In the News: N.J. files disaster plan with feds – then invites public input

Philadelphia Enquirer  |  April 7, 2014  |  Jacqueline Urgo, Inquirer Staff Writer

In a move it said would “increase transparency” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management opened a 30-day public comment period on an important hazard mitigation plan – a full week after it had already submitted the plan to the federal government for approval.

The state emergency management office – which regulates everything from dispatch of personnel and equipment to mandatory evacuations during a disaster – on March 11 opened a 30-day public comment period, which it heralded as the first time the agency had ever sought input for the plan from “civilians.”

In a news release that same day, the office stated that it had “opened a public comment period before submitting the plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval.”

The office, however, had already submitted the 94-page plan to FEMA on March 5 to meet a requirement that the proposal be submitted 45 days prior to the expiration of the old plan on April 28, said Mary J. Goepfert, external affairs officer for the state agency.

States must submit a comprehensive hazard mitigation plan to FEMA every three years, but are not required to seek public input. Sandy was one of seven “high impact” events and natural disasters since the last mitigation plan was submitted in 2011.

Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the State Police and director of New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement that the strategies are developed to help municipalities cope with events as they arise to ultimately “save lives and protect property.”

Goepfert said the state unsuccessfully requested that the deadline be extended to accommodate the public comment period. The plan was sent to FEMA without public input because the state didn’t want to jeopardize future disaster funding, she said.

Goepfert didn’t address why the agency had apparently produced the plan on a timeline that prevented the inclusion of public input.

“The plan is extremely comprehensive and reflects years of planning,” Goepfert said. “It incorporates input from numerous state agencies, federal partners, and other key stakeholders.”

But last week, with the “public comment period” set to end April 11, some advocates were crying foul on the entire matter. Some said they had tried to reach state officials by phone and e-mail to question the timing, but had received no response.

“What’s the point of asking for public input for a plan when none of it will actually be used to formulate the plan?” mused Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit smart-growth advocacy group.

People who survived the devastating storm that ravaged the Jersey Shore and did $38 billion in damage on Oct. 29, 2012, and others who helped mitigate it thought they could add substantive perspective about flooding, evacuations, cleanup, and other matters, Sturm said.

‘Shocked, really’

“We were delighted to think we could actually have input into making New Jersey safer for its residents,” Sturm said. “We were very disappointed – shocked, really – to learn that there is no real public process involved here.”

Sturm said that, even though the plan had already been presented to FEMA, her group was submitting comments focused on what it calls a murky ranking process for mitigation projects and a lack of consideration for sea-level rise and flooding issues.

But Charles Latini Jr., president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, said he was “numb” to the “prospect of transparency” involving state agencies in the wake of Sandy.

“There have been transparency issues across the board involving Sandy,” Latini said. “But it’s become critical in planning of any kind not just to look at Sandy, but at the all disasters that have proceeded it and the ultimate impact that they have had on the state’s residents.”

‘Missed opportunity’

Latini said the office of emergency management’s failure to involve the public in formulating its plan was a “missed opportunity to connect policy with action.”

“I think at the end of the day, planning is far more than just creating a plan,” Latini said. “It’s more about educating the public in how that plan works for them and impacts their lives. But excluding the public from that process, you’re excluding a rich resource for important information.”

Goepfert contended that collecting public input on a “parallel track” to the plan’s submission was nonetheless important.

“FEMA encourages states to constantly reevaluate their plans even after they are submitted,” Goepfert said, “and liberally allows amendments to them as time progresses, so there is still room for the public’s impact for our agency as we move forward and tackle future storms.”