As a native of New York, I am honored that President Obama has chosen me to lead the Federal government’s rebuilding effort in response to the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. Like so many residents and former residents of the region, this disaster has had a personal impact on me, as friends and colleagues have been affected.
The task of responding to this crisis is daunting, but one I am eager to take on and one that I know the federal government, and our state and local partners are up to. Most importantly, I am confident it is one the people of the region are well, perhaps even uniquely equipped to handle. I have already seen their amazing resilience and response first hand.
The extraordinary commitment that so many have demonstrated as they have reached out to help others begin the process of rebuilding in the wake of this storm is nothing short of remarkable. It includes efforts by first responders, utility workers, state and local officials, and volunteers who supported recovery and relief efforts around the clock – often leaving their own families to help others. But it also includes many individuals who helped neighbors or made other simple but meaningful sacrifices, and in so doing provided their own examples of heroism.
Sometimes just continuing in the face of this kind of tragedy is heroic. Indeed, in my conversations with people in the area who have lost loved ones or homes, I am reminded that while this is a tragedy of epic proportions, with damage on an unprecedented scale, the suffering is felt by individuals. On my first visit back the week after the storm I met a woman at 129th St. in the Rockaways who had her house burned to the ground during the storm. She was no stranger to tragedy, having lost a family member in 9/11, and before that experiencing the horror of an airline crash just a block from her home. And yet, she not only has found the strength to carry on but to see the light and promise ahead. It is that kind of inspiration that I remind myself of as we move forward in this recovery and rebuilding.
In this blog post, which is the first of what I plan to be a regular communication with residents and others about the ongoing efforts to rebuild, I want to introduce myself, and give you some more insight into the vision of the unique opportunity and role we have and the potential impact for the recovery of the region and those who live there. In particular, I want to briefly explain how this role , and the longer-term rebuilding generally, differs from, and builds on the incredible work that FEMA has done since the storm struck and continues to perform today.
Our partners at FEMA, led by Administrator Craig Fugate, have done and continue to do remarkable work helping this region recover. Their immediate and sustained response made a critical and enormous difference in the lives of millions. FEMA will continue to play an integral role in recovery efforts. In fact, it’s due in no small part to the swift and dynamic response we’ve seen from Craig’s team at FEMA that the next stage – the rebuilding and revitalization effort — is ready to hit the ground running.
My focus will be on this next stage and on creating a long-term rebuilding plan. While FEMA’s role of providing immediate and ongoing support to those whose lives have been so disrupted is vital, to prepare communities to deal appropriately with disasters going forward, that support must be coupled with a plan that encourages the kinds of investment and redevelopment that will help communities in the long run.
Thus, the overarching goal for this effort is to take the next steps and rebuild the affected communities stronger, smarter and more resiliently, and to develop a model that can be replicated around the country. The Federal government will continue to play a vital role in helping the region get back on its feet. I feel strongly, however, that if all we achieve is to just get this great region back to the former status quo, we will have wasted an incredible opportunity to develop a 21st century response – to strengthen, prepare, and build communities for a changing environment by providing them with the tools they need going forward.
Quite simply, our work can’t just be about what has happened, but about the future. We must focus on the kind of housing and economic development that few of our communities have been doing. Whether it is through more progressive building codes and smarter land use, by incentivizing economic development, or better understanding environmental and other types of threats to our regional economies, the Federal government can help communities make not only “smart choices” when it comes to planning for disaster – but also choices that work for them, the specific needs of their residents, and their economies.
These efforts cannot and will not be a one-size-fits-all, top-down, Washington-knows-best project. We must and will involve those who know these communities best – the people who live and work in these communities. That is how you build truly vibrant and sustainable communities. It will not be easy. None of this work will be done overnight. And it will require cooperation. But having seen so much courage and resiliency in response to this storm, I that we can rebuild this region stronger and smarter. We will do so with zeal, with initiative, and, as the piece of plywood I saw spray painted near the beach in Queens, stated, “one day at a time.”
I look forward to continuing this conversation and to hearing from you.