Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan at a Forum for Climate Resilient Coasts: "Shaping Federal Policy for Adaptation in Metropolitan America"

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Washington, DC

As prepared for delivery

Thank you very much, Armando (Carbonell), for that kind introduction and for your great leadership over the years.

I'd also like to thank today's organizers the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, the Regional Plan Association; and the Association of State Floodplain Managers. For decades, you have been a remarkable source of ideas and inspiration. 

I'm confident that the briefing book you produced for this event will add to this rich legacy.  
And I deeply appreciate the chance to be a part of this forum.

The Impact of Climate Change

All of us have come together today for a common purpose: building a more resilient nation.
While this work has long been important - it's never been more critical than in current times.   

The 20 warmest years on record have all taken place since 1990. It feels like storms that used to occur every 100 years now come every few years from Hurricane Katrina, to the record floods in Iowa, to the recent events in Colorado.

I have visited these and other areas that have been impacted by extreme weather and seen communities devastated by these vicious storms. While all these experiences were incredibly difficult, there was one that was especially painful for me: visiting New York City shortly after Hurricane Sandy. 

As many of you know. I'm a native New Yorker. And it hurt me to the core to see places that have been so important to me and my family impacted by Sandy's fury. 

We had friends and neighbors who had their lives completely upended. Most tragically, the daughter of a family friend lost her life during the storm. She was just 24 years old. 

Sadly, stories like this were not uncommon. In total, roughly 160 people lost their lives. 
650,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed. There was $65 billion in damages and economic losses. 9 million customers lost power - far more than during Hurricane Katrina. 

The breadth of the destruction was incredible. And when I talked to those affected by Sandy and other storms - they weren't interested in wasting time and energy debating whether climate change was real.

They had already seen how extreme weather impacts them in their own backyards, and were focused on taking action to protect their families for the future. 

The questions our entire nation face now are:

  • do we follow their lead by meeting this great challenge with equally bold action?
  • or do we accept extreme weather as a new normal and sit idly by as these threats grow?

The choice is clear: we have a responsibility to act - for ourselves, for our neighbors and for future generations. That's why President Obama has made addressing climate change a top priority. 

Hurricane Sandy Task Force

Last June, President Obama released a Climate Action Plan, the most aggressive initiative ever taken by a President to address climate change. 

It has three main goals:

  • one - to reverse the trends of climate change by cutting carbon pollution in America;
  • two - to work with our international friends to address this global challenge with global solutions; and
  • three - to prepare communities for the impacts that extreme weather are already having on people and places.

Because of the focus of today's program, I want to focus on this last point, specifically as it relates to Sandy. When Sandy struck, it was clear that the rebuilding process would be long and difficult and would require special attention from the U.S. government.

That's why President Obama created a special Hurricane Sandy Task Force and I am honored he asked me to lead it.  

Our first goal was obvious: to get immediate help to those in need. The President partnered with state and local leaders to fight for $50 billion in funding to aid victims of the storm - and we wanted to ensure that these resources reached people as quickly as possible.

We eliminated many of the unnecessary hurdles, such as duplicative environmental reviews.
And, I'm proud to say we have helped roughly 230,000 people and businesses turn the page on this painful chapter in their lives.

But helping communities meet their short term needs is just one part of rebuilding after a disaster. The other step is taking the long-term view by recognizing that because of climate change - huge storms are occurring more frequently.  

So it simply isn't enough to rebuild the region back to the way it was before the storm. 
That would just put communities at-risk of the same tragic outcomes when the next big storm hits.

Instead, our aim has been to help the region build smarter and stronger than before.
To achieve this goal, the Task Force released a Rebuilding Strategy last August with 69 specific recommendations to help communities prepare for extreme weather. And we made sure that science was at the heart of this work. 

That is why the Task Force partnered with the best scientists to empower local governments, businesses and citizens with the knowledge they need for the future. During my visits to affected regions, I have met countless people who are committed to shaping stronger communities, but just need guidance from the federal government on how to do it. 

As one CEO who lost critical facilities due to flooding during Sandy said to me: "I want to stay in this area so just tell me how high to rebuild." So the Task Force set out to answer these questions and more in our Rebuilding Strategy.

One quick example of our work is a sea level rise tool we designed that allows local planners and decision makers to go to the web, click on a map and see projections of rising sea levels as far as roughly 100 years into the future. With this knowledge in hand , communities can take the measures necessary to protect themselves from future floods. 

To complement this work, we took action to make resiliency a part of future planning by requiring government to use this science. The $50 billion in the Sandy Supplemental is a lot of money. But we know that success isn't just determined by the amount spent.

It's also matters how and where these resources are used. That's why we made sure that all projects funded by Supplemental dollars takes into account future flood risks - the first time the federal government has done so. As part of his Climate Action Plan, President Obama has committed to making this approach national.

We also have urged communities to make other critical infrastructure investments from making their electrical grid smarter and more flexible, to helping develop a resilient power strategy for telephone and internet systems so people can communicate when disaster strikes.

Furthermore, our recommendations strive to shape a resilient region that makes housing units more sustainable and improves the insurance process so that those in need can get assistance quicker.

In total, the actions outlined in the Rebuilding Strategy serve as a blueprint for how cities must plan in this age of extreme weather challenges. And, in addition to our suggestions about what to do - we are also interested in how this work gets done. 

Specifically, we stress that it needs to be a locally driven, regional approach. National government leaders in Washington, DC shouldn't tell states and cities how they should build more resilient communities. 

Instead, we want to empower local leaders with the tools they need to achieve their own vision.
They know their communities better than anyone. Therefore, they should be on the frontlines of their own development.

Another reason we stress a local approach is because we want to ensure that different jurisdictions are working in concert towards shared goals. One example is New York Harbor, which stretches along both New York and New Jersey. 

Obviously, these two states have different leadership teams. But any action in one state will impact the other and vice versa. So with this and other projects, it's critical that we think regionally about the implications and connections between different efforts.

This is a point that hit me at my first meeting with all the transit agencies impacted by Sandy.
We were talking about what we could do to make regional transit systems more resilient.

There had been a lot of press stories about whether we should be putting gates, inflatable plugs and other protective measures into the tunnels to prevent future flooding.

The head of Amtrak told us that, indeed, he did have the option to close the gate over the Hudson River tunnel during Sandy. However, he didn't because that action would have flooded all of Penn Station.

That led to the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to express his appreciation that the Battery Park Tunnel flooded in Lower Manhattan. If it hadn't, he said, the East River would have met the Hudson River across Canal Street in New York City.

Now, I don't know if the science completely backs their arguments, but the larger point is clear: local leaders have to work together to meet their shared objectives.   

That's why the Task Force created a regional forum to coordinate and determine the effects of large-scale and interconnected infrastructure projects. The goal is for communities and agencies to look at each project and its connections so we can understand their implications for all parties.

This regional coordination process is crucial, and now that the Task Force has ended, I have committed my agency to lead this process going forward. 

As part of this work, we will continue to connect local leaders with each other so that they can make the most appropriate decisions for their communities.

Rebuilding By Design

In addition, we want to connect communities with the most innovative ideas from around the world.

So, we've launched Rebuild By Design - a global competition that was recently named by CNN as 1 of 10 innovative ideas with big potential to change the world.

As they wrote: "For centuries, the conventional wisdom about protecting shorelines from storm surges has been to build a seawall. And if that fails - build a bigger wall."

As Sandy showed, this alone is not enough.  And in this age of fiscal restraint, large infrastructure projects can take a long time to be funded, planned and completed. That's why communities need to get creative with new approaches that address our emerging climate challenges. 

So, last year, working with partners like the Regional Plan Association, we put out a call across the world for out-of-the-box thinking that will help us manage flooding and limit damage when the next storm hits.

The response we received was overwhelming.  We got more than 140 proposals from across the world- all with creative plans that ranged from infrastructure to green spaces.

And as we evaluated them, we weren't just looking for abstract concepts that looked good on paper: we wanted ideas that could become a reality on the ground so they could strengthen communities.  

After an intensive judging process, we recently announced the final ten proposals, all with the potential to change how building is done in cities and along shores.   

One team wants to transform how beaches function, from being designed solely for human use to areas that capture sand and form dunes that can protect communities.

Another came up with plans for modular buildings that are designed to flood without being damaged. 

Another imagines implementing living and breathing breakwaters-like oyster reefs, for example-that have the potential to reduce waves by as much as 4 feet.

In total, the ideas are incredible. The imagination is inspiring. And most importantly, these designs have the potential to strengthen cities for the future. 

Right now, teams are meeting with leaders on the ground to determine how these proposals can be implemented most efficiently. These are models that we hope inspire solutions and actions all over the country.  

The winners will be announced in April. In the meantime - I urge you to look at this work online at and spread the word about the potential of these projects.   
They can be replicated in many coastal communities, which will go a long way in building a more resilient future for all Americans.  


As I get ready to conclude my remarks, I want to emphasize this last point: our resilience work isn't about looking backwards or just improving responses to the next big storm. What it calls for is a fundamental shift in the way communities approach future development.

There is an old saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson that "bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss."

While we have all gone through our share of bad storms, we have also learned from them:

  • that science should be a part of all planning;
  • that the federal government must empower local leaders with the tools they need;
  • that the most effective way to build resilient communities is with a regional approach; and
  • that we must connect communities with the best ideas from around the world to attract the most innovative solutions.

When it comes to achieving these goals, and meeting climate challenges, we as a nation are in this together. These storms do not discriminate.

They don't care if you're rich or poor, if you are a Republican or Democrat, if you live in a city or a suburb. 

We are all in the fight against extreme weather events. We are all being impacted by rising temperatures.

That's why all of us-from the federal to the local level, across all sectors-must work together to meet these challenges. 

Together, we have the power in our hands to make tomorrow better. Together, we can address even the greatest challenges of our times. And together, we can shape a stronger, healthier and more resilient future for generations to come.    

Thank you.


Content Archived: February 27, 2017