Superstorm Sandy Town Hall highlights weaknesses in infrastructure

The coastal areas of New Jersey and New York are in dire need of improved infrastructure, according to the politicians, academics, journalists, and businesses leaders assembled for Thursday night’s Sandy Town Hall at Monmouth University.

The event, which was organized in part by WHYY, covered wide ranging ground – from the plight of individual homeowners undecided about how or even if to rebuild to how federal money allocated to Sandy relief should best be spent.

But panelists repeatedly returned to the idea of investing in infrastructure projects as a way to improve preparedness for future natural disasters.

PSE&G President Ralph LaRossa said his company is planning to spend $5 billion to harden their infrastructure and improve logistics plans and communications. Sixty miles of wiring will be moved underground at a cost of $3 million per mile. PSE&G is slotted to take over the ailing Long Island Power Authority pending government approval.

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“We’ve got to slow down, to come up with the right solutions,” said John Boule, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “You can’t plan for today, you have to plan for some point in the future.”

He explained that a dune built to 15 feet to adequately meet present sea-level conditions should actually be built to 17 feet, in order to take into account future sea level rise.

“Nature is a part of the solution,” echoed Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of New York. He advocated for using not only dunes, but wetlands and other natural elements like oyster beds to help the coastline better absorb storm activity.

But there was also skepticism about the government’s ability to completely prepare the infrastructure to handle severe disasters, which many panelists agreed will occur at higher rates as climate change and sea level rises take hold over the coming years.

“Nature is going to win every time,” said New York Times Op-Ed columnist Joe Nocera.

“There is not enough money, even in the big bucket, for everything that needs to be done,” he said.

“Disasters reveal, they don’t transform,” said Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, referring to the storm’s ability to call attention to existing strengths or weaknesses in the infrastructure. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation System preformed well during the storm and was able to organize buses to replace downed subways after the storm because its management has improved over recent years, Gelinas said. But she added that the Long Island Power Authority. preformed poorly during and after the storm, due to years of mismanagement.

More over, questions from the audience repeatedly  steered the conversation to the frustration of homeowners, who have been waiting for over six months for money from Community Development Block Grants, who are awaiting new versions of FEMA flood maps, who are still struggling with their insurance companies over the amount of their claims.

“Unless you have a lot of independent wealth, you’re paralyzed,” summarized Peter Reinhart, director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University, drawing applause from the audience.

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