Christie and Cuomo’s Dueling Visions for Post-Sandy Rebuilding

Friday, November 23, 2012

President Barack Obama and NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo talk with a man inside a FEMA distribution tent on Staten Island on November 15, 2012.

The governors of New York and New Jersey are just beginning to plan how they will rebuild after Sandy, but for now, Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie are talking quite differently about what storm-ravaged areas will be like after the storm.

A Bolder Cuomo

Less than 24 hours after Sandy’s landfall, Governor Cuomo declared that it had ushered in a new era. Climate change is here, he said, and ever since, he’s pressed the case for doing more than just building back what was lost.

"First question is going to be is what should we rebuild, where, and how?" Cuomo said at a news conference after the storm. "Maybe Mother Nature is telling us something." 

This kind of boldness is new for Cuomo. His first two years in office have been more about  back-room pragmaticsm in Albany than big national issues. He’s ceded that space to Mayor Bloomberg, who’s talked about climate change for years. But now, it’s Gov. Cuomo’s crusade. A new reality of fiercer storms, he says, means the status quo cannot stand.

"Where we rebuild and where we don't rebuild is going to be something we look at," Cuomo said. "The overall vulnerability of this region to floods and storms. When we designed and built New York, we did not think of floods and storms because we didn't have them.

Cuomo still hasn’t given much detail about his rebuilding plans, but he has called for massive infrastructure for flood protection, but sometimes, like here, it also sounds like he’s wants to retreat from the waterfront, a highly sensitive issue, or at least rethink development in places like the Rockaways.

He told Albany radio host Fred Dicker on WGDJ-Talk 1300 this week, that the high-density public housing there was a problem before Sandy– but he didn’t offer a specific fix. 

"The Rockaways had issues to begin with. Public housing issues, large numbers of state facilities located there – it’s compounded that. There’s going to be a lot of lessons to learn here."

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto says Cuomo does not want to relocate specific communities. He simply wants to build back smarter.

Christie's Shore Nostalgia

Still, it’s a contrast with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s not embracing the same kind of futuristic overhaul. After the storm hit, Christie toured the devastation, hugging residents along the way. He mournfully talked about losing the Jersey Shore of his youth. 

"There's no question in my mind we'll rebuild it. But for those of us who are my age, it won't be the same," Christie said. "It'll be different. Because many of the things that made it what it was are now gone and washed into the ocean."

Initially, Christie didn’t want state government to get involved in how and where residents could build back.

"Oh, I think the government does plenty of restrictions on where people can build. I don’t know that we need to increase it. I think, in the main, that’s a local decision, and  the localities need to make that decision themselves."

That was three weeks ago. Since then, Gov. Christie has softened, saying there could be some new rules, like getting rid of protections for residents who don't want dunes in their beach views.

"For the people who didn't want the dune to block their view, they now no longer have a house to have a view from. So how about that choice."

He’s calling for new engineering projects along the beach – and a lot of federal money. His objective, he says, is to bring the Jersey Shore back. 

"The Jersey shoreline is not only an economic engine of our state, it is also the cultural heart of our state. And I will not back away from rebuilding the Jersey Shore."

Political Subtexts

New York University political scientist Patrick Egan says there’s a political dimension to both approaches. Christie’s relentless focus on the shore allows him to appeal to a broad constituency in his blue state – not just those directly impacted by the storm.

An even greater share of New Jersey’s residents know the Jersey Shore, enjoy the Jersey Shore, visit the Jersey shore, and so even if they live far inland, do have a kind of sentimental attachment to that area.

It’s less complicated for Cuomo, Egan says, because climate change and infrastructure align with his party and the New York electorate - so he can ask for things like $30 billion dollars in federal aid. 

“Naming a number early, I think, is a little bit easier for Cuomo than Christie who has to navigate a lot of different constituencies here.”

In New Jersey then, it’s a nostalgia-infused recovery. In New York, it’s a campaign for a new age. But in the end – a lot of the rebuilding could be determined far from Trenton and Albany. Insurance companies will settle claims and set new premiums – and lot by lot, storm-battered residents and developers will decide which post-Sandy vision to embrace.


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Comments [3]

Bill Wolfe from Bordentown NJ

Great story - I've been writing along similar lines, particularly the implications of Christie's "nostalgia" and approach to rebuild, which i have joined professor Pilkey as calling "Rebuild Madness". I've also slammed Gov. Christie for his denial on climate change, sea level rise, and coastal vulnerability and promotion of "engineering" approaches.

Since this has run, Christie has further backtracked from his "free market" and local "home rule" driven approach, by adopting the FEMA ABFE maps.

But, the entire focus remains on rebuilding and the rules are designed to promote rebuilding. Instead, we've called for a coastal commission, in recognition of the fact that regional planning is required and that lot by lot decisions by property owners and private insurance companies must not be allowed to determine the future of the shore.

Check out the blog, and call me if you need a NJ source:

Feb. 10 2013 09:39 AM
Kate Lister from New Jersey

New Jersey politicians need to take a lesson here, but likely they won't. All they see is lost property taxes. So instead, they spend their precious allotment of federal monies repeatedly cleaning up a place where residents can no longer live.

Gandy's Beach NJ was one of the most storm-devastated areas in the state--Governor Christie toured it for himself. This tiny shore community was home to my sister and her family before the storm. While Sandy miraculously left their home unscathed, almost all the others around her were heavily damaged. One home on the same street, belonging to a family member, was swept away without a trace. The township did a heroic job of trying to clean up and rebuild the road, but with the bulkhead destroyed, there's no moving back. Already one family who tried lost 2 cars in a relatively minor storm. All the hard work (and tax dollars) that went into cleaning up after Sandy was undone. The place looked like a disaster zone once again.

While my sister's family didn't lose everything in the storm, as so many did, their lives have still been devastated. There's no insurance to collect. They still pay the mortgage, property taxes, insurance, electricity bills, etc., but she can't live there. Nor can she afford to live somewhere else. Thanks to the generosity of a family member (the one whose place was swept away) for now, she, her husband, and their son have a place to lay their heads. But that can't continue forever. They each commute 110 miles round-trip to their near minimum wage jobs in Millville NJ. Their only hope is a buy-out.

It's stupid to throw good money into repeated clean-ups. Mother Nature will always prevail.

Feb. 07 2013 12:28 PM
John Plodinec from Aiken, SC

One of the saddest aspects of Sandy is the media's - and the politicians' - lack of historical knowledge. Sandy wasn't really unprecedented, as some claim. Look at the Long Island Express of 1938. More people died than in Sandy, and the only reason that property damage costs weren't higher was that not as much building had occurred. The path wasn't exactly the same, but close. The intensity of the 1938 storm was higher. On average, the area gets a storm like this about every 79 years - in this specific case, it was 74 years - virtually the same as the average.

The DAMAGE was unprecedented, but that was because politicians (and the voters who elected them) allowed building in dangerous locations - and may have encouraged it with unrealistic flood insurance premiums and federal assistance for doing the same again.

Let's give this talk of global warming somehow being the "cause" of Sandy a rest and fix the real problems:
• Help form natural barriers to storms.
• Don't encourage building in dangerous places.
• Base flood insurance premiums on risk and not political clout.
• Overthrow the Tyranny of the Old Normal, and make those who want to rebuild in dangerous areas build back better.

Nov. 25 2012 10:34 AM

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