Hurricane Sandy 10th Anniversary: 14-foot Storm Surge Delivered Valuable Lessons

Hurricane Sandy 10th Anniversary
Written by Resilient Cities Network
Friday, 28 October 2022

New York – (R-Cities). Ten years ago, on October 29th 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the coast of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  It not only brought devastating destruction to the region; it also helped kick-start a resilience movement that has been shaping the world ever since. 

Hurricane Sandy kept New York City and the region on hold for weeks, 147 people died, 650 000 homes were destroyed, causing a total estimated damage in New York and New Jersey worth $58 billion. Sandy was not only a catastrophic event that brought death and destruction to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the US, but it was also a wake-up call and the starting point of a comprehensive and inclusive resilience planning and implementation movement.   The Resilient Cities Network (R-Cities) a global initiative that includes 98 cities on 6 continents is a key force in this movement.  It empowers cities in building holistic, equitable resilience and supports implementation through programmatic implementation, funding and network activities.  

The metropolitan area was mostly unprepared when Sandy hit and it exposed a fundamental weakness to catastrophic events like a hurricane of that force.  The consequences were devastating.

With key infrastructure either destroyed or compromised, the supply chain that keeps the city alive was interrupted.  Some neighborhoods like the Rockaways experienced heightened food insecurities and for days on end people faced a shortage on fuel. 

Key subway lines in Manhattan were flooded and downtown office buildings were under water, putting businesses on hold for weeks after the shattering events.

While the catastrophic effects of Sandy were felt everywhere in the city, the disaster of October 29th, 2012, also jumpstarted an entirely new approach to responding to shocks and stresses in cities. 

In the aftermath of Sandy, practitioners in the field of disaster management started a journey toward resilience and began changing the mind set from recovery to “precovery”.

Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, today the Global Director, Policy and Investments, at Resilient Cities Network was one of them. At the time he served as the director of the International and Philanthropic Innovation office at HUD where he was working on innovative alignments of public, private, and philanthropic entities to solve the growing shocks and stresses in a broad range of communities.  (Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy is available for interviews.)

When Sandy struck Stewart was in DC, but he remembers vividly: “I watched like so many others as the city went mostly dark and the horrifying images of the storm surge overtook parts of the New Jersey and New York coasts, seeing the cars floating in the tunnel entrances at the tip of Manhattan.”  He was called to join the Sandy Hurricane Task force, formed by President Obama to tackle the aftermath of the storm. “It was in one of those early internal leadership meetings at our office when the idea for a design contest to push innovation was first raised. We heightened our partnership with the Dutch government for the same reasons as we considered what building back in a resilient way really meant.” 

Those first ideas eventually lead to “Rebuild by Design”, a global competition to attract ideas for scalable solutions to protect the most vulnerable coastal neighborhoods that has shaped New York City until today.

Sandy in many ways was the one and only key event that started a resilience awareness and in turn a resilience implementation movement around the globe.  Center stage in this movement have been cities. Sandy had brought home that municipal governments and administrations are carrying the main burden of responding to such catastrophic events. Key here became not only to manage the catastrophe but looking forward to finding solution to mitigate future disasters.  

Stewart’s story equals many: “Eventually, I realized that I had two paths to choose from – one, that was more in the realm of disaster risk reduction, response and recovery as usual, the other in the direction of resilience building and “precovery” – a word I had originally used in the work of helping to rebuild, regenerate and create economic and political sovereignty for Native communities.”

A year after Sandy the Rockefeller Foundation initiated 100RC and Stewart joined the founding team building a network of cities. 100RC placed 100 Chief Resilience Officers (CRO) in local administrations to create awareness and resilience plans that should become the model for many more municipalities. Initially Rockefeller’s 100RC Cities infused 100 million dollars. The investment soon ballooned to more than 164 million dollars with a substantial effect on building resilience awareness and bringing about systemic change

In 2019 the 100RC program evolved into the Resilient Cities Network, a separate and independent nonprofit, as the foundation shifted strategy.  Some of the key goals of 100RC had been achieved. First, establishing the foundation of future resilience work by substantially infusing the awareness of building resilience strategies and offices into municipal governments and then laying the groundwork of implementation through the Chief Resilience Officers. 

One key takeaway from 100RC was that a network and city-to-city learning, especially around complex, new topics had tremendous value. Having access to a global network of CROs was a particularly valuable program offering, as they could learn from others and share knowledge.

The Resilient Cities Network was founded by former 100RC staff members with the leadership of the cities and CROs. Working as a network and focusing on empowering cities with tools, knowledge and peer-to-peer learning platforms. R-Cities is building communities of practice around important resilience topics from heat to equity and from plastics to water and sanitation.  Without those tools cities are as ill prepared for coming disasters as they were when Sandy hit New York and New Jersey.  

Sandy had made clear that administrators on all levels had not listened to what science and data had been telling them. The voices of the most vulnerable people and communities that were sure to be hit hardest and more often remained unheard.   “With a 14-foot storm surge Sandy also delivered some valuable lessons”, says Stewart, “the takeaways of Sandy are a wide range of precautions that range from better planning that takes into account co-benefits on projects, to longer timelines and better data and community input to support such projects, to the actual accounting for the role of nature, the benefit of calculating a ‘return on resilience value’ in the projects – all of which still needs improvement and adoption by communities of all sizes. “

While many lessons Sandy taught continue to shape how to react and adapt to shock and stresses, many issues remain unresolved. 2022 was a year with extreme weather events that brought flooding or extreme heat waves to more cities in the US than ever before. Cities need help to prepare and to cope with those events. Building bulkheads and enforcing infrastructure is not enough. That is why the Resilient Cities Network has put a strong emphasis on extending the concept of resilience beyond climate related issues and stressed the essential importance of addressing social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues to find co-benefits in every city undertaking.

About the Resilient Cities Network

Resilient Cities Network is the world’s leading urban resilience network. It brings together global knowledge, practice, partnerships, and funding to empower its members to build safe and equitable cities for all. Its unique city-led approach ensures cities drive the agenda to benefit the communities they serve. At work in nearly 100 cities worldwide, the Resilient Cities Network supports on-the-ground projects and solutions to build climate resilient, circular, and inclusive cities while also facilitating connections and information-sharing between communities and local leaders.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Thomas Halaczinsky, New York
Media Consultant, Resilient Cities Network
+1 347 985 6885

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