When It Comes to Disaster Resilience, Washington Is Leaving City Officials Out to Dry

Cities have become the laboratories of democracy and the engines of economic growth. But a disengaged, miserly national government is making it harder for mayors to prepare for the next catastrophe

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Flooded streets, Hoboken NJ, Hurricane Sandy

With the federal government increasingly locked into what increasingly seems to be a War Games-style no-win scenario, city governments—which are both considerably smaller and considerably more politically homogenous than Washington—are getting their due as the real laboratories of democracy. A recent book by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution made the convincing case that economic growth and innovation in America is occurring from the bottom up, with smart, fast cities taking the lead from the sclerotic national government. Tom Friedman put the shift this way in a recent column: “how long will it be before our kids, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer: ‘I want to be a mayor.'”

Putting aside the fact that Friedman must be talking to some seriously dorky kids—personally, I wanted to grow up to become Spiderman or Doctor J when I was a kid—he’s certainly right that being mayor of a major U.S. city would be considerably more fun that lurching from fundraising event to fundraising event as a member of Congress. Mayors have more immediate accountability, and within their city limits, more immediate power. A good mayor has more impact—for good and ill—on the day to day life of his or her citizens than any other single government official.

That includes the realms of disaster relief and resilience. Yesterday the venerable philanthropic group the Rockefeller Foundation launched the application part of its 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. The program is part of Rockefeller’s $100 million commitment to helping cities prepare for threats—natural, man-made and climate driven. Metropolitan areas will be able to apply to become join the program; those selected will be part of a network that will enable city officials to share information about best practices for disaster prevention and relief, and well as support to create a resilience plan. In an age of Katrinas and Sandys, every city needs to be ready to deal with catastrophe—before and after. “These aren’t once in a hundred year storms anymore,” Judith Rodin, Rockefeller’s president, told me in a meeting today. “These aren’t once in a hundred year financial shocks either. We need to work with mayors and local leaders to support that resilience, so that cities can rebuild themselves much more quickly. You can save billions of dollars if you can invest in resilience and prevention now, instead of waiting until later.”

(MORE: Sandy: What a Coastal U.S. Can Learn from Other Threatened Cities)

Rodin brought Mitch Landrieu along, the New Orleans who knows a thing or two about helping a city respond to disasters—in the Crescent City’s case, a string of bad times that began with 9/11, and continued through Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, as well as the Gulf oil spill. New Orleans will be applying to the Centennial Challenge, and Landrieu, who took over as mayor in 2010, looks forward to swapping stories and strategies with his fellow mayors. “This will be a great platform for accelerating years and years of best practices,” he says.

Still, as optimistic as Landrieu and other mayors may be about the abilities of cities to help themselves in a hotter, more extreme future, he’s still stung by what he sees as the federal government’s abandonment of cities on infrastructure and disaster resilience. Thanks to sequestration and budget hawks, cities are being forced to get along without the help they’re accustomed to receiving from Washington, both for day to day activities, and for longer-term projects. Congress has been reluctant to spend money on disaster relief, let along on programs that strengthen prevention. That matters for building the kinds of hardened infrastructure a city needs to outlast the next storm—think a tougher electrical grid, or housing stock that’s more resilient to flooding. But it also matters for “social cohesion”—projects that can strengthen communities themselves. Stronger communities bounce back better from disasters of all sorts. But a stronger community needs better health care, safety, jobs—services that cities alone can’t deliver. “Without community and social cohesion, we won’t be able to respond to emergencies,” says Rodin. “That social fabric is fraying in America.”

Cities will try to fill the gaps as best they can. Landrieu and Rodin note that mayors are trying to leverage private businesses and philanthropic organizations to provide needed capital for infrastructure improvements. But “nothing can beat the power and accumulation of wealth that the federal government can bring to bear,” says Landrieu. “We’ll never be as good as we could be without our federal partners, but we can’t wait for them.” Cities—well, most of them—are the best face of American government today, but that’s due in part to default, thanks to a historically ineffective federal government. When the next Sandy hits—and it will—a well-run, well-prepared city could make all the difference. But without an engaged national government, mayors will be trying to stave off the flood waters with one arm tied behind their back.

MORE: As Government Reacts to Sandy, Lessons from Katrina and Other Natural Disasters