On the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy this past weekend, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory published an op-ed outlining the work the Biden-Harris Administration is doing to help ensure that every community is better protected from the impacts of climate-fueled disasters.
By Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory
When Superstorm Sandy swept through the Northeast 10 years ago, the perils of climate change were not, for many Americans, kitchen-table concerns. But Sandy’s arrival – causing $70 billion in total damages, killing 147 people, destroying more than 340,000 homes, and disrupting countless lives and communities – marked a turning point in how our nation experiences, prepares for, and responds to the impacts of a rapidly changing climate.
In the decade since Sandy, climate-fueled extreme weather has become more frequent, more destructive, and more visible. Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico five years ago, and now the island is rebuilding – yet again – from another hurricane that hit last month. Just days later, Hurricane Ian’s floods, winds, and storm surge swept through Florida, wiping away entire neighborhoods and claiming dozens of lives.
Last year alone, four in 10 Americans were affected by a climate disaster.
While we can’t realistically hope to prevent all of the damage inflicted by a Superstorm Sandy, by massive wildfires out West, or by other catastrophes, communities across the country are bolstering their defenses through smart preparation and, thanks to President Biden’s leadership, massive and much-needed new investments to strengthen America’s infrastructure.
President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed Congress last year, is delivering $50 billion to help communities bolster their protections from extreme weather. It is the largest climate resilience investment in U.S. history and its impact will be felt and seen in every community across the country.
A new $8.7 billion program, for example, will help create and improve evacuation routes, strengthen coastal resilience, and fund upgrades to things like bridges and railways that will help people get out of harm’s way faster. The U.S. Forest Service, meanwhile, is deploying $2.5 billion to reduce wildfire risks to communities by thinning overgrowth and restoring forest health.
The nation’s climate adaptation and resilience efforts received a second boost this year when Congress passed the president’s climate change legislation as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
Through this new law, we’re investing $1 billion to make affordable housing more resilient and energy efficient. And we’re making landmark investments in nature-based resilience solutions like urban forestry and the restoration of wetlands. Planting more trees is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to cool cities on hot days and reduce flooding after heavy rains.
Likewise, restoring coastal habitats like mangroves and marshes can strengthen shorelines and help nearby communities withstand the next storm. In fact, researchers have found that coastal wetlands prevented $625 million in damages during Superstorm Sandy.
Some of these new climate resilience investments and policies are focused on rebuilding stronger after storms. Others – such as policies we are developing to avoid building new infrastructure in floodplains – will help prevent destruction in the first place.
And in all of our work to improve climate resilience, we are focused on upholding President Biden’s commitment to ensuring that these investments reach and protect communities that are most vulnerable.
Climate disasters are – without question – affecting communities across the country, but they aren’t affecting all communities equally. Disasters often have disproportionate impacts on communities that have long been marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. These same communities also often have the hardest time bouncing back after a disaster.
The president’s Justice40 Initiative, which I am proud to help lead, ensures that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to communities that have been traditionally left out or left behind. Justice40 is helping reverse decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities and will create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. That’s building resiliency in more ways than one.
Seeing the communities that were ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, one cannot help but be moved by the scale of the human tragedy inflicted. The family members lost. The livelihoods destroyed. The homes that were washed away.
The urgency of confronting the climate crisis cannot be ignored or denied.
But to witness how New York and New Jersey communities rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy is to see what is possible for all of us. With the right investments and an eye to the future, we can and are building smarter, stronger, and safer.