Caleb Stratton

In the second of a two-part series by the chief resilience officer of Hoboken, he discusses fostering relationships across sectors and scales of government.

To recover from the destruction caused from Hurricane Sandy, we in Hoboken, New Jersey, recognized that coordination with state and federal government entities was essential. Recovering from such an unprecedented storm meant that Hoboken needed to ensure any rebuilding efforts would be stronger and more resilient than before, and having access to resources offered by the state of New Jersey and federal agencies would facilitate such process for affected municipalities.

Following Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the design competition Rebuild by Design in 2013. The competition, supported by Community Development Block Grants—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), tasked multidisciplinary design teams with developing ideas to enhance resilience based on impact and need across the spectrum: physical, ecological, economic and social.

After studying Hoboken, the winning design team recommended enhanced coastal flood risk reduction infrastructure and also recognized the need to address flood events related to high tide and rainfall. The problem identified was multifaceted, and the proposed solution reflected that, in the form of a four-part comprehensive water management strategy.

Had Hoboken not sought out nontraditional resources from the federal government and participated in Rebuild by Design, our “problem solving” may have only focused on mitigating storm surge or rainfall flooding, but not necessarily water quality impacts or those of nuisance flooding and king tides.

States can support effective long-term recovery across municipalities.

In 2014, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) was awarded $230 million in CDBG-DR funding to support a major component of the Rebuild by Design—Hudson River (RBD-HR) project, which includes the construction of hard infrastructure and soft landscaping features to act as coastal barriers. Since the competition, the NJDEP has been working with local and federal counterparts to bring this concept to fruition.

Resilience projects help bridge the gap between different levels of government because they occur over longer time periods, have less of a regulatory feel and result in outcomes that often extend past municipal boundaries. States are well positioned to oversee these types of long-term recovery projects, and a deliberate effort should be made to facilitate relationship-building between different levels of government to strengthen coordination of disaster preparation and rebuilding efforts. In Hoboken, for example, we’ve had to both build and extend trust with our state and federal partners to support our goals for the RBD-HR project.

One way NJDEP earned trust with the local community was through a robust and visually compelling public engagement process through their subconsultants. The Office of Metropolitan Architecture provided renderings that contextualized scale, material and impact to the community. Brooklyn Foundries generated a 3D flyover to help the community understand what the project would really feel like. Watch the video, but hold your chair as the camera pans in and down across Manhattan!

The RBD-HR project kicked off in 2014 and will conclude in 2022. To maintain the project’s momentum during this period, staff at multiple levels of government help to ensure the scope, purpose and urgency are sustained, driven by the state’s ability to communicate the vision and outcomes of resilience projects to incoming administrations. Moreover, improving staff-level relationships helps ensure project continuity during administrative changes, such as the 2016 presidential, 2017 gubernatorial and 2017 mayoral elections.

Facilitate adaptation and scenario planning with standardized context and data.

In some ways, city-level problem solving has gotten out of whack with our intervention process. A flood wall is a response to a problem, and it may very well abate a single facet of the problem, but is it the appropriate long-term response, and have we correctly identified the problem? How can municipalities self-select in this decision-making process? Many state programs offer pots of money that pit municipalities against one another for limited funding for structural interventions. However, there are alternative selection methodologies being tested across the county.

Policymakers at the state level can assist municipalities by providing structured guidance that offers scalable tools for “right-sizing” an intervention methodology. Municipalities need tools and resources to make well-informed planning decisions, and California offers a robust example. The California Adaptation Planning Guide provides guidance for local and regional communities on mitigating the effects of climate change.

This type of assistance can better position municipalities to assess critical resilience factors:

  • Are we aware of what risks should be prioritized and managed over others?
  • Do physical risks now translate to financial risks in the future?
  • Should we take a structural or non-structural response to this problem?
  • What impact does this decision have over the serviceable lifetime of the investment—and how should this investment perform, given the projected future uncertainties in climate and weather?

Building a culture of preparedness does not necessarily have to focus on structural interventions, but there should be a common point of understanding between state and local decision makers that informs a culture of long-term planning by answering these questions and more.