Hurricane Sandy had passed, and Bill Golden had a front-row seat for what was left behind.
He had spent the night riding out the storm in his ship, docked alongside Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. And as the 128-foot vessel re-entered the New York harbor for the first time, he saw images that he still recalls clearly, even nearly two years later.
“I could see the cars floating, and I could see Lower Manhattan blacked out,” Golden said, “and really no first responders around because they were out working in different areas trying to save lives.
“You had this city — the financial capital of the world — brought to its knees.”
It wasn't long before the Princeton resident, a longtime environmental attorney and former public official, grew concerned about the next time the region's infrastructure and economy could be crippled by Mother Nature — concerns shared by his friend and fellow borough resident Paul Josephson, a veteran New Jersey lawyer in his own right.
Within a year, they had formed the National Institute for Coastal & Harbor Infrastructure.
The organization is focused on what it calls the “triple threat” to the national economy and security — rising sea levels, extreme weather and aging infrastructure. And it's advocating for a broad policy of planning and investing, rather than regional responses focused on repairing 20th century infrastructure whenever a storm hits.
It's a goal Golden and Josephson hope to see realized at the federal level — in a single government agency — with the level of attention, funding and focus on economic development and security that drove the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
There's no doubting it's a lofty goal. There's no telling how difficult it will be to build such a consensus when environmental issues are on the table and billions of dollars are needed. But Golden and Josephson say the organization they call NICHI, with its nine-member board of policy experts, is making valuable inroads with government officials at all levels, regional planning groups and business leaders.
Case in point was NICHI's first conference in November, two months after the group's official founding. The symposium in Boston drew some 250 stakeholders such as Garret Graves, who was then chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
The group held a second summit this spring that was geared toward the private sector, with a takeaway being that some executives are starting to understand the need for resiliency planning as a means of protecting their return on investment.
“That's been the real change, I think, from the business perspective,” said Josephson, a Cherry Hill-based attorney with Duane Morris L.P. “This is no longer something that you can kind of put off to your successors. This is now a problem that you've got to really address proactively, and we are starting to see some folks do that.”
In some cases, that's meant putting mechanical and electrical systems on the second floor of an office building, rather than the first floor, or redesigning a building to be flood-resistant.
But Josephson also is seeing it day to day in his law practice, which focuses largely on government regulations. Clients have sought advice on how to conduct their own planning and risk assessments, he said, especially in light of guidance documents issued in recent years by the Securities and Exchange Commission about how companies should disclose financial risks tied to climate change.
Still, Golden said, “too few businesses have even reached that point of awareness,” especially when it comes to understanding that planning goes beyond the walls of a company. He said companies need to remember how Sandy crippled the infrastructure around them, preventing employees from getting to work even if their buildings were protected — while paralyzing commerce at places such as Port Newark.
So NICHI is hoping businesses will “get a seat at the table” in order to impact policy for infrastructure planning, said Golden, who serves as NICHI's executive director.
“Government can't do everything, and there are real limitations on what government can do,” he said. “So if you look at how we're going to address it, it has to be at the very least a partnership in which business is involved.”
What exact role business would play remains to be seen, they said, whether it's that industries that use the infrastructure are contributing to those investments, or that infrastructure is actually privatized and becomes a revenue opportunity for a company.
Such issues — and the overall question of how to pay for everything — are among the reasons NICHI is pushing for a new single federal agency. The group said the agency could centralize the existing funding sources and revenue streams from taxes that are currently available for such projects, while finding ways to encourage private investment.
NICHI also said the department is needed to help coordinate and assist many of the regional efforts that are in fact making progress in tackling the “triple threat.” Such efforts have taken hold in Louisiana, nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, and in South Florida, where Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties formed a coalition in 2009 to address the effects of climate change.
“There is some organization now around the local and regional level … but the problem is, without the feds into this game, it's like playing with one hand tied behind your back,” Golden said. He noted that the NICHI symposium in November brought together each of those groups.
“What you realized is that they understood their issues locally and they had all reached the same point of frustration, concern and focus. And that was that the federal government had to be a partner.”
Still, anyone involved in infrastructure planning knows it can be a complex task and an uphill battle, especially on such a grand scale.
Philip Orton, a research assistant professor of physical oceanography at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, said that, when it comes to rising sea levels, “in one respect it's a no-brainer and it doesn't require any belief in climate change. If you just look backwards at the past 50 years — you just draw a linear trend — there is some adaptation needed. And there has been adaptation already.”
But it gets more complicated when trying to project how fast sea levels will rise decades in the future and whether or not storms will become more severe, he said. Such projections have a wide range, he said.
“Then there starts to be differing degrees of debate or uncertainty,” said Orton, a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change. “So that's when it becomes a little more difficult to build a bigger consensus. And you do need a consensus to do these things, to have these things be funded when it comes to the money side of the problem.”
NICHI is hoping to do so in part by engaging stakeholders across the country, including federal officials who have recognized the effort, Josephson said. And as the group pushes the larger issue of cabinet-level recognition — one they hope will surface in the 2016 election — they hope to become a focal point for advocacy and a clearinghouse for the coastal resiliency plans that are in the works around the country.
It also remains to be seen if politics become part of the discussion. Josephson is a former chief counsel and assistant attorney general under Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat. Golden is a former public official from Massachusetts whose career includes six years as a Democratic state senator, not to mention a veteran of Washington policymaking.
Both downplay any concerns that political affiliation will get in the way, noting that NICHI is working with the administration of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a high-profile Republican.
Whether or not anything can get done at the federal level is certainly a valid question. But Golden and Josephson said it all starts with local and regional compacts like those taking shape elsewhere in the country.
And in New Jersey, political affiliations vary from coastal Bergen County to the port region and down through the Jersey Shore — all areas that are vulnerable — but Josephson feels that “at the end of the day” there will be a critical mass of people looking for new answers and new policies.
“And it will be Democratic leaders and Republican leaders saying, 'We need this done,'” Josephson said. “That's when we start to break the logjam in Washington.”
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