Prepared Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at "Emerging Stronger: Planning and Building A Post-Sandy Future"

New York City
Thursday, December 13, 2012

Good morning. Thank you, Vishaan, for that generous introduction. It's a pleasure to be here with so many friends today to talk about our plans for rebuilding and revitalizing the City and this entire region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

This region has been through a great deal over the last month. We have seen our fill of tragedy, but we've also seen a good deal of hope and courage.

We've also seen extraordinary leadership by many State and local officials. I particularly want to commend the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg, and Governors Christie and Cuomo for responding so quickly and thoroughly as well as for recognizing the need to address immediate rescue efforts as well as long term planning and rebuilding. And I look forward to continuing our work together.

I also want to recognize and thank once again those many brave people, from emergency first responders to our next door neighbors, who helped make others' lives more bearable under the extreme circumstances growing out of this storm.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the many thousands who have suffered as a result of this storm and in its aftermath, some of whom have experienced profound loss. I particularly want to reassure those who are still dealing with the storm's impact that we will continue to make helping you our first priority.

But even as we continue to focus on the critical task of rescuing, repairing, and cleaning up, the immense impact of this storm and the weaknesses it revealed about our region's infrastructure mean that we must look toward the future and a more far-reaching long term redevelopment.

Our response cannot be business as usual. We need to rebuild the region and we need to emerge stronger, smarter, and more resilient. It is this path to the future that I will focus on in my remarks today.

Looking Forward: Building on Experience

As we look forward, it is impossible not to be reminded of the recent past, and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

It is clear that on a personal level, the losses from Katrina and Sandy feel very similar. Destroyed homes, loved ones lost, memories of places that will never quite be the same.

But in contemplating this comparison I am struck by how, in just a few years, we have made great strides in responding to this kind of catastrophic event. Most importantly, we learned a great deal about storm preparation and response from the devastation of Katrina.

It is the reason we had vast resources in place ahead of Sandy's landfall - And we responded to the enormity of the devastation with a massive, multi-agency, multi-state coordinated response.

Within in a week after Sandy hit we had almost 15,000 federal responders on the ground from FEMA, the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, HUD, Department of Transportation, and HHS, as well as tens of thousands of utility workers from across the nation. In the four weeks since the storm, FEMA has approved nearly $1.1 billion in emergency assistance.

To be clear, our response to this storm was not perfect. But we will continue to learn and to improve our disaster response planning.

But as chilling as the first images of Katrina were -- the less visible but equally devastating failure was in long term recovery.

Since my first visit I have returned more than a dozen times to the area and I have seen substantial progress, thanks in part to the leadership of Secretary Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

But Katrina taught us that for too long, governments viewed their roles as more focused on emergency response, and neglected the important role in long term recovery.

For catastrophic disasters like this one, we need to address, from the Federal role on down, both short-term response and long-term recovery and redevelopment at the same time.

There are four critical lessons that should serve as a guide.

First, long-term recovery and redevelopment efforts must start immediately following a disaster. To ensure this happens, from the very beginning a team that is focused on recovery and rebuilding must be in place.

Second, while the Federal government has a key leadership role to play in recovery -- one that includes providing vital funding and technical assistance as well as cutting red tape - it is state and local governments that must provide the vision for local communities -- and, most importantly, that vision must be owned by the community.

Third, the recovery effort must driven by resilience and by rebuilding smart rather than simply recreating what was already there. At the center of these efforts must be the changing needs of the community, the changing impact of the environment and a plan for economic growth.

Finally, we must integrate these forward-looking recovery efforts with the challenges that communities faced even before a disaster - more complete issues relating to communities that have traditionally been left behind.


Post- Katrina, one thing was abundantly clear -- we could not let this happen again. Which is why in September 2009, President Obama charged me and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, to incorporate the four lessons I laid out into a new approach to disaster-related recovery and rebuilding challenges from a national perspective.

We created a Long Term Disaster Working Group, composed of more than 20 federal agencies and consulted closely with State and local governments as well as experts and stakeholders. Out of this grew a draft of the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which after extensive public comment, was published in its final version in 2011.

The NDRF provides a flexible structure that enables disaster recovery managers to operate in a unified and collaborative manner, putting in place that critical team to address long-term recovery. In fact as I speak today, there is a team of more than 150 federal workers focused entirely on the long-term recovery of this region.

Their focus is on how best to restore, redevelop and revitalize the six areas most critical to recovery and redevelopment of a community: housing, infrastructure systems, small business and local industry, health systems and social services, natural and cultural resources, community planning and capacity building.

While the majority of disasters affect a single geographic area, and that certainly influenced the design of the NDRF, the structure was created to be adaptable to regional response and recovery.

That's why we've effectively used the NDRF to respond to the multistate drought this past summer, both immediately and with a comprehensive plan to address longer term concerns.

Sandy will be one of the most devastating and costly natural disasters in our history. The President recognized that it required not simply the NDRF, but an additional focus that would address the enormous range of regional issues and a larger cabinet-level coordinating role across federal agencies and state and local governments.

That is why, last Friday, the President signed an Executive Order creating the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and appointed me to be the chair.

I'm honored the President chose me to lead this effort. As someone with strong personal connections in the region, he knew that this wasn't just a recovery effort, it was personal.

And In my work at the local level, I developed important relationships with leaders across the region -- people with strong personalities, big ideas and broad visions -- people who have the expertise and knowledge necessary to make this recovery one that is strong, smart and resilient. And the President understands you are all are critical to ensuring that the entire region makes a vibrant recovery. He also understood that I speak the language of all of you shy and retiring New Yorkers and New Jerseyans.

Finally, I think the President recognized that I lead an agency that has long played a critical role in responding to the needs of communities as they revitalize and prepare for the future - It is the "UD" in HUD. We apply the critical principles of recovery i mentioned earlier every day in our regular efforts to revitalize and rebuild communities.

Strong Cities Strong Communities and Choice Neighborhoods both require local vision and leadership that builds on HUD funding, technical assistance and coordination.

Our Sustainability Grants and our partnerships in the Neighborhood Reinvestment Initiative and the Sustainable Communities Initiative focus on a comprehensive approach that also ensures economic competitiveness on communities that have too often been neglected.

In short, our work at HUD has successfully focused on revitalization without falling into the trap of urban renewal and intrusive federal vision.

The Task Force

But no matter how good HUD is at these jobs, a recovery of this complexity and scale is going to require all the expertise and resources the Federal government has to offer. We're going to need to address many different needs of these communities at once, from housing, to transportation, to education, to health care. And this Task Force gives us, right from the start, the ability to respond on all fronts.

With the expertise of virtually the entire cabinet represented, we are prepared to make the local and state vision of this recovery a reality. The Task Force will have five major responsibilities

First, and most importantly, it will coordinate with all stakeholders to deliver cohesive, rebuilding strategies -- creating a comprehensive regional plan within six months. We will share the best practices of recovering communities, creating a vision for long-term rebuilding by State and local stakeholders -- a vision that will be supported by more thoughtful planning and a focus on resilience and sustainability.

Second, it will reduce regulatory burdens and cut red tape.

Third, it will manage the flow of federal recovery funds and make sure that the resources the Federal government provides are aligned with local priorities.

Fourth, we will monitor the progress and strengthen accountability measures. We know that at a moment like this, because Americans are anxious about the recovery, they have little patience for waste. The structure of the task force and the ability to monitor funds allow us to deliver this kind of accountability.

Finally more than checkbook, it will allow us to offer technical assistance and tools -- providing critical support as those on the ground realize their vision for redevelopment and revitalization. We will develop and track clear metrics to monitor and communicate progress, capture best practices and set standards for long-term disaster recovery.

This task force is not and cannot be simply federal oversight or mandate. Rather, it must provide leadership and connections that actively support local visions.

Funding and Sustainability

Rebuilding must be a community driven effort, with a community-based vision at its heart. But supporting that vision through financial means is a key part of the federal role -- one that has always been provided for communities experiencing disaster.

Last Friday, the President delivered to Congress a request for $60 billion in supplemental assistance to aid in storm recovery. The request includes funds for transportation, funds for veterans at risk, support for the Small Business Administration and its efforts to help local businesses harmed by the storm, and a range of other critical priorities.

It included $17 billion for CDBG funding -- the single largest request ever. This is especially important because CDBG funds offer the greatest flexibility and effectiveness in responding to disasters. It is a recognition of the region's varied needs.

The coordinated planning process created by NDRF and amplified by the Task Force, as well as key changes in CDBG funding that build on our lessons from Katrina, will ensure that this money is used efficiently and effectively, and in a timely fashion.

Another critical piece of the President's request is the $12.9 billion for mitigation measures. The money that goes to our communities can't simply be a blank check to rebuild exactly as before. In many places we can -- and will -- rebuild. But not without additional measures to ensure that the investments we are making in these communities are protected from future disasters.

Communities need to use innovative approaches and planning to better protect themselves, limit the impact of future disasters, and address underlying community needs. The federal government must support those efforts.

For instance, after Katrina, this administration offered New Orleans greater flexibility. It allowed the city to relocate rather than rebuild schools to address changes in the population. This allowed them to avoid being forced to rebuild based on the needs of the 1950s.

Indeed, the type of thoughtful planning process the NDRF advocates ensures that we ask ourselves: can we rebuild what was here before, and more importantly, should we?

These questions are not just complicated from a planning or construction point of view. They cut to the heart of how we define our communities and what gives us a sense of place.

But mitigation is not just sensible, it is cost effective. The Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC) examined 10 years of FEMA mitigation grants data and found government mitigation efforts offer a $4 to 1 return on investment by preventing future damage.

And we've seen them work across the nation. Efforts we took in response to a number of hurricanes in the Gulf Coast have demonstrated significant success in protecting homes. Those that had been raised and built with stronger roofs and used other mitigation measures went undamaged, while homes in the same communities that did not have mitigation were severely damaged or destroyed.

Along the Jersey Shore, towns that invested in beach replenishment and larger dunes suffered considerably less damage then their neighbors.

We need to harness this momentum to address weaknesses we've know about for years. Protecting the beaches and marshes on our Barrier Islands, and modernizing utilities in flood prone areas. Homes that wash away and substations located in flood zones must become a thing of the past.

Cities and states increasingly are recognizing the value of mitigation. And there is stiff competition for funding when it is available.

At HUD, for instance, we established a disaster relief enhancement fund of over $300 million in matching funding for mitigation projects undertaken by states with disaster CDBG funding. Demand exceeded the available funding by almost 3 to 1.

To anyone who doubts that mitigation is necessary or still believes that it is too expensive, I have one question: What happens next time? As often as we label Sandy a hurricane, it was in fact a tropical storm combined with an exceptionally high tide. Yet, as we know, the damage was tremendous -- and could have been far worse.

And it won't be the last one. As a number of the region's leaders have commented, these 100 year storms seem to be coming every few years now.

Economic Competitiveness and Recovery

In rebuilding our communities, we must embrace a vision that is stronger and more economically competitive -- one that encourages greater community involvement and investment.

The recovery must address the needs of the entire region, one of the most important economic powerhouses in the world. If we get this recovery right, we will emerge more economically competitive that we were before Sandy overran the sea walls a few feet from here.

But we must also focus on those people and places that are too often left behind -- whether it is hard-working middle class families on Staten Island or lower income families in the Rockaways that are managing to make ends meet and trying to get to the middle class. We would be negligent if we overlooked the existing conditions that the storm has thrown into sharper relief.

President Obama understands this and it is why he has made moving more Americans to the middle class a centerpiece of his Administration. In this economy, we simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

A key participant must be the private sector, which continues to be a generous, willing and able partner in our recovery efforts. This kind of investment makes economic sense for them and for the community. And we're going to engage them further.

Later today, for instance, I'll be taking part in an announcement by the New York Teachers Retirement System, which is making a significant investment in the city's infrastructure, targeted specifically to Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.

This kind of effort is inspiring, and our Task Force will be looking for ways to replicate this timely and forward thinking investment.

Too often we fall into the trap of debating whether we need big government or small government and whether recovery is the responsibility of the public sector or the private sector. We have the opportunity here to transcend this debate, to respond to this crisis, and address the very real needs that exist. We will not only overcome those challenges but demonstrate that government has a vital role.

In summary, new challenges -- and our changing landscape and the reality it presents for our safety -- require new solutions. This region can lead the way. I know this audience is already engaged.

We must address not only recent damage but challenges facing our communities that are the result of long term neglect to infrastructure and economic disinvestment. We must focus not simply on what our communities will look like and how they will be better in the next few years -- but in the next few generations.

The best efforts in redevelopment have been achieved with a civic planning and commitment that goes not simply to rebuilding after a storm or other disaster, but making neglected investments in our communities.

This is not just about repairing Staten Island or the Rockaways or the Jersey shore -- although each of those is critical to the recovery. But the recovery will fall short if that is all we do.

The plan we create must put us firmly on the path to a more sustainable future.

The future that emerges out of these efforts is one that must include the entire region, making it the most economically competitive in the world.

The redevelopment that we design together must lift up every community touched by the storm.

Because, as Americans, we don't leave individual communities to pick up the pieces after a disaster -- we lift them up as one nation.

Thank you.


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