nurses who have the training to handle mental health issues, they are also over the age of 50. These well-practiced volunteers faced challenges in moving around during the storm due to their advanced age. Her recommendation is for younger people to volunteer with the Red Cross as apprentices to these professionals so that they can be trained and mobilized in the event of another Sandy-sized disaster.
Another student policy in progress identified the asymmetric level of relief available to low-income Americans compared to their wealthier counterparts. In identifying this gap, public agencies can revise disaster plans to incorporate all Americans. Speaker Robert Smuts, Director of Emergency Management in New Haven, stressed that it is critical for public agencies to anticipate what will go wrong and prepare the right units accordingly. In anticipation of Winter Storm Nemo, which brought 34 inches of snow to New Haven, he prepared snow trucks that also had medical supplies and tools to cut down fallen trees.
Natural disasters are not entirely preventable, but there are measures that public agencies can adopt to mitigate the level of damage and the frequency with which they occur. Several student policies made the connection between climate change and natural disasters. One Roosevelter investigated the role of weather forecasting in disaster prevention. In her research, she found that America’s forecasting model lags behind Europe’s. This is a critical technical deficiency, since an advanced computer model could alert us to disasters sooner and allow us to build adequate buffers to mitigate damages and limit human suffering by evacuating people from areas that are likely to be devastated.
Another approach to prevent the effects of climate change is to limit the use of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions. One student policy looked at using solar power towers to harness the sun’s energy in lieu of fossil fuels.
If there is one takeaway from the conference, it is that we need to rebuild devastated areas thoughtfully. Speaker James Rausse, President of the American Planning Association’s New York chapter, enlightened us on the reality of overseeing a rebuilding project in Breezy Point. The storm destroyed several businesses, which had repercussions for the local economy. The challenge of rebuilding Breezy Point lies in deciding what ought to be developed and how to finance the project.
Congresswoman DeLauro addressed the challenge of financing rebuilding efforts through a National Infrastructure Bank. This entity would leverage private investments for public projects. The Concourse Fund, a student-run microfinance institution that began in Fordham University, suggested a stock market model for ideas on rebuilding in order to answer the question of “what ought to be developed.” The exchange would provide public officials with the opportunity to review all rebuilding ideas, as well as the cost and effectiveness of these ideas. This would allow them to make sound decisions and justify those choices to the public based on the market results.
Students also contributed their own ideas on what ought to be built, including a suggestion that we create a national park to serve as a buffer between high sea levels and residential communities in the Lower East Side. This would also allow the community to raise revenue from park entrance fees and events.
In order to answer the questions of “what ought to be developed” and “how to finance projects”, the Concourse Fund introduced the idea of retrofitting buildings with green roofs, which limit the fossil fuels that city buildings use for maintenance. As an added advantage, these green roofs would be financed through small business loans from community banks, which would result in active small businesses that stimulate the local economy.
The conference at Yale was an invaluable experience for all who attended. Several of the student presentations led to collaborative brainstorming sessions, which led to partnerships to develop ongoing policy work. Students also connected with speakers to help them develop their policies. Some of these students have already shown interest in showcasing their projects at the Roosevelt Institute’s annual Policy Expo in Washington, D.C., and submitting their final policies for publication in the next edition of the 10 Ideas journal. The conference was a unique opportunity for students to hear from individuals who are active in the Sandy recovery and rebuilding efforts, and it gave current leaders the chance to hear from future leaders in public service.
Preeya Saikia is the Economic Development Policy Director at The City College of New York’s Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.