Lessons Learned from the Cleanup of Hurricane Sandy – How to Track the $$$

Hurricane Sandy was one of the deadliest on record. The massive storm took the lives of 117 people in the United States and 69 more in Canada and the Caribbean. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) estimates that Sandy caused $5 billion dollars in losses: $4.75 billion in infrastructure damage and a further $246 million in lost revenue and increased operating costs.

To jumpstart the recovery process in 2012, the government created a $50 billion dollar Hurricane Sandy disaster relief fund. The money was a huge help, but tracking those funds could have been a nightmare.

In order to increase the effectiveness of critical federal housing programs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) used data analysis to track performance, identify problems and make needed changes, and Sara Meyers, a 33-year-old-staffer at HUD Meyers, was instrumental in creating processes to track not only the $13.6 billion in HUD economic stimulus funding in 2009, but also the $50 billion in Hurricane Sandy disaster relief money in 2012.

For her work, Meyers has been named a finalist for the Service to America Medals – the Sammies – the Oscars for federal employees.

Meyers told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the first step she took in tracking the recovery process was to get a wide-ranging picture of the situation.

“My work on Hurricane Sandy was really all about creating a comprehensive picture of where we stood with the supplemental funding that was appropriated for recovery,” said Meyers.

By aggregating data from 19 agencies in a transparent way, Meyers was able to create a single administration-wide picture of how billions of dollars of funding was translating into help for families and small businesses recovering from a historic natural disaster.

The good news for Meyers was she had a lot of knowledge about how to track funds. “What really helped us succeed in this area was that at HUD we had a lot of experience starting with the Recovery Act and then with the HUDStat.”

HUDStat is a performance system that was used to compile and analyze data in clear, concise ways that made it easier to understand the outcomes of federal housing programs.

“We were able to get all the different stakeholders from different program areas in a room to talk about targets and then to collect data, and analyze it in a sort of cross silo forum,” said Meyers. “For the Sandy project management office, we really spent a lot of time working with the agencies up front to understand what was possible, what data could they could provide, and what their data meant, because obviously each agency measures things differently.”

Meyers made sure the views of other agencies were heard and that she understood their deliverables. “After we talked it all out, we started in a very deliberate process, drafting dashboards, drafting reports that we circulated throughout the taskforce.”

It has been a tough couple years for feds and for public servants, but Meyers said she is astonished by how driven the federal workforce is despite the less than ideal circumstances.

“You would be amazed at the number of people who are so dedicated to achieving their mission,” she said. “In terms of advice, you often are faced with ‘we don’t have the resources, we’ve never done it that way,’ but you don’t have to get stuck in that mindset. There are people who really care about data and performance in the federal space.”

You can find all our Sammies interviews here.

*Finalist photos by Sam Kittner / kittner.com

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