Columnist: Disaster Strategies: Learning From The World

WASHINGTON -- Tempered by the withering blows of Superstorm Sandy, the federal government is stepping up its efforts to compare and learn from other nations that have faced and coped with their own fearsome acts of nature.

Latest evidence: a five-year pact, signed March 4 with the Netherlands, to exchange information on weather-related issues including water management, flood-protection systems and "building with nature."

"It's in the genes of the Dutch to protect themselves from flooding," said Melanie Schultz van Haegen, the Netherlands' minister of infrastructure and the environment, as she visited Washington to sign the agreement. And no mystery why: The Dutch have had to cope with centuries of lowlands exposure, topped off by the 1953 Watersnoodramp (in Dutch, literally flood disaster) that engulfed major areas and took 1,836 lives.

The Netherlands has "a length and depth of understanding of these issues that no other country can offer," noted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. He recalled his own visit to the Netherlands, observing firsthand the dramatic control and damage mitigation measures engineered to withstand North Sea storm surges and river floods.

But preventive steps to minimize storm impacts, while critical, are just half the story, insists Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, director of HUD's Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation. Just as vital, he insists: having recovery mechanisms in place to cope with a broad array of disaster threats, ranging from droughts, tornadoes and earthquakes to overflowing rivers and now northern superstorms such as Sandy.

And then keeping aware over time. As the Dutch delegation noted, their countrymen may now be lagging on disaster recovery strategies because they've excelled so dramatically on preventive measures -- even though no prevention can be 100 percent.

Launched post-Sandy (with Congress' $60 billion appropriation) is a complex set of disaster recovery plans and negotiations between the impacted states and the federal government. Plus, HUD is encouraging philanthropic foundations to contribute significantly to local recovery too.
The process seems likely to break fresh ground two ways -- in how Washington deals with states and regions, and in turn urging East Coast cities and towns that rarely collaborate to forge inclusive recovery strategies.

Ambitious strategies are being proposed. A top example: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noting that "Superstorm Sandy was the worst storm to hit New York State and our region in recorded history," seeks to spend as much as $400 million to buy up homes wrecked by the storm. He'd have what's left of them demolished, the sites then designated as flood-prone, reverting to dunes or wetlands on which future building would be forbidden.

"There are some parcels," Cuomo insists, "that Mother Nature owns. She may only visit every few years, but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits."

New Jersey's recovery plan doesn't go quite as far, but it does emphasize reconstructing and rehabilitating storm-damaged homes and, where necessary, raising their elevation to withstand future storms.

Congress has instructed that HUD, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, formally require state plans to qualify for emergency aid. The vehicle will be the Community Development Block Grant program, which HUD regularly administers. And the objective is clear: to support long-term, resilient rebuilding to reduce future risks and vulnerabilities -- much as the Dutch have done.

But the buyouts and repairs won't be simple: Sandy damaged or demolished about 300,000 homes in New York state alone. Officials there plan to cover every issue from restoration of damaged public housing to no-interest loans for storm-impacted small businesses.

And then comes the sub-state, regional challenges to storm-prone areas. Will the regions now develop common evacuation plans for oncoming storms? Design more flexible grids to minimize storm-triggered power cutoffs? Provide disaster planning to include gated communities that normally won't let non-residents inside?

Intent on learning global state-of-the-art approaches on a broad range of sustainability issues for communities, HUD now has active agreements with Germany and Brazil as well as the Netherlands.

Plus, the department has had in-depth discussions with Chilean officials about that country's long-term disaster recovery plans following the devastating 2010 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed 88,000 homes. Among Chile's moves have been moving people back from exposed seafront areas, designing parks and tree patterns as tsunami deflectors, even engineering massive concave half tubes to push oncoming waves back into the ocean.

The 21st-century lesson is crystal clear: There's a big world out there, with sets of experiments and proven designs to make cities and seasides less vulnerable. It takes an aware and inventive federal government to check all the possibilities, from raw concepts to engineering lans. And then smart planning, both by state and local governments. American communities, homes, and eventually lives are at stake.

Maybe activist government is a good idea after all.

Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.