If a storm that reportedly killed more than 100 people in 10 states and caused untold billions in damage can be said to have a winner, it's the Army Corps of Engineers.
As early, anecdotal assessments arrive from areas slammed by Hurricane Sandy last week, it appears that communities behind the Army Corps' dunes, groins and jetties suffered less damage than their unprotected counterparts.
"It's a testament, I think, to engineered beaches," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), who has done two flyovers of his eastern Long Island district, said yesterday evening by phone. "The engineered beach at West Hampton Dunes held up pretty well, and on either side of it there was overwash after overwash."
Army Corps officials say it will take months to assess the damage and months after that to estimate the full cost of rebuilding beaches and protective structures that were washed away. But Bishop and other lawmakers are already pushing for Congress to put an emergency funding bill on the top of its agenda when it reconvenes next week.
With a nor'easter expected to arrive tomorrow with strong wind, heavy rain and unusually high tides, Northeast lawmakers say communities along beaches ravaged by Sandy are now lying vulnerable.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) introduced H.R. 6581 Friday, which would appropriate an extra $45 million for the corps, $255 million to the Small Business Administration and $11.7 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And in an interview with CNBC yesterday, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) vowed to not only fight for a supplemental appropriations bill to cover emergency needs of the Army Corps and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development but also to push broadly for investment in water infrastructure.
"What we need to focus on as a nation is the deficit in infrastructure," said Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security subpanel. "Now you're seeing it play out in real time, in horrific detail in New York."
Insiders say images of devastated beaches splayed across American television screens for more than a week have brought a greater recognition of the value of the corps' work that could pay off in its budget.
"I think the corps' budget will get a less sharp knife taken to it when people take a look at not just the coastal disasters, but also the riverine disasters we had last year," said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist for shore protection and renourishment projects who estimates repairs from Sandy will reach at least $100 million. "People understand that these are events that do occur."
The corps' budget as a whole has been under siege, especially since last year's budget showdown created a zero-sum game between the agency's often-competing responsibilities for navigation, flood control and ecosystem restoration. Beach nourishment projects, in particular, have been targeted by the last three presidential administrations, though Congress usually restores that funding.
The Army Corps, in fact, is always the winner, according to Andrew Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
"The Army Corps of Engineers' business model is such that they basically win no matter what," Coburn said. "Basically, every coastal community is looking for some sort of project from the Army Corps of Engineers. ... The corps will then go out and do a feasibility study -- every step of the way, they get funding to do all of these studies -- and time and time again, they conclude that whatever they're looking at, what do you know, this project should happen."
If the project fails, the corps gets money to fix it; if a dune succeeds but washes away slowly, the corps gets paid to put it back, Coburn said.
The Army Corps has 152 projects in the densely populated region hit by Sandy and has authority -- but not always money -- to do projects over every inch of beach from Montauk, N.Y., to the south end of Assateague Island in Virginia, according to the agency. On 54 miles of developed coastline along the Jersey Shore alone, the corps has spent more than $700 million replacing sand since 1986.
Impetus for reform?
Critics say many of the corps' beach protection projects shovel good money after bad in a never-ending effort to get naturally variable shorelines to conform to what humans want them to be. Moreover, they contend, taxpayer-backed programs like flood insurance encourage people to live in vulnerable areas.
It is a battle that's been going on for decades, but advocates hope the country's current fiscal straits might prompt officials to consider alternatives to simply rebuilding what was there before.
"This is not the last storm that's going to come, so are we prepared to do this time and time again?" asked Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "This is the budgetary equivalent of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill."
Ellis and Coburn admit there are certain places that simply must be rebuilt. Indeed, the New Jersey shoreline is so densely developed, much of it will likely need to be replaced, they acknowledge.
But, particularly with climate change and sea-level rise increasing the odds that storms will inflict considerable damage in the future, there should be a deliberate process for deciding where and how to rebuild, they contend.
"The half-life of a natural disaster is relatively brief to take in the lessons and enact the changes, but it's really critical to get that right so if Sandy part deux comes through, we see less damage and less loss of life than we did with Sandy," Ellis said.
Policy changes like that likely would not come in an emergency supplemental spending bill, but in a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has mounted an effort to pass one during the lame-duck session that starts next week, although most observers expect it to be punted to the next Congress.
That would give officials time to incorporate lessons learned from Sandy.
Corps coastal engineer Charley Chestnutt said it will take one to six months to assess damage from the storm, and then likely another couple of years to do an in-depth assessment of how well the whole region's coastal projects performed.
Although he will be fighting for the money to rebuild the corps' projects, Marlowe, the beach-renourishment lobbyist, acknowledges that something needs to be done to reduce risk, especially in the context of sea-level rise.
The federal government has limited authority in this since zoning regulations are set at the local level. But one of the groups Marlowe represents, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, is pushing for federal policy that encourages state compacts, where groups of states work together to reduce risk, he said.
"Storms don't know states' political lines," Marlowe said. "Water is crossing state lines, sand crosses state lines, birds and turtles cross state lines. ... If you're going to reduce risk in one state that's right next to another that hasn't planned to reduce risk, then you've failed."
But some of those who have fought beach projects for decades are skeptical about how much will really change now, even after a storm so destructive as Sandy.
"Every storm, we've thought, 'That's it, this is the one that's going to change how the federal government responds,'" said Coburn. "We said that with Hurricane Hugo ... with Katrina ... but I don't see that much changing, other than the reality of how much money the federal government is going to have to spend as a result of this storm."