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Local Governments’ Hidden Barriers to Disaster Recovery

Now is the time to look at zoning and building rules that, however well intentioned, make it harder for a community to come back.

Woman carrying trash bag outside of house in the winter.
People cleaning out a house in Long Beach, N.Y., hit by Superstorm Sandy.
(Flickr/All Hands Volunteer Program)
The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season has just begun, and forecasters anticipate another busy year. Local governments are already preparing, hoping to minimize the damage and keep their residents safe. But communities that are vulnerable to hurricanes -- and really to any kind of hazard -- also need to plan for what happens after a disaster, when blue skies return and the hard work of long-term recovery begins. Too often, however, it's only when it's too late that local governments discover that many of their daunting recovery challenges are problems of their own making.

Our new research highlights critical barriers to recovery that can be deeply buried within local laws, such as zoning statutes and building codes. Analyzing cities in New York and New Jersey impacted by 2012's Superstorm Sandy, we illustrate two fundamental disconnects. The first is a failure to recognize the way rigid federal recovery regulations can be a poor fit for a community's unique local circumstances. The second is not anticipating how local ordinances may actually impede effective recovery.

In theory, federal recovery laws should deploy seamlessly nationwide. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is not the case. For instance, after Sandy the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) failed to reimburse many policyholders in the region living in ground-floor apartments that local dwelling laws had deemed to be legal residences. NFIP regulations defined these apartments, located one or two steps below street level, as basements, which are not covered by its reimbursement program. While that may be sensible for basements that are completely below grade and illegal for habitation, in New York and New Jersey thousands of rowhouses have garden apartments or commercial units that lie inches below the ground floor.

The kinds of homes that Sandy victims lived in meshed poorly with federal recovery guidelines in other ways. In New York City, for example, about 40 percent of owner-occupied housing is part of a cooperative or condominium. Recovery rules for these forms of ownership are more limited than regulations for standalone single-family homes, leaving owners of co-ops or condos potentially liable for significant recovery expenses.

Sometimes local laws conflict with federal regulations, which may only become apparent after a disaster strikes. On Long Island, for example, Sandy caused severe damage to the city of Long Beach. There, owners rebuilding and elevating their homes to comply with NFIP requirements needed to exceed local height limits and setback requirements. Variance requests were overwhelming, creating zoning-board-hearing backlogs that exacerbated homeowner frustrations and were particularly onerous for low-income households lacking the resources to prepare technically complex variance applications.

Similarly, non-conformities such as undersized lots can be common in older flood-prone areas, often grandfathered into municipal zoning codes with expectations that they will resolve themselves gradually. But widespread destruction may force homeowners to address these compliance issues in order to rebuild, adding a significant cost burden at the very moment that households are most economically vulnerable.

These local laws and ordinances were designed to manage growth and development in normal times. But the post-disaster period is not normal, and it creates special demands on local governments. Some challenges are impossible to prepare for. But communities have an opportunity right now, before it's too late, to address legal barriers to recovery.

Public officials should start by advocating for federal disaster-recovery policies that provide greater flexibility. They should also develop internal recovery capacity by studying the limitations of federal programs and thinking carefully about how these programs will apply in their specific local contexts, such as the kinds of buildings their residents live in or what kinds of social and economic challenges their residents already face.

Local codes should be evaluated for potential obstacles to recovery, remembering that laws that seem logical and beneficial today may become barriers to recovery when speed, flexibility and efficiency become paramount. Additionally, local and state governments should be prepared to fill gaps when federal programs, inevitably, fail to fit unique local contexts.

Developing effective disaster-recovery programs with nationwide reach is challenging, and federal frameworks will simply never accommodate every unique context. Local governments alone can protect themselves by identifying, anticipating and dealing effectively with potential local impediments to recovery - now, before the need is urgent.

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