When Superstorm Sandy swept ashore in late October, it left an almost unimaginable level of damage: thousands of residents still displaced, entire communities destroyed, and an economic toll that promises to make Sandy one of the costliest natural disasters in history. But it also swept away our illusions that we can carry on with business as usual in a changing climate.
Sandy exposed incredible vulnerabilities to coastal storms and floods in the region. While the storm was unprecedented, the effects of climate change, namely higher sea levels and larger storms, mean that we can no longer operate as if a recurrence is only a remote possibility. It’s clear that we cannot simply rebuild; we must also rethink the way we approach recovery efforts, and begin to prepare for future extreme weather events and sea level rise by rebuilding in a way that reduces vulnerabilities to future damage.
Defenders of Wildlife has argued that in many cases, this will require restoring and enhancing natural ecosystems that provide flood control and storm surge attenuation while providing other benefits including clean water, wildlife habitat, and economic and recreational opportunities. Our publication “Harnessing Nature,” published earlier this year, describes several of these projects and the benefits they can provide.
After a disaster of Sandy’s magnitude, the need for federal assistance to help the region recover could not be more apparent and urgent. The Obama administration submitted an emergency supplemental request to Congress to address response and recovery that takes this exact approach. The Senate followed suit and included provisions that ensure recovery efforts mitigate future disaster risks.
The Senate emergency supplemental appropriations bill shows tremendous foresight in its recognition of the role that natural floodplains, coastal wetlands, dunes, natural shorelines and other ecosystem-based measures can play in protecting communities from weather-related disasters. Defenders of Wildlife specifically support the following elements of the supplemental:
- Restores national wildlife refuges: The bill provides $78 million for repairs and restoration at affected national wildlife refuges. Thirty-five refuges were closed following the storm and some remain closed. The overall damage to refuges was $78 million – the equivalent of 16% of the System’s overall annual budget – but it would have been much worse had it not been for the natural protection provided by refuge wetlands and dunes.
- Funds projects to increase the resilience of coastal habitat and assist state and tribal natural resource restoration programs: Through Department of the Interior programs, the bill provides $150 million to “increase the resiliency and capacity of coastal habitat and infrastructure to withstand future storms and reduce the amount of damage caused by such storms; protect natural and cultural values; and assist State, tribal and local governments.” The Department includes many programs that it can deploy to accomplish this important goal through the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other programs.
- Funds coastal and estuarine habitat restoration and protection to help buffer communities from storms and recover fisheries- and coastal habitat-based economies: The bill provides $150 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “to evaluate, stabilize and restore coastal ecosystems affected by Hurricane Sandy.” NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Habitat Conservation has a long track record of success restoring coastal and marine habitat and fisheries, including many large-scale collaborative restoration projects including the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. The bill also provides $47 million for the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) to “support State and local restoration in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.” CELCP provides states and local governments matching funds to purchase (fee title or easements) significant coastal and estuarine lands. This protection ensures important natural areas continue to provide flood and storm protection benefits to communities in addition to their other ecological, recreational, and economic values.
- Restores and protects storm-abating wetlands on private lands: The bill provides $125 million to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Emergency Watershed Protection Program. This program provides funding to remove debris from stream channels, stabilize stream banks and restore damaged uplands stripped of protective vegetative cover. The program also funds floodplain easements for “restoring, protecting, maintaining, and enhancing the functions and values of floodplains, including associated wetlands and riparian areas… These easements also help conserve fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention, and ground water recharge, as well as safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and erosion.”
- Funds planning for and construction of flood-reducing projects that support the long-term sustainability of coastal ecosystems: The bill provides $2.9 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers to “reduce future flood risk in ways that will support the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystem and communities and reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events in areas…affected by Hurricane Sandy.” In addition, the bill requires that “efforts using these funds shall incorporate current science and engineering standards in constructing previously authorized Corps projects designed to reduce flood and storm damage risks and modifying existing Corps projects that do not meet these standards, with such modifications as the Secretary determines are necessary to incorporate these standards or to meet the goal of providing sustainable reduction to flooding and storm damage risks.” This important provision requires the Army Corps to reevaluate previously authorized projects in light of Hurricane Sandy and other recent extreme weather events, as well as current scientific projections of future climate-related risks, to ensure projects remain viable and sustainable under changing conditions. The bill also provides up to $20 million to the Army Corps to support interagency planning with State, local, and Tribal officials “to address the flood risks of vulnerable coastal populations, including innovative approaches to promote the long-term sustainability of the coastal ecosystems and communities to reduce the economic costs and risks associated with large-scale flood and storm events.”
- Requires federal agencies to plan for future risks of increased extreme weather events and sea level rise in all recovery efforts: General provisions that apply to the whole bill require agencies to be forward thinking to assess future changes in risks and vulnerabilities of recovery projects to extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. Agencies shall “inform plans for response, recovery, and rebuilding to reduce vulnerabilities from and build long-term resiliency to future extreme weather events, sea level rise, and coastal flooding. In carrying out activities funded by this title that involve repairing, rebuilding, or restoring infrastructure and restoring land, project sponsors shall consider, where appropriate, the increased risks and vulnerabilities associated with future extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding.” The bill also encourages the development of better information to base these decisions on, allowing funds to be available “to develop… regional projections and assessments of future risks and vulnerabilities to extreme weather events, sea level rise and coastal flooding that may be used for the planning…, and to encourage coordination and facilitate long-term community resiliency.
However, the following provisions limit environmental review and public participation, which may lead to poor planning and communities more vulnerable to disaster risks and other concerns. Some even lift environmental review nationwide. We strongly oppose the following elements of the supplemental:
- Authorizes all pending Army Corps flood protection projects nationwide regardless of urgency, need, or status of environmental and other reviews: The bill authorizes any Army Corps flood protection project that is under study (i.e. any project throughout the nation that was begun before Hurricane Sandy) provided that the Corps demonstrates the project is cost-effective. Notwithstanding the important provisions on using current science and planning for future risks that also apply to this funding; this provision approves any projects currently under study with the Corps. Moreover this provision will apply nationwide, authorizing a bevy of projects notwithstanding their compliance with the Water Resources Development Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. Many of these projects involve large commitments of funding and infrastructure that could have significant impacts to waterways, wetlands, habitat and wildlife. Proper evaluation of impacts to the environment and endangered and threatened species is necessary to prevent unintended environmental consequences. This blanket authorization is damaging and unnecessary and should be revised.
- Unnecessarily creates new “streamlining” authorities: The bill authorizes the President to establish “streamlined” procedures to expedite providing disaster assistance. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act already include emergency provisions that allow for expedited reviews and changes in procedures to protect human health and safety in response to disasters and emergencies. In fact, provisions of these laws were used successfully during the recent BP Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to being simply unnecessary, these streamlining provisions are problematic, first in their lack of specificity in what exactly they authorize, and secondly in creating a deeply concerning precedent for circumventing our nation’s most important environmental and other public interest laws. These sections should be stricken.
This essential funding will provide much needed relief to victims of the devastating hurricane. By retaining the forward-thinking provisions we highlight, and by striking the provisions waiving public interest requirements, the bill will not just help recover the region from this horrible storm, but will also reduce the region’s vulnerabilities to future extreme events, sea level rise and coastal flooding and the economic costs associated with these issues.