Hurricanes bring destructive winds and oceans onto land. With them, they take homes, businesses, and lives, and as the waters recede and the winds calm, the communities they ravage are left picking up the pieces, wondering how and if they will be able to return to their way of life. But with a perseverant sense of duty and resilience, communities like New Orleans, Louisiana and Seaside Heights, New Jersey have managed to recover from the devastating loss brought by natural disaster.
It’s been over ten years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, and almost five years since Hurricane Sandy tore through Seaside Heights. In this piece, we’ll hear stories about the road to recovery for both of these communities—one which has completed the journey, and one that’s still on its way. Through hearing stories like these, community leaders and policy-makers just might find themselves that much more capable of reacting and adapting to each new natural disaster.
“Up until Katrina, emergency assistance was calculated in terms of 30, 60, and 90-day responses by [organizations like] Red Cross and FEMA,” explained Ben Johnson, President of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. “With Katrina, that started to change. There [had] never [been] anything of this scale.” At the time of Katrina, Johnson was the CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, a position that would make him both a participant in, and a witness to, the effort required to restore an entire community and economy in the wake of the costliest natural disaster ($108 billion) in American history.
Regarding the change in response, Johnson explained, “One huge piece was the overall transformation of responses to major disasters. The second piece was the economic development side of it. It wasn’t part of the emergency assistance response. And I think what they learned from Katrina, is you need to be equally engaged in getting the businesses up and running, getting the economy back, otherwise there is nothing for people to come back to.”
And where businesses were able to return to work, there was the issue of workforce housing. “The CEOs came back but there was nowhere for the majority of workers to live,” explained Johnson. Due, in part, to an organizational structure ill-equipped for dealing with such large-scale tragedy, FEMA became a source of frustration for many community leaders as they found that it lacked the flexibility necessary for them to effectively address exactly these types of problems. For instance, a relatively inexpensive renovation of a hotel’s first floor that could have quickly provided a much-needed supply of workforce housing never actually happened, because it didn’t meet the specific criteria set forth by FEMA, even though it constituted an efficient solution to an urgent problem. The ability and willingness to make practical, need-based decisions, the community found, was sorely lacking.
It soon became clear to many in the New Orleans community that the federal government did not have the capacity to respond to Katrina. By Johnson’s estimate, it was only about six to nine months before community members realized that recovery efforts were going to have be largely in their own hands. So, in response to that realization, local civic leaders began to delegate tasks to community members, while systematically documenting things for FEMA and other such government organizations—and demanding responses.
“There was unprecedented collaboration after the storm,” Johnson recalled. “Groups that never worked together, they realized that this [recovery effort] is only going to work if we all work together.” Johnson also noted that the memory of Hurricane Andrew in Miami helped motivate the New Orleans community to take matters into their own hands: “Twelve years after Andrew, they still had FEMA trailers there,” he said. “You [become] old news pretty quickly.”
For New Orleans, this spirit of cooperation has paid off. A city that was 80 percent uninhabitable just ten years ago, now boasts accolades enviable of any world-class city: #1 Business Climate (Business Facilities); #1 Most Economical City (KPMG); #1 Brain Magnet in America (Forbes); and #3 City in Winning the IT Jobs Battle (Forbes). Hospitality and tourism numbers have surpassed pre-Katrina conditions; some of the best hospitals in the country are in New Orleans; even NASA is back to being a formidable local presence. “Anything that’s gone out of Earth’s orbit started here in New Orleans and Louisiana,” Johnson said. “We just built the rocket ship that’s going to Mars.” The knowledge-based economy is bustling in this city, making it one of the top cities for relocation.
The new New Orleans has a new personality to match its refurbished facade. Ever since Katrina, Johnson said, ”There’s just a different attitude. … It’s more of a can-do, ‘get on the train, get out of the way’ [attitude].” This new attitude has proven especially conducive to local entrepreneurship and small business growth—a development that, Johnson added, “is spectacular.”
A more recent change is how the New Orleans community chooses to remember the event that set it on its current course. For instance, Johnson explained, major commemorations pretty much stopped after the tenth anniversary. “It was hard every year coming back to the anniversary date, everybody basically reliving it as they tried to memorialize all the people that died, the hardship, all the people that couldn’t come back. It was cathartic and important.” But now, he continued, instead of focusing on past hardship and loss, the community celebrates all the progress they’ve made since Katrina, and looks forward to all that lays ahead.
In September 2012, the second-costliest hurricane in American history, Hurricane Sandy, hit the entire eastern seaboard, most severely damaging New Jersey and New York. Seaside Heights, New Jersey is an oceanfront beach community that was particularly devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The borough’s population more than doubles during the summer—from 30,000 to 65,000 people—making for a robust tourism industry. But Sandy, along with the ten-alarm fire that followed a year later, essentially wiped out Seaside Heights’ entire economy.
“A few days after Sandy, FEMA’s initial rush of people told us that [based on] their experience with Katrina, this would be a five- to seven-year post-hurricane rebuild,” recalled Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz. “It certainly was not what people wanted to hear, but it’s the reality,” he added, noting that the five- to seven-year window has turned out to be “110 percent accurate.”
A rollercoaster sitting in the Atlantic Ocean became an iconic image of Hurricane Sandy. This rollercoaster, the Jet Star, came from Seaside Heights’ Casino Pier, a major driver of economic activity for the borough. The hurricane claimed much of Casino Pier as well as the Funtown Pier to the south, and essentially, all the businesses in between, up and down the boardwalk. Oh, and it also destroyed the boardwalk itself. But the community remained steadfast in their determination to be ready for their next summer season.
“The mission was to be open by Memorial Day Weekend,” Vaz recalled. “The businesses in town worked very hard to make that happen. Casino Pier had the Jet Star removed from the ocean. They removed what was left of the upper deck. They put themselves in a position to open back up in the spring. Many of the businesses on the boardwalk, the restaurants and bars, did what they could. On the south end, Funtown wasn’t able to open up the rides, but a lot of the businesses in the south end were able to open. The t-shirt stores, the ice cream stores, the carousel—they were able to find a way to open.
“We made it through the summer, but it wasn’t a great summer for Seaside Heights because a lot of people just assumed we were closed,” Vaz continued. “That was a big battle in 2013 and 2014. The Governor and his wife did a series of commercials to tell people that we were open.”
Then, in an unfortunate twist of fate, after moving at breakneck speed to recover from Hurricane Sandy, the Seaside Heights community was dealt another blow. “The fire hit in September 2013. It was like getting hit on the other side of the face at that point,” remembered Vaz. “It took out the whole five blocks. What Sandy didn’t take, the fire took.
“We had what we called a ‘double storm’. We lost a very large part of our economic base from the fire. It took out an entire amusement park [Funtown]; it took out an arcade, it took out about 90 businesses.”
The fire destroyed the south end of the boardwalk, literally reducing the area to ashes. The conclusion of the fire investigation attributed the cause of the fire to the hurricane that hit less than a year prior. “Sandy basically moved basements from one side of town to the other,” explained Vaz. “Apparently there was a faulty wire.”
Again, a sense of urgency to recover resurfaced: “There was a rush between the state, Seaside Heights, and Seaside Park (neighboring town) to get the debris removed and get the boardwalk rebuilt. It’s been difficult because there were two or three large owners but over sixty separate tenants, and a lot of them had ninety-nine year leases,” Vaz explained. “It was a big mess.”
Funtown still hasn’t reopened, and it likely won’t in the near future, which is problematic for Seaside Heights’ economy. “It was like having a Macy’s at one end of the mall, and a JC Penney at the other—the two anchors,” Vaz said. “They were longtime competitors, but both were around so long, they were happy [that way]; they each had their own niche. Now that we don’t have that southern anchor, that side of the mall is dark.”
Just as one might imagine in a mall with a missing anchor tenant, the small businesses that depend on the foot traffic between the amusement parks have also suffered. “Our south end of the boardwalk, it’s been tough for those business owners,” said Vaz. “People tend to walk and they reach a certain point and just turn around and go back. There’s some building going on though—restaurants, ice cream. It will help get people to the south end, but the big draw was Funtown.”
Independent of the community’s efforts to rebuild the boardwalk, Seaside Heights has also become more aggressive in their efforts to let people know they’re open for business, and to entice them to come visit. For example, Vaz and his team started a marketing campaign to promote the slew of family activities the area has to offer: bonfires on the beach; Family Fun Night; beach equipment (like inflatable obstacle courses) for sale. The town even had a stage donated by MTV through a telethon put on by the cast of The Jersey Shore, which they now use to stage major concerts.
Also, the borough and the owners of Casino Pier worked together on a complicated land swap, that allowed the pier to replace the rides destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The deal required state approval, which was easily obtained given the local economic importance of the pier. Consequently, the Jet Star, once the iconic image of Sandy, was replaced by a modern coaster, Hydrus, which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie described as an “iconic image of survival and moving on.”
Four years removed from the full effects of Hurricane Sandy, Seaside Heights has made tremendous progress, but the community still has a long way to go. According to Vaz, “The boardwalk is still struggling. Some business weren’t able to reopen. We’ve since started a very aggressive redevelopment strategy using state-enabled tax incentives to encourage developers to come into town.”
Their recovery thus far, however, is a testament to both the power of local collaboration, and the strength of leadership from the State of New Jersey. “If you look at the successes [in the response to Sandy] that New Jersey and the Jersey Shore has had—and we’ve had a lot of successes—they were because of the governor. He came through in a big way,” said Vaz. Now, when the governor walks down the boardwalk, Vaz continued, “people will stop and clap for him. We see him differently than other people see him. We had some major victories because he intervened. He was able to get things done for us here. When we had the fire, he was here. He came with his cabinet, DEP, DCA, and economic development authority people and other agencies, while the fire was still burning. When the fire was done he wanted the new boardwalk up overnight. He knew how to manage a crisis, that’s for sure.”
The 2012 season was the final season of The Jersey Shore, and by many local measures, Seaside Heights’ best year financially. The summer of 2012 ended with Hurricane Sandy. So, naturally, the community tends to compare where it is today, with where it was back in 2012. So far, Vaz said, “our beach numbers have recovered pretty well. Our beach revenues for 2016 were just shy of [revenues for] 2012.”
Still on the mend from an economy-erasing series of disasters, Mr. Vaz sees progress but tempers his optimism with patience: “Each year it looks different; it’s been incremental.”
The experiences of New Orleans and Seaside Heights indicate some progress in terms of our capacity and capability of rebuilding communities devastated by hurricanes. The Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, signed into law by President George W. Bush, addressed many of the shortcomings revealed by Katrina. Then, the Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8 by President Obama in 2011 further identified needs after a disaster, essentially requiring broad collaboration among many federal departments and agencies. This collaboration is coordinated by the Recovery Support Functions, which includes Economic Recovery, and Community Planning and Capacity Building—roles that were sorely missed in New Orleans, and made a world of difference in Seaside Heights.