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Experts Urge Caution As $50 Billion In Sandy Aid Passes House

Jan 18, 2013
Originally published on January 18, 2013 9:11 am

The House of Representatives passed a bill this week to spend $50 billion to help states struck by Hurricane Sandy. The action comes more than two months after the storm, and the measure now goes to the Senate.

The delay outraged politicians and residents from the Northeast, who blamed Washington for playing politics with desperately needed aid. But some scientists and engineers say there's danger in rushing ahead to rebuild a coastline that's sure to get hit again.

Tough talk in the House from Republican Peter King and Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York and Democrat Bill Pascrell, Jr. of New Jersey paid off. The total aid package is now looking to run about $60 billion, compared to more than $80 billion for Hurricane Katrina.

Most of the money is to help people whose homes or businesses have been lost or damaged, or for infrastructure, including bridges and roads.

But several billion dollars are pegged for projects to reduce risk of future storms. Some scientists are alarmed, like Rob Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University who studies what happens to structures built along coastlines.

"What in the world are they going to spend that on?" he asks.

It looks like a lot of the money will go to things like trucking sand back onto beaches or rebuilding beachfront property the way it used to be. But Young says that's a ton of taxpayers' money for projects that may not make the coast more resilient.

"You have this massive government subsidy for development in vulnerable coastal areas, particularly on the immediate coast, on the oceanfront, in resort communities," he says.

Spending tax dollars to rebuild coastal communities isn't new. Young points to Dauphin Island along the Gulf Coast — it's been rebuilt numerous times after storms, to the tune of tens of millions of tax dollars. Most insurance companies shy away from these places. So the taxpayer pays.

And as the climate warms, all the scientific models predict more storms, bigger storms and more devastation. In fact, the insurance industry says giant disasters are becoming more common.

"So we're going to have to do these projects over and over again," Young says. "We're going to have to do it more frequently in the future and it's going to get more expensive."

Young is among many scientists and engineers who say: Slow down. Find out if more sand really saves beaches. Maybe wetlands are better. Do floodgates work? And who should pay for this?

New Yorkers like Andrew Darrell are thinking along the same lines.

"I live here in New York City. I'm raising kids here in New York City. I also believe that if there's any place that can get this right, it's a place like New York," he says.

Darrell is an energy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund and an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is focused on how the city's electricity grid gets rebuilt. He saw part of it go down from his apartment during Sandy at the 14th Street power station in Manhattan.

"A wave crested a 12-foot wall that surrounds the substation and caused a huge electricity arc, and it lit up the sky," Darrel says. "In the arc of that light, you could see quite clearly all of the buildings in lower Manhattan that night."

Darrell says rebuilding the grid means doing things differently. Take solar power, for example. After Sandy, a few buildings with solar panels had power when the sun came back out. But most did not — for a strange reason.

"Those solar panels largely work by feeding into the electric grid," Darrell says. "So when the grid goes down, those solar panels go down too."

Darrell says it costs building owners more money to get their solar panels to work independently of the grid. He says people should get paid to be independent from the grid, so they can provide a safety net for the power company during disasters.

Experts like Darrell and Young say little changes like that could reduce the cost — and the pain — of the next big storm. And the money's on the table right now to do it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The House of Representatives this week approved $50 billion in aid to the states worst hit by Hurricane Sandy. That measure now goes to the Senate. Politicians and residents in the Northeast were outraged that it took so long to get this bill through the House.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

But NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that some also fear a rush to rebuild.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: If you want an example of a political pressure cooker popping its lid, you can't beat the debate in the House of Representatives over the Sandy aid package.

Weeks ago, House Speaker and Republican John Boehner postponed a vote on the aid package. He got slammed. Here's Congressman Peter King of New York.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: Absolutely inexcusable, absolutely indefensible.

JOYCE: New York's Jerrold Nadler.

REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER: To ignore the plight of millions of American citizens? Unprecedented, disgusting, unworthy of the leadership of this House.

JOYCE: And this Rocky-style message from New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr.

REPRESENTATIVE BILL PASCRELL, JR.: This is time to stop debating and take the gloves off, Jersey style.

JOYCE: The tough talk paid off. The total aid package is now looking to run about $60 billion, compared to about 80 billion for Katrina. Most of the money is to help people whose homes or businesses have been lost or damaged, or for infrastructure - bridges, roads, that sort of thing. But several billion dollars are pegged for projects to reduce risk of future storms.

Some scientists are alarmed by that, like Rob Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University who studies what happens to stuff built along coastlines.

ROB YOUNG: What in the world are they going to spend that on?

JOYCE: It looks like a lot will go to things like trucking sand back onto beaches or rebuilding beachfront property the way it used to be. He says that's a ton of taxpayers' money for projects that may not make the coast more resilient.

YOUNG: You have this massive government subsidy for development in vulnerable coastal areas, particularly on the immediate coast, on the oceanfront, in resort communities.

JOYCE: Now, spending tax dollars to rebuild coastal communities isn't new. Young points to Dauphin Island along the Gulf Coast; it's been rebuilt numerous times after storms with tens of millions of tax dollars. Most insurance companies shy away from these places, so the taxpayer pays.

And as the climate warms, all the scientific models predict more storms, bigger storms, and more devastation. In fact, the insurance industry says giant disasters are more becoming more common.

YOUNG: So we're going to have to do these projects over and over again; we're going to have to do it more frequently in the future, and it's going to get more expensive.

JOYCE: Young is among many scientists and engineers who say slow down, find out if more sand really saves beaches. Maybe wetlands are better. Do floodgates work? And who should pay for all this?

New Yorkers like Andrew Darrell are thinking along the same lines.

ANDREW DARRELL: I live here in New York City. I'm raising kids here in New York City, so I also believe that, you know, if there's any place that can get this right, it is a place like New York.

JOYCE: Darrell is an energy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, and an advisor to New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He's focused on how the city's electricity grid gets rebuilt. He saw part of it go down from his apartment during Sandy, the 14th Street power station in Manhattan.

DARRELL: A wave crested the twelve foot wall that surrounds the substation and caused a huge electricity arc, and it lit up the sky. In the arc of that light you could - you could see quite all the buildings in lower Manhattan at night.

JOYCE: Darrell says rebuilding the grid means doing things differently. Take solar power, for example. After Sandy, a few buildings with solar panels had power when the sun came back out. But most did not, for a strange reason.

DARRELL: Those solar panels largely work by feeding into the electric grid. So when the grid goes down, those solar panels go down too.

JOYCE: Darrell says it costs building owners more money to get their solar panels to work independently of the grid. He says people should get paid to be independent from the grid so they can provide a safety net for the power company during disasters.

Experts like Darrell and Young say little changes like that could reduce the costs and the pain of the next big storm. And the money's on the table right now to do it.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.