Hurricane Sandy, the second-most costly storm in American history after Hurricane Katrina, pummeled the Northeast in October 2012, resulting in 162 fatalities, damage to 650,000 homes from flooding and high winds, the destruction of countless businesses and the loss of power to 8.5 million customers.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) oversaw the initial response to the storm, the White House created the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force several months later to provide government-wide coordination of the numerous federal agencies assisting the affected states and localities and dispensing the nearly $50 billion appropriated by Congress for disaster recovery.
Marion Mollegen McFadden, the chief operating officer and later acting executive director of the recovery task force, led the ambitious interagency effort, harnessing the power of the federal government during an intense 10-month period to provide unified support to the hard-hit communities as they were making decisions about their rebuilding efforts.
“For Marion, the question was always, ‘How can we work together across the federal government to protect the most vulnerable people depending on us?’” said Richard Reed, a senior vice president of the American Red Cross. “The task force allowed the government to speak with one voice, and Marion was very effective in creating this unity of purpose.”
Former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, who was named by President Obama to chair the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, said McFadden was “indispensable” to the entire Sandy recovery effort.
“Marion is unique in combining a real breadth of vision with a deep understanding of the way things actually get done in the federal government,” said Donovan.
The Sandy task force collaborated with local and state governments and nonprofits throughout the Northeast as well as 23 federal agencies and offices. The task force helped disaster survivors stay in their homes by allowing owners to make emergency repairs quickly; prevented responsible homeowners from being forced out of their homes due to short-term financial hardship; and made it easier for small businesses to access loans and contracting opportunities.
The task force also worked with HUD to release toolkits to help communities design effective home rehabilitation and buyout programs utilizing disaster funding, and launched the Rebuild By Design competition that attracted world-class talent to develop innovative flood protection projects to protect communities in the future.
In addition, the task force developed a wide-ranging rebuilding strategy that included 69 recommendations for long-term disaster recovery, some of which were put into effect for Sandy and others that will provide a template for future disaster response.
One key element involved a unified, administration-wide flood risk reduction standard for all federally funded major rebuilding projects in the region. Under this standard, residential, commercial and infrastructure projects applying for federal dollars must account for flood risk and take steps to elevate or otherwise flood-proof their structures.
Laura Hogshead, a HUD deputy chief of staff, said that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, most of the rebuilding was at the level that existed before the storm, leaving the people and buildings with continued vulnerability.
“The stories about Katrina were about what was going wrong and that the regulations didn’t work. This time, with Sandy, there was a collaborative way to move forward, and the agencies and stakeholders were tied together like glue,” said Hogshead. “The government was one government, which is what the citizens expect, and homeowners had the chance to come forward with their situations and get one answer, not several.”
McFadden, a career HUD attorney who has worked on disaster recovery since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said the Sandy task force “organized the federal government to create a blueprint for how the substantial federal investment would be put to best use and get the affected region back on its feet.”
“We had a very ambitious agenda, and we tried to get everything right. We had to get all the other agencies to buy in and we had to work very closely with federal, state and local officials,” said McFadden. “We provided a place for everyone to take their concerns.”
Josh Sawislak, a senior HUD advisor, said that in addition to coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies until the task force terminated its work in September 2013, McFadden served as a bridge to state and city government officials who were coping with the day-to-day rebuilding efforts.
“There was a direct relationship with the states and communities, regular conversations with senior staff and the governors and the mayors,” said Sawislak. “Marion brought a calm and an understanding that it was about the people, not politics, and she found ways to get things done.”
Marc Ferzan, who headed the New Jersey Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said McFadden was “available nonstop” for the state, working through difficult issues to help to those impacted by the storm.
“She has applied smart, creative and common-sense approaches as well as the elbow grease needed to get solutions for our disaster recovery efforts,” said Ferzan. “She is really what you hope to see from a true public servant.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed
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