How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters

Hurricane Sandy didn't respect jurisdictional boundaries, and it challenged us to coordinate disaster response on a regional scale.

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The northeast Atlantic seaboard is the most densely urbanized area of the United States. And over generations, a bewildering patchwork of governance has evolved, with thousands of municipalities, hundreds of special-purpose agencies, dozens of cross-state partnerships, and a handful of states all sharing—and fighting over—governmental responsibilities.

The state of New Jersey alone has 565 municipalities representing a population only slightly larger than the single municipality of New York City. This fragmentation can be a real problem in the face of a major disaster like Hurricane Sandy. Storms don't respect jurisdictional boundaries, after all, and they likewise challenge us to coordinate disaster response on a regional scale.

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Unfortunately, there was little successful inter-jurisdictional coordination in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. New York City's Office of Emergency Management was theoretically responsible for coordinating the different city agencies. But it was quickly sidelined by the Mayor's Office. The result was a haphazard approach that led to some notable failures with respect to evacuations and the safety of public housing residents.

On a larger scale, emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania created a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team for precisely this kind of emergency. But when the storm hit, the RCPT’s plans stayed on the shelf, particularly in New York City. As one NYC emergency manager described it to me, "The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and…we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, 'Let's do it this way.'"

How can we do better? One place to start is to look at other examples of successful regional collaborations in the U.S. Two in particular stand out: the Great Lakes Compact and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. These are both successful collaborations between state governments, which are based on common interests in a shared waterway. And both have gotten stronger over time—even, in the latter's case, through the trauma of Hurricane Katrina.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from them:

Collaborations need to be achievable to be useful. The sociologist Lee Clarke argues that disaster plans are "fantasy documents"—tools for building trust in an organization rather than actual, implementable plans. This was certainly true in the response to Sandy. More modest plans, which take account of political realities and power relations, are more likely to be useful than comprehensive but unachievable fantasy documents.

Good regional governance needs strong state buy-in. Many of the most effective regional collaborations in the country work via special-purpose agencies (for example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). Almost invariably, these agencies are creations of state governments. While the federal government has an important role to play by directing funding dollars, regional collaborations ultimately live or die by whether the relevant state governments support them. New York City, with a population and governmental capacity larger than many states, is something of an exception here, and its buy-in is equally vital to regional collaborations. One of the things that doomed the RCPT effort was that, although many city agencies were involved in its creation, City Hall wasn't. As a result, the Mayor's Office didn't put its trust into a plan it didn't know.

Collaborations need strong commonalities of interest. Both the Great Lakes Compact and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance began with a narrow focus on an issue that truly cut across all member states. They avoided topics that would have been controversial, even when these issues were of broad importance to the regions. For example, offshore drilling has major economic and environmental impacts in the Gulf region, but Florida opposes it while Louisiana and Texas strongly support it, so the Gulf of Mexico Alliance has avoided dealing with it directly. Sticking strictly to commonalities of interest has allowed both these organizations to build trust between members, and they have begun to leverage that trust by branching out into more controversial issues.

Disaster response should be guided by geographies of need, not geographies of government. In New York and New Jersey, the most agile, adaptive disaster response generally didn't come from local and state governments, but from grassroots response networks like Occupy Sandy. One important thing that differentiated Occupy Sandy from governments is that it wasn't constrained by jurisdictional boundaries. As such, it could simply devote its resources where need was greatest. If governments are unable to work effectively across jurisdictions, they should partner with informal actors who can.

Top image: Andrew F. Kazmierski /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • David Wachsmuth is an urban planner and a PhD candidate in sociology at New York University.