Giles Ashford/MASNYC

A star-studded panel discussion highlights just how much uncertainty faces the storm-damaged city.

Debris that once was homes in the Rockaways still fills the parking lot at Jacob Riis Park. Residents of Staten Island continue to rip moldy sheetrock from the walls of their homes. Red Hook business owners are trying to figure out if their livelihoods will ever be viable again. But at a conference in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, just a couple hundred yards from the Hudson River, the focus was already moving from recovery to rebuilding. And the future looked as messy and uncertain as the present, a place where urgency and caution are colliding.

At a half-day conference called "New York City (SOS) Sink or Swim," the Municipal Art Society of New York and the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University had assembled an impressive group of speakers and panelists, including two Obama cabinet members, Shaun Donovan and Ken Salazar. Just six weeks after Sandy smacked the city upside the head with a cold wave of reality, this roomful of smart people was discussing the question that’s on everyone’s mind: How can we rebuild and retrofit the city so that it won’t be swamped by the next superstorm – which, as everyone present acknowledged, could be coming any time now?

Headlining was Donovan, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was named by President Obama to head a federal task force coordinating the recovery effort.

Donovan's brief from the president includes coordinating stakeholders, creating a comprehensive regional plan, cutting through red tape, and managing and monitoring the flow of federal funds. "The recovery effort must be driven by resilience and rebuilding smart, rather than simply recreating what was already there," said Donovan, who said that long-term planning needs to start immediately, as it did not after Hurricane Katrina.

He emphasized the importance of making sure that federal dollars are not wasted on temporary fixes. “In many places we can and will rebuild," he said. "But not without additional measures to ensure the investments we’re making in these communities are protected from future disasters.”

Federal studies have shown, said Donovan, that investing in disaster mitigation as part of the rebuilding process pays off, saving $4 in future disaster costs for every dollar spent. But it entails some potentially painful decisions.

Shaun Donovan
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan speaks at Thursday's "New York City (SOS) Sink or Swim" event. (Giles Ashford/Municipal Art Society of New York)

"This type of more thoughtful planning process ensures that we ask ourselves, Can we rebuild what was here before? And more importantly, should we?" said Donovan. "These questions are not just complicated from a construction and planning point of view. They cut to the heart of how we define out communities and what gives us a sense of place….  We need to harness this momentum to address weaknesses we’ve known about for years. We have to recognize that homes that wash away and substations in flood zones must become a thing of the past."

Just how many billions of dollars the feds will be funneling into the region to fuel this complex planning process remains unknown. Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey have supported the president’s request to Congress for some $60 billion in aid.

What is clear, as several of the panelists pointed out, is that the money will be deployed in an environment where dozens of different city, state, and federal agencies are at work, so far without an overarching authority to coordinate them.

"We have huge tools at hand," said Eugenie Birch, co-chair of the UN-HABITAT’s World Urban Campaign and a former member of the city’s planning commission. "But what don’t we have? We don’t have an integrated information system. We don’t have a coordinating agency…. So my plea to all of us is to come up with and advocate for a solution that is going to put the leadership in the right place."

Christopher Ward, formerly executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, was even more blunt in his assessment of the deficits. "Do we have the mechanisms we need?" wondered Ward, who now works for the U.S. arm of the Spanish construction giant Dragados. "No, we don’t. We need to face the political challenges that face us." Ward noted that "we do not have adequate funding for what we wanted to do before Sandy," and that the added financial burden of hardening infrastructure for a future in which climate change and rising sea levels are suddenly very real will present a significant challenge.

Even putting political and financial considerations aside, the day’s speakers acknowledged, the question of just what the city needs to do to protect itself is wide open. Enormous sea walls? Wetland restoration projects? Coastal dunes? Retreat from the shoreline? All these possibilities are on the table, but no one knows what, if anything, will work.

If anyone does know, surely it would be the Dutch, who have more experience living with water and its perils than perhaps any other nation in the world. Two representatives from the Netherlands were present, and you got the impression that they were somewhat amused by the attention their tiny nation has gotten from the people of the city once called New Amsterdam since Sandy hit.

"The Dutch have struggled with water for 800 years," said Dale Morris, a senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy who directs the Dutch government’s water management network in Louisiana, Florida, and California. Over that time, he made clear, the nation has created exactly the kind of overarching approach that the U.S. lacks. "The Netherlands has a water plan for every community."

That plan, he and Jos van Alphen of the Netherlands' Delta Commission made clear, is not just a sea wall, or just beach protection, or just soft infrastructure such as oyster reefs. It is all those things, along with a government commitment -- written into law -- to protect its people from flooding. “The work is never done,” said van Alphen, who said his nation’s attitude was to plan for the worst with a flexible strategy encompassing multiple approaches. "We think uncertainty should not be an excuse to wait and see."

The political environment of the United States is very different, suggested New York’s deputy mayor for economic development, Bob Steel. "The reality in our government is that consensus has to be built over time."

But that time, many of the conference participants seemed to agree, may be running out. If it hasn’t already.

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