By Chris Eshleman
Eight years before Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast and devastated the historic city of New Orleans. Residents, and the country, then watched as public officials fumbled with recovery strategies. Kristina Ford, former top planner for New Orleans, sees takeaways for New York as it recovers from Sandy. Ford is the author of 2010’s The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us and is professor of professional practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
We spoke to Ford in February about the legacy impacts Superstorm Sandy may leave on New York City.
TMP: What differences between Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York are worth focusing on as the latter learns and adapts from Sandy?
Ford: People in New Orleans were so uncertain of their future following Katrina that they didn’t know if they could come home. In New York, damage was more localized. There are plenty of people in New York who have some tough decisions to make — I think about it when it gets very cold, think about people in Rockaway or over in Staten Island.
But after Katrina, there weren’t any jobs in New Orleans because nothing was open. So in a way it’s hard to compare the two. I think New York City had already learned some things from New Orleans and Katrina. I watched Mayor Bloomberg before the storm. He was measured and calm, and serious about what might happen and about how people should prepare. And [former New Orleans Mayor] Ray Nagan was not that way.
TMP: Do any post-Sandy policy proposals stand out at this point?
Ford: I was interested in the buyout program Governor Cuomo proposed in early February. Cuomo suggested paying market value to people whose houses were devastated and shouldn’t be rebuilt in the same place. And there are options — if they stayed within the same county, they’d get a bonus. That’s a way of saying we understand that people would like to stay together, that they like something more than just their house.
TMP: It has been over four months since Sandy hit. What might public officials want to remember at this point in time?
Ford: The public wants to hear, and understand, the alternatives. One option might be, “you can’t build here [at high-risk locations] again.” Another option might be, “you can build here, but you must build above the likely height of future storm surges, given the fact of climate change.” Public officials need to work through alternatives by way of a real, informed conversation.
TMP: How do you suspect Sandy might ultimately influence the public’s long-term interest in municipal policies, such as zoning and development standards?
Ford: We were just talking about what citizens did in response to a disaster. And they acted well in this city. They acted well in New Orleans, too. One man, a postal worker, drowned after he had saved somewhere around 10 people in his neighborhood. But short-term behavior and long-term attention aren’t always in synch. One of the things that has to happen, and this goes to behavioral economics, is the city can do certain things in anticipation of future climate change and these kind of storms. Getting people out of the flood plains, for example. But citizens have to retain an interest in not contributing to factors that create climate change.
Elected officials need sustained public interest in the context of competing pressures. It’s about trying to sustain the type of pressure that only the public can put on elected officials to make smart long-term decisions. And it’s about keeping after it – keeping after something like climate change will take that sustained pressure.
TMP: That might step beyond what some think of when it comes to contributing to the city-level public process.
Ford: Bloomberg really cares about the environment. But he’s only going to be in office for another year. Well, if there ever was a long-term concern, this is it – global climate change and its effects. It’s important that the public remains active so that politicians know it’s important to vote for such things as, for example, prohibiting development in FEMA floodplains.
TMP: You write that very few problems are limited to one place and one time. History repeats itself. What lessons do Katrina and Sandy carry for metropolitan policy in general?
Ford: City plans need to be written differently. Every city has big problems that are difficult to face and acknowledge, and their plans must focus on those problems, as well as on what the public values and what land-use conflicts exist.
I don’t criticize anyone for mistakes I haven’t made myself. Well, in New Orleans the problem is geography, so it never should have had a plan that didn’t directly address geography. New York City is also on the coast. In other places, risks are different. In San Bernardino, California, no public plan should ignore the risk associated with wildfires.
The lesson from both New Orleans and Sandy is that you’ve got to think about these problems more and plan for them in the long term.