After Sandy, Rebuilding Smarter with S&T

As the solemn first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall nears, communities along the East Coast continue to rebuild, taking lessons learned from an unprecedented disaster to ensure new infrastructure and services are stronger and smarter than before.

Recognizing that large storms are expected to grow more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change, the Federal Government has partnered with states, cities, communities, and other stakeholders to make the Sandy-affected region—and all of America—more resilient. This goal is a guiding principle of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Over the past year, the Obama Administration has worked diligently to apply the latest developments in science and technology (S&T) to Sandy-rebuilding efforts—and to do so in ways that are scalable and relevant to resilience-building activities in other regions. S&T-driven efforts undertaken over the past year include:

  • Deploying Data-Driven Tools for Decision Makers: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) partnered to launch a Sea Level Rise Tool for Sandy Recovery to help decision-makers access the most up-to-date information on sea-level rise and floodplain projections. The tool includes a set of map-based services to help communities, residents, and planners consider risks from future sea-level rise in planning for reconstruction after Sandy, and an updated Sea-Level-Change Calculator to provide site-specific details of projected flood elevations for 5-year intervals from 2010 to 2100. This tool is an important element of the broader climate-data toolkit called for in the President’s Climate Action Plan.
  • Challenging Innovators to Design New Disaster-Response Solutions: In August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and FEMA gathered 80 of the Nation’s top public- and private-sector innovators at the White House and challenged them to brainstorm ideas for products, apps, and services that could aid in disaster response. The group developed ideas for a real-time communications platform to help survivors suffering from power outages; a crowd-funding platform to increase access to capital in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; and a device that could power cell phones and wireless networks in the event of loss of grid power. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched a design challenge calling on innovators to develop life-sustaining solutions, during a disaster or power shortage, for patients whose medical devices rely on electricity.
  • Launching Scientific Work to Understand Risks: With supplemental funding from the Disaster Relief Appropriation Act of 2013, a number of Federal agencies have launched scientific activities to better understand the risks associated with Sandy-like storms and to identify the most effective ways to address them. USACE, for example, is undertaking a comprehensive study to determine how best to reduce risks from floods and storms along the North Atlantic Coast. And the United States Geological Survey has developed a science plan aimed at connecting scientific information to management decisions about preparation for future storm-related hazards – including impacts on coastal habitats, fish and wildlife, beaches, and more.

Increasing America’s preparedness for future storms means more than building taller and stronger barriers to stand up against severe weather. A climate-resilient America is one built on a foundation of the best information and innovative ideas and one that incorporates scientific knowledge to understand risks, take preventative steps, improve disaster-response and recovery, and protect our communities.

At the one-year anniversary of Sandy there is still much work to do to rebuild along the East Coast and to ensure that cities and towns across America are prepared for the next Sandy-scale storm. Continuing to develop and deploy our best science- and technology-based solutions will help get the job done.

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science & Technology and Director of the White House office of Science & Technology Policy 

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