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Cities can prepare for hurricane season by reforming shortsighted and outdated laws

National Guard soldiers inspect homes in Rockaway Park, Queens, New York, after Superstorm Sandy, 2012. Spc. Zane Craig, PA National Guard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The 2016 Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1, and the public awareness campaign is fueling speculation. How many “named” storms will there be before the season ends on November 30? Will any of them strike the United States? If they do, how strong might those storms be?

This annual hype produces more angst than answers. On the one hand, experts predict that this season will bring more tropical storms than the average year. On the other, these same experts concur that it is impossible to know whether any of the storms will make a United States landfall.

Nonetheless, U.S. cities need to prepare for storm season. And in doing so, they should think beyond winds, waves and storm surges.

Severe storms can alter cities’ physical landscapes and shut down vital systems like roads and utilities. They also expose ways in which a city functions poorly, including whether it is supported by weak legal and regulatory frameworks. One important step cities can take to prepare for future storms is to identify laws or legal vulnerabilities that impede post-storm recovery. Deficient compliance with existing law, or code provisions that do not reflect current storm threats, can seriously hinder rebuilding efforts after disasters strike.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans post-Katrina, 2006. Alex Cockroach/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Weak recoveries can cause as much suffering as storms

Hurricane experts properly remind families and businesses to prepare for storms by developing evacuation plans and double-checking their insurance coverage – especially flood coverage, which is not included in typical homeowner’s policies.

But local leaders in vulnerable regions often miss a critical point. Citizens may suffer more misery during an extended, poorly managed rebuilding effort than from a hurricane’s high winds, heavy rains and pounding surf.

Neighborhood revitalization programs that move slowly may prevent families from moving home. Twenty-two months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans was still waiting for federal funds to promote neighborhood recovery. Twenty-one months after Superstorm Sandy battered the mid-Atlantic coast in 2012, 20,000 New York City homeowners were waiting for funding to help rebuild their homes.

These delays have profound consequences. Elderly and low- and moderate-income families who do not have homeowner’s or flood insurance or significant savings have minimal reserves to travel back home after evacuations. Frequently they never return, remaining instead with relatives or friends in another city.

Extended displacement also means that long after a disaster, empty homes remain boarded or, worse, unsecured. New and returning local businesses cannot afford to open their doors when neighborhoods remain dark.

Emergency shelter at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Rowan University/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Laws guide storm recovery

As government officials and scholars note, laws are critical instruments that can bolster or hamper communities’ resilience against natural disasters. Prior to storms, laws guide hazard mitigation efforts by setting development standards to minimize loss of life or property in the event of a future disaster. Laws also define the range of options for rebuilding cities and regions.

However, many relevant state constitutional provisions, local ordinances and federal laws were adopted before hazard mitigation, climate change and sea level rise were part of politicians’ lexicons. And some newer laws have been conceived narrowly, without considering disaster risk reduction or recovery. These laws can make it hard to restore businesses, families, schools and hospitals after disasters strike.

Cities rebuilding from hurricanes need large infusions of federal grant money to purchase storm-damaged homes or help rebuild them. But these funds must be spent in strict compliance with a thicket of federal laws and regulations. Cities that fail to follow regulations may lose federal funds for locally administered recovery projects.

One notable example is the Stafford Act, which was amended and improved immediately following Sandy. Problematic execution of the National Environmental Policy Act caused delays in New Orleans’ post-Katrina neighborhood recovery.

FEMA trailer, used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house people displaced by storms, New Orleans, 2008. Peter Organisciak/Flickr, CC BY-SA

State constitutions, statutes and city ordinances also can obstruct post-storm housing and community development projects. Examples include:

  • a Louisiana state constitutional provision that can frustrate donation of publicly owned, blighted and abandoned properties for post-storm development of affordable housing;
  • widespread adoption of state constitutional and statutory provisions, such as a Louisiana constitutional provision repealed only in 2010, that may prevent cities from using eminent domain to redevelop long-neglected properties by transferring them to private low- and moderate-income housing developers;
  • a lack of essential affordable housing planning documents to guide post-storm housing redevelopment efforts – another impediment to post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans; and
  • problems for homeowners who cannot show clear legal title to their homes – frequently because they have taken possession of houses from deceased former owners without navigating state probate law systems. In Texas following Hurricanes Ike and Dolly, low- and moderate-income homeowners were denied federal grants and private loans and grants because they could not establish clear legal title to their homes.

In short, every city hall that could potentially be hit by a tropical storm should examine local ordinances and state and federal laws for requirements that could impede disaster recovery. City leaders should also look for opportunities to develop ordinances that will speed recovery.

Hurricane Irene (2011) caused some US$16 billion in damages from North Carolina to Vermont. NASA Earth Observatory/Flickr, CC BY

In “How Cities Will Save the World,” Albany Law School Professor Ray Brescia and I examine a range of pressing concerns for U.S. cities, including becoming more resilient to disasters. In our view, creative problem solving flourishes in cities out of necessity. Many local officials are developing innovative approaches to disaster recovery and mitigation where existing laws have provided little guidance. Examples include relocating residents from vulnerable neighborhoods and developing historic resource preservation programs for coastal cities.

The American Planning Association (APA) also has identified multiple ways in which cities can prepare ahead to improve post-storm recovery. APA emphasizes the importance of mitigation – steps such as updating building codes to reflect new flood projections. The APA also urges cities to lay the legal groundwork for recovery by adopting ordinances that will prepare them for managing the recovery process. A core theme tying the APA’s research together is that communities confronted with disaster must strategize about how they’re going to bounce back – or better yet, bounce forward – from storms and other natural hazards.

In the past decade major storms have devastated U.S. coastal cities from Galveston to Atlantic City and New York. They also have ravaged inland capitals, including Baton Rouge, Richmond and Montpelier. Ensuring that our cities have the legal infrastructure in place to build safer, more efficient, and more equitable neighborhoods and communities after storms is just as important as preparing homes and businesses to ride out those storms.

Edward A. Thomas, Esq., President, Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, and member of the Advisory Committee of the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado, contributed to this article.

This article has been updated to correct the end date of Atlantic hurricane season.

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