As needs have shifted so too has the conversation.
Recovery remains underway in varying degrees following Hurricane Sandy's arrival on New Jersey's shores in late October. And while meeting immediate needs of storm survivors was a challenge at times, the direction was always clear: a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Long term recovery, however, is a concept still up for debate. The only thing that's clear now is just how unclear it really all is.
At Monmouth University Thursday night, a live panel comprised of experts and officials joined a second panel broadcast live from New York City to discuss the ongoing issues related to recovery following Sandy. Hosted by NJTV, the two-hour televised event called Superstorm Sandy: A Live Town Hall, was shown on public television networks throughout New Jersey and New York, and even in Philadelphia.
A consensus from both panels came quickly. Both states need to rebuild with resiliency as they adjust to the realities of a changing climate. How best to do that remains a bit of a mystery.
Ideas that have been bandied about for months were reintroduced Thursday. Dunes are a must, some said, while others pointed to the need to mitigate through elevation. The $1.8 billion in grant funding, $700 million of which find its way to homeowners in the form of Community Development Block Grants, is crucial to aid in the recovery of some neighborhoods, but then there are neighborhoods that would be better off abandoned, absorbed into the State's Blue Acres program.
All of them are good, potential ideas; probable ideas, but alone, also problematic ideas.
The reality is, there will not be enough money to go around, not with the average cost of home elevation costing upwards of $100,000. Nor will residents be inclined to give up their properties, especially when so many, even with their homes destroyed, willing to give up their views.
It's all put long term recovery on one end of a teeter totter, stuck in the air with a mountain of ideas pushing down on the other end.
But in all of the relative confusion, the Sandy situation does have its benefits.
"We have a blank sheet of paper now," John Boule, vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff and a retired colonel of the U.S. Army Corps of Enginners, said. "Let's start with some real ideas."
And where those ideas must spring from is the all too obvious reality of climate change.
After experiencing a sea rise of about a single foot over the last 100 years, the seas are expected to rise between two and three feet in just a few decades. What that means is that coastal communities are more susceptible to flooding, not only from so-called once-a-century storms like Sandy, but even more regularly occurring ones, Vivien Gornitz, a special research scientist with Columbia University said.
Couple that with the new reality, one that includes more severe storms more often - one some say we're currently living - and something needs to be done, and it needs to be done now.
No one thing will suffice, though. Dawn Zimmer, mayor of Hoboken, said actual flood mitigation requires putting several possibilities into practice. It can't just be retention basins, underground wires, or pumps. Maybe it needs to be all of those things.
"What I'm advocating for is we need levels of protection," she said.
Levels of protection means levels of funding, high levels of funding. Though Congress passed its more than $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill back in January, the amount of money to be used for infrastructure improvements and mitigation efforts isn't enough to satisfy the needs of even one state.
And it doesn't help when politics gets in the way.
Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said his town has been on the waiting list for beach replenishment from the Army Corps of Engineers for years, but inadequate federal meant being left waiting. As a result, Doherty believes Belmar suffered more damage than it needed to.
Just like the federal government has failed to improve the country's aging infrastructure, some panelists complained, so too has it neglected climate change and its impact on the country's densely populated coasts. And while substantial blame was heaped on non-local Congressional Republicans for delaying aid to Sandy-impacted states, the lack of attention towards shoring up our coastlines crosses party lines and goes back years.
Boule said some of that has to do simply with ignorance. Outside of coastal communities, many of our country's leaders believe that beaches only exist for recreational purposes, Boule said. In truth, recreation is only an ancillary benefit to a properly maintained beach systems. Beaches and dunes provide critical protection for infrastructure and serve as the first, and best line of defense against nature.
And maybe it's not enough to simply build dunes along the coast high enough to prevent surge from a storm like Sandy.
"You can't plan for today," he said. "You have to plan for the future."