William Solecki, Hunter College – City University of New York, New York, NY, USA

Robin Leichenko, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA

Presentation Title: Recovery from disaster and the seeds of urban transformation



The transformation to sustainability requires a greater understanding of how extreme events influence local and regional development trajectories. Within the New York-New Jersey Metropolitan region, Hurricane Sandy and the immediate response to the storm have created conditions for a potential large-scale transformation with respect to settlement of the coastal zone. While the vulnerability of this region to climate change has been well-documented within the scientific literature, Sandy’s impact has placed this issue into the forefront of public and private discussions about the appropriate response at every level, from individual homeowners who are contemplating whether and how to rebuild after devastating losses, to small coastal municipalities considering construction of protective engineering structures and changes in zoning laws, to the City of New York, the states of New York and New Jersey, and the federal government, which are engaging in discussions about how to better protect the region's population, property and vital infrastructure from future storms. This presentation shared preliminary results of research that entailed documentation the ephemeral evidence of the initial phase of transition in coastal communities that were heavily impacted by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge and flooding.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Half of the homeowners surveyed evacuated (average time this took was four months); of these almost all had some damage incurred and about two-thirds were uninhabitable post-Sandy.
  • Given that these are moderate to lower-income working class communicates, i.e., lower resilience in the context of the region, property costs were an important factor in these decisions.
  • In terms of how people were thinking about their long-term occupancy, half said they would prepare to repair their properties to pre-Sandy conditions, whereas a smaller percentage wanted to repair, but make their property more resilient than pre-Sandy conditions.
  • About one-third or more sought buyouts or were looking to sell.
  • Most decisions were made within the first week after the storm (largest percentage over half), although many decided over a longer period of time with some still undecided over a year out.
  • Those who decided right away generally wanted to stay, while those who wanted the buy-out option decided this later in the process.
  • No significant shifts were found in social network capacity, but the study illustrates that even under conditions of stress there was some level of social network, but some felt it was declining.
  • A case by case analysis reveals that those with less social networking capacity were found to sell.
  • The higher percentage of homeowners wavering in their decisionmaking process ultimately seeking buy-outs could be evidence of a system undergoing transition; the back and forth in decisionmaking reflects a system of potential crisis, analogous to the change over time in the physical system.
  • Overall, the study reveals that there is some evidence that different conditions of resilience were present in decisionmaking, i.e., there are reflective qualities of systems under stress, potentially going under transition (which is the decision to buyout).

Policy/Practice Implications of Research

  • Many government responses in the area haven’t been successful with engaging with communities.
  • No coherent process exists of helping those with lower resource capacity.
  • How coastal areas can respond to these kind of stresses (at least in the US) remains a question for the future.

Knowledge Gaps and Needs

  • Understanding other elements that were influencing the nature of their resilience and capacity to make decisions under these conditions.
  • Further integration of stakeholder interviews in the analysis.
  • Although this study is an initial attempt to look at systems transition in the context of household decisionmaking, further data analysis is needed to see what other conclusions and different groupings might be made, and whether a statistical analysis can be developed to illustrate the difference between influencing variables of the buy-out community and those willing to stay.