The storm after the superstorm: alumna lobbies for forward-thinking relief

January 30, 2013

When Superstorm Sandy struck the northeast coast last October, it struck with a vengeance. It cascaded over seawalls; knocked a roller coaster into the ocean; yanked out chunks of the Atlantic City boardwalk; felled trees and power lines; flooded multimillion dollar homes; lit fires, then blew them from street to street; and shut down public transport systems, schools, airports, and the New York Stock Exchange. Residents in the lower third of Manhattan lost electricity-no lights, no computers, no elevators, no refrigerators-and they weren't the only ones. Altogether, some 8.5 million lost power in the northeastern United States. Worse yet, tens of thousands were left homeless.

Molly Maguire (MPP '11), who had taken a job with the Office of Management and Budget for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg only two months before the storm hit, dodged the worst of Sandy at her Washington Heights apartment in upper Manhattan. But as a new analyst for the Mayor's budget office, Maguire found herself at the center of another storm entirely: the policy response. "Nearly every policy has a budgetary impact," says Maguire, "and that's especially true of emergency relief."

Costing recovery

The day after Sandy struck, estimates of the damage began to flood the media. One disaster-modeling company put the damage at $10 to $20 billion; another at $100 billion (in 2005, Hurricane Katrina reportedly caused $108 billion in damages). They all used reasonable models, but without sending repair crews out to locate damaged equipment, identifying vendors who sold or could manufacture replacements, and weighing the merits of each alternative, they were only rough estimates. For New York City, which took some 60 percent of the storm's damage, it was Maguire's new office that would need to calculate the real cost, educate Congress about the need, and lobby for allocations. Maguire's role in that? Tracking and comparing Hurricane Sandy funding proposals, working with agency experts to determine damage estimates and, together with the mayor's colleagues in Washington, DC, lobbying Congress for necessary repairs to the city's crippled public transport system.

To get a sense of the enormity of that challenge, you need to understand that New York City's public transport system is huge. It transports more people than any other system in the country (the region's 5,600 busses provide 784 million rides a year and its 6,282 subway cars another 1.6 billion). It's also, says Maguire, one of the oldest public transport systems in the country. This in itself presents challenges. "Many of the parts that were damaged were 70 to 80 years old. They don't even make them any more," Maguire explains.

Tackling massive budget shortfalls

There were political constraints, too. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency relief budget for 2013 was set at $5.5 billion, with another $6 billion in reserve. The most accurate Superstorm Sandy damage estimates, though, were coming in at $60 billion. Arguing for a tenfold budget increase in the midst of national deficits wasn't an easy sell. Republicans were offering $20 billion, and the buzz was that they were calling Sandy "a blue state disaster," Maguire says. "I'm not idealistic, and I wouldn't consider myself to be too naíve, but to hear that was frustrating."

Federal indecision was especially frustrating because those hardest hit by Sandy were low and moderate income families. "The effect of Sandy balloons for these residents in a way that it doesn't for others with means," says Maguire. Unnecessary delays in appropriations hurt them more because they don't have the income to make repairs on their own. And if they are able to find the funding to make repairs after the storm-through a loan, use of credit, or family contributions-they won't be reimbursed. The federal emergency management system only reimburses for "unmet" need. "The storm exacerbated a lot of inequality," says Maguire.

Confronting the future of climate change

Still, it wasn't just a matter of building a case for a budget increase or identifying the cost of appropriate replacement parts; it was a matter of confronting the future. Maguire is one of a growing number of University of Michigan alumni who have earned certificates through the Ford School's Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program (STPP), which arms scientists with an understanding of the policy process and policymakers with an understanding of science and technology.

"There's near unanimous agreement in the scientific community that the world will experience much more in the way of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, and that the effects of such storms will be exacerbated by rapidly rising sea levels," says STPP Director and Ford School Professor Carl Simon. Unfortunately, many conservative members of Congress don't share these beliefs. Knowing this, Maguire and her colleagues worked swiftly to build a strong case for a number of infrastructure upgrades that would be able to withstand coastal storm surges in the future. "In the moments right after disaster, everyone's with you. They say, 'oh, we'll give you all the money you need,'" says Maguire. "But the sentiment dissipates quickly."

While the communities hardest hit by Sandy have much more work ahead of them to prepare for the impacts of climate change, New York and New Jersey Republicans, equipped with talking points from Maguire and her colleagues, recently swayed 49 of their party members to join Democrats voting in favor of the area's requested emergency relief. Three months after Superstorm Sandy hit, President Obama approved a $50 billion dollar relief package. Still, one can't help but wonder if a region that generates so much of America's wealth will remain trapped in response mode as legislators continue to debate the scientific feasibility of climate change, or if Congress will begin to pursue what is likely to be the less expensive route: proactive mitigation and adaptation efforts.