Lesson from Sandy: Better Disaster Planning Needed for Housing

The terrible impacts of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath demonstrate the need for more robust disaster planning, not to mention a reconsideration to some extent of various waterfront redevelopment schemes in storm zones.

Besides the terrible reality that many people died, some because they ignored evacuation warnings—and how many times have we ignored such warnings ourselves having been lulled so many times by “sky is falling” warnings that never came to pass, especially by seemingly hysterical weathercasters on television news programs?—we see that many cities and states lack the resources to step in and replace lost housing when public housing, homeless shelters, hospitals, and nursing homes are damaged as a result of storms and other disasters.

According to the New York Daily News many public housing complexes in New York City were damaged by Superstorm Sandy, tenants were left with very few alternative housing options, and the agency hasn't appeared to be very empathetic to their plight. [Ed. Note: In fact, NYCHA residents are still being charged full rent for units with no heat or services. And they are not happy about it.]

The New York Times reported  that, five days after the storm, almost 10 percent of the 2,600 buildings operated by the New York City Housing Authority were without power or other critical services. Most of these buildings were located in low-lying areas and/or near water, with boilers most often located in basements and susceptible to flooding.

Cities where a large number of people are housed in multiunit residential buildings have limited alternatives if those buildings go out of service. Temporary trailers from FEMA work fine for single family housing dwellers but don't scale well for the number of tenants typically housed in apartment buildings. (See Superstorm Sandy leaves many homeless.)

The GAO report DISASTER ASSISTANCE: Better Planning Needed for Housing Victims of Catastrophic Disasters indicates that federal disaster planning for housing provision and public housing after disasters doesn't address multiunit housing to the degree that it is necessary.

To better prepare, especially as storms become more violent and damaging, even if not necessarily more frequent, public housing organizations are going to have to update their disaster planning activities and build more resiliency into their organizations. For example, the disaster plan for Alabama's Boaz Housing Authority addresses extreme heat, flooding, tornadoes, and winter weather.

Some lessons from Superstorm Sandy:

Finding the money to do this will likely be difficult, and disaster preparedness is yet one more item that needs to be added to a long advocacy agenda for public/social housing stakeholders. But given the attention to the issue in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, agencies and organizations should push forward, while people are concerned and aware.

Photo: list of needs at an aid station in Red Hook, Brooklyn by Flickr user Shelley Bernstein, CC BY-NC.

Richard Layman
Richard Layman is currently Director of Business Development for BicyclePASS, a “bicycle facilities systems integration” startup firm focused on providing high quality support facilities for biking as transportation including parking, bicycle sharing, electric bikes and other programs. He is a revitalization advocate and consultant in Washington, DC, with experience in historic preservation, commercial district revitalization and transportation planning, and he blogs about various revitalization topics at “Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.”

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