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7 Years After Sandy - Part III: Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way?

hurricane sandyp3

(photo: NYC Gov)

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.


That’s how many people in New York City were killed from the immediate effects of Hurricane Sandy, nearly seven years ago. Most were due to drowning, while a smaller number of those who died from the October 2012 storm were attributed to downed power lines. A CDC report from May 2013 found that 45% of drowning deaths occurred in Evacuation Zone A, which was not fully evacuated despite orders from city officials. The same report concluded that such drowning deaths are “preventable with advance warning systems and evacuation plans.”

The New York City Office of Emergency Management, responsible for communication, evacuation, and coordination during storms, shouldered much of the blame for Sandy’s disastrous impact. It was especially blamed for its procedures for lower-mobility residents, like seniors and disabled people, who often had difficulty evacuating. 

In November 2013, a federal judge ruled “that the City has violated the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the NYCHRL by failing to provide people with disabilities meaningful access to its emergency preparedness program in several ways.”

“There were a lot of things that didn’t go well” in the city’s response to Sandy, according to Thad Pawloski, Director at Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Nursing homes and hospitals in the flood zones should have been better equipped to deal with downed utilities,” Pawlowski said, as an example, though he did commend the city for having an overall effective disaster response.

Seven years later -- and as the city continues to deal with storms, blackouts, heat waves, terror attacks, and more -- one key question for New Yorkers is whether the city’s emergency management has improved so that when emergencies hit loss of life can be avoided, communication and medical care happen as efficiently and effectively as possible, and further negative ramifications are limited. Those in charge of the city’s emergency responsiveness say that it is much improved, pointing to new and updated systems in place, some based on lessons from Sandy and its aftermath.

Now called New York City Emergency Management, NYCEM’s leadership has acknowledged mistakes from Sandy. In a 2017 interview with NY1, then-commissioner of NYCEM Joe Esposito (who was not the EM commissioner during Sandy, but was a top NYPD official) admitted, “We had the evacuation — I think maybe we could have pushed that harder.” However, Esposito was adamant that “the vast majority of those people would not have died if they would have listened to the evacuation orders.”

Now, with another Sandy anniversary approaching, NYCEM is displaying its many new and updated programs as evidence that it has become smarter and more effective since the storm.

“After any emergency, we take a hard look at what went well, and areas where we need some improvement,” said Megan Pribram, NYCEM’s assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “I think that we’ve gotten a lot stronger since Sandy. We learned from that incident, and we continue to improve our plans and enhance, and I think we’re a much stronger and more resilient city as a result.”

One of the programs that NYCEM has significantly expanded since 2012 is its Advance Warning System, which provides special alerts for organizations serving people with disabilities or other functional needs. Organizations that sign up for the program, launched ten years ago, receive public preparedness emails or text messages in the event of an emergency. The program has recently grown to cover 1,900 service providers, which Pribram called a “huge increase” over pre-Sandy numbers.

Another program that has seen a major boost in reach since Sandy is Notify NYC, a public communications service that texts subscribers emergency alerts specific to their zip code. A spokesperson for the city said that Notify NYC has grown from around 140,000 subscribers before 2012 to over 765,000 as of August 6. 

Several other programs have been launched since 2012 as part of NYCEM’s larger effort to reduce complacency, including:

-Know Your Zone, an awareness campaign to make sure residents know when and where to evacuate, started in 2014. The campaign has released videos, infographics, maps of evacuation zones, a hashtag (#knowyourzone), and a virtual badge displaying hurricane zone numbers.

-The Share Your Space Survey, which aims to identify community spaces that could be used to support emergency operations, started in 2016. Through the survey, NYCEM has built a database of spaces that are available for use during emergencies, as well as for training classes and exercises.

-The Community Emergency Planning Toolkit, a customized guideline to help communities handle storm preparation, started in 2017. The toolkit is downloadable online, and a boot camp for local organizations is also available.

-The High Water Mark Initiative, a series of signs showing what level Sandy’s storm surge reached to increase awareness in vulnerable areas, also started in 2017.

-Prep Talk, a podcast covering emergency management-related topics, has had 36 episodes air since launching in 2018 (episodes average around 500 listens on Soundcloud).

“When we’re asking people to evacuate, the sun is shining, and it’s very hard to convince someone that a hurricane is on the way when they’re looking at 85 degrees on a beautiful day,” then-First Deputy Commissioner for NYCEM Calvin Drayton said at an October 2018 City Council hearing on his agency’s strategic plan. “We have to do a much better job in getting the public to adhere to the word when the mayor says to evacuate.”

NYCEM’s strategic plan itself, however, is largely focused on issues other than emergency notices and civilian preparedness. Among the goals laid out by the 2017-2021 plan are increasing coordination with community organizations and other city agencies, making the agency more responsive and flexible during crises, and “advanc[ing] the Profession of Emergency Management” in New York and nationwide.

One of the changes that Pribram of NYCEM cited in accordance with these goals is a revision of the city’s hurricane evacuation zones from three zones to six. Pribram said the change “provides us with more flexibility to evacuate for different storm types,” as it allows for more gradations in the scale of evacuation.

Pribram also noted several internal-facing improvements that NYCEM has made post-Sandy, which may make future emergencies more manageable, such as updating its debris management plan and establishing connections with more agencies and organizations to help mitigate future storm effects. After an emergency like Sandy, “we add new partners,” Pribram said, “that we realized have key roles sometimes. So we have enhanced how we actually do the coordination during emergencies as well.”

NYCEM also runs training exercises for its own staff and the staff of other agencies that play roles in emergency situations. Pribram said in August that the agency had recently held a tabletop exercise with its emergency partners as hurricane season approaches.

September is National Preparedness Month, NYCEM recently publicized, saying that it wants “New Yorkers to take the opportunity to plan for emergencies.” NYCEM held a fair “to help inform New Yorkers about the importance of being prepared” and introduced a new multilingual PSA in English and Spanish, called “Communicate When It Counts,” that “encourages New Yorkers to talk with their families to develop an emergency plan before disasters such as flooding, power outages and hurricanes strike.”

NYCEM wants New York City residents to “learn the steps to make a plan, gather supplies, and stay informed.”

One idea that has also been floated to further bolster the city’s emergency response is to institute a 211 system, which would direct 211 calls to a specialized line that includes information on the city’s many non-profit service-providers. Pribram said, however, that such a system would likely not fall under NYCEM’s jurisdiction.

The preliminary Mayor’s Management Report released in February 2019 -- which includes data for fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018 -- presents some interesting data on several NYCEM programs, with mixed results.

There was a sharp decline in visits to the Ready New York webpage, which serves as a landing page for many NYCEM programs. The site had 24,561 visits in FY2018, down from 81,570 in FY2016. The average time between an incident and a Notify NYC message going out has also moved in the wrong direction: seven minutes and 50 seconds in FY2018, up from six minutes in FY2016.

Other indicators, such as the number of tabletop exercises and participants at emergency training sessions, have remained relatively the same over time, although the agency’s goal is to eventually increase the number of exercises performed. The office’s expenditures have increased dramatically, from $35.7 million in FY2016 to $58.9 million in FY2018.

With no truly devastating storms hitting the city since Sandy, it is difficult to gauge whether NYCEM improvements and new programs have been enough, but a somewhat recent incident showed potential shortcomings.

An unexpected snowstorm in November 2018 left the city’s transportation network crippled, a crisis many blamed on poor coordination and responses from city agencies. NYCEM Commissioner Esposito was soon messily fired by Mayor Bill de Blasio, although de Blasio insisted that the move was unrelated to Esposito’s storm response; Deanne Criswell took over at the agency in mid-July of this year.

Many blamed the city’s poor response on faulty weather predictions, rather than on municipal agencies; de Blasio said in a press conference that “I don’t think it’s fair to say that the city agencies could have stopped all of this.” But the storm nevertheless displayed the city’s weaknesses when caught off-guard -- school buses, for example, were stuck for hours on city roadways that ground to a snow- and traffic-filled halt, and parents often had no way of knowing where their young children were.

For Eric Goldstein, NYC Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, the city still has not done enough to prepare for emergencies.

“There certainly is more that needs to be done, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color,” Goldstein said in a phone interview. “If you were to survey NYCHA properties, for example, you would find that there are still some very significant challenges that remain, in terms of preparedness and ensuring that handicapped people on higher floors can get the assistance they need and get the information they need. Some steps have been taken, but a bunch more needs to be done.”

Pawloski of Columbia, on the other hand, argued that the city often doesn’t get enough credit for the relative strength of its systems. “New York’s [plan] is pretty strong for an American city,” said Pawloski, who has worked with NYCEM in the past. “The coastal storm plan addressed debris management, utility restoration, mass evacuation of coastal areas and sheltering,” unlike many out-of-date federal maps and plans.

As another Sandy anniversary arrives, much of the city’s attention is focused on building out or rebuilding the city’s coastlines to better withstand the effects of major storms, through the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and partners. The City Council recently formed a new Committee on Waterfronts and Resiliency, chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan of Southern Brooklyn, who has been surveying coastal areas across the city and plans to hold a major oversight hearing this fall, in conjunction with the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, chaired by Council Member Costa Constantinides.

Brannan recently said on the Max & Murphy podcast that they are looking at resiliency planning, preparedness for the next big storm, but also emergency management more broadly, which can range from a localized blackout in relatively unthreatening weather to much more severe instances where lives are immediately at risk across a larger swathe of the sprawling city.

On NYCEM, Brannan was supportive of the awareness work the agency does, but thinks it could do more to prevent future disasters. “I give OEM a lot of credit,” Brannan said of how the agency responds to a given emergency situation, but added he wants to have a more proactive conversation about “what they’re doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who in May put out his own coastal resiliency plan for the city while showing that the mayoral administration is not spending billions of dollars in allocated resiliency funding quickly enough, is also asking questions about emergency management plans to ensure best possible responses to crisis situations.

Some of the answers Stringer is seeking, as outlined in a September 6 letter to Mayor de Blasio, were provided to Gotham Gazette in August for this article, but the comptroller has asked for a good deal more, including related to NYCHA and emergency contracting to get needed supplies and services on a greatly expedited timeline.

“I am writing to request updates on the City’s emergency preparedness plans and the degree to which lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy have been built into the way our agencies plan, procure and prepare for the next great storm,” Stringer wrote. “As climate change escalates and sea levels continue to rise, New York City must be prepared to contend with the ever greater risk posed by hurricanes and floodwaters. Already, scientists estimate that storms on the scale of Sandy could be one-in-25-year events, rather than one-in-500-year anomalies.”

Stringer went on to request a variety of information on the city’s resiliency and emergency planning, which he sought by September 15. According to Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Stringer, the comptroller’s office has “not yet received a formal response to our letter. We look forward to reviewing the City’s emergency preparedness plans and continuing to push for robust resiliency measures to protect vulnerable communities.”

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since

coneyisland wetlands rendering

Rendering of Coney Island wetlands project (photo: mayor's office, Oct. 2013)

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed 43 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages and lost productivity in New York City. While the city has not seen a storm of that scale in the nearly seven years since, climate change, sea level rise, and the dangers posed by major weather events have continued to accelerate. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city began to implement a number of programs to make the city more resilient, or prepared for another Sandy-caliber disaster.

But elected officials, advocacy groups, and other experts say a Sandy-caliber storm would be nearly if not just as devastating today as it was in 2012. The city and its partners at other levels of government have been far too slow to act, and have not moved with requisite boldness in considering how to truly prepare the five boroughs, with their 520 miles of coastline, for the present and the future, they say. Projects are behind schedule or on too-long timelines, federal money isn’t being spent quickly enough by the city, there’s no real plan guiding it all.

In other words, New York City is nowhere near as resilient as it needs to be, and it’s not clear when the city might meet even a low bar for preparedness.

As the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in New York City nears, another round of evaluations, oversight hearings, and other discussions is kicking off. To many, what’s been accomplished in terms of resiliency efforts is astonishingly limited given that it’s been seven years and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned in the storm’s aftermath. Some are calling on the city to drastically speed up its implementation of resiliency projects to protect the city’s residents and their property, while a new proposal would mandate the city produce a five-borough resiliency plan.

Beyond the emergency response, the biggest questions from seven years ago remain the same today: what is actually being done to prepare New York City for the next big storm and the climate future, and what else should be done as quickly as possible?

Where Things Stand
In June 2013, the year after the storm hit, the city introduced the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a $19.5 billion program to reinforce disaster protocols and prevent damage from future climate events. The initiative sought to “ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change,” according to Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January 2014.

The city is especially concerned with climate change, including sea-level rise, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, heat waves, and rising temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

“Global warming is an emergency, and adapting quickly is an existential necessity,” Bavishi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re investing $20 billion across all five boroughs to help ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change.”

Many of the city’s goals are included in the OneNYC plan, a comprehensive compilation of initiatives that include strategies to improve resiliency and address climate change. By the 2050s, OneNYC estimates that the nearly 1 million residents who will live in the expanded coastal floodplain will be particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, with sea levels expected to rise by up to 30 inches, not including the effects of major weather events. High tides will cause flooding twice a day in some areas, and permanent inundation in others, according to those projections.

Despite agreement on the urgency of the threat, the city has not executed as much as talked about its plans for resiliency, said Eric Goldstein, New York Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The SIRR, first released post-Sandy by the Bloomberg administration in its final year, and subsequently backed by the de Blasio administration, includes more than 250 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. Its focus is five especially vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the east and south shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

A good deal of work is in motion, with dozens of projects completed and others moving ahead, but at an overall pace that is surprisingly slow to many. The city has spent less than 54 percent of the $15 billion that has been funded from the city’s $20 billion SIRR, according to a May report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today, all roads lead to New York being completely shut down,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the new Council Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, at City & State NY’s “Protecting New York Summit” on July 31. “My fear is that if Sandy were to happen tomorrow we’d see the same effect we saw almost seven years ago. That’s what a lot of my constituents feel as well.”

Brannan has been surveying coastal areas of the city, including those in his southern Brooklyn district, and plans to hold multiple oversight hearings this fall, he told the Max & Murphy podcast earlier in July. Brannan also discussed the fact that he and City Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, recently introduced a bill to mandate the mayoral administration create a five-borough resiliency plan, with certain specific guidelines.

“You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape,” Brannan and Constantinids wrote in a recent joint op-ed discussing their bill and plans to assess post-Sandy efforts. “The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years.”

The city’s current efforts to become more resilient -- often called too piecemeal by Brannan, Constantinides, and others -- can be broken down into improved infrastructure, coastal defenses, and community preparedness.

On the coasts, the city has reconstructed boardwalks, built dunes across beaches on Staten Island and the Rockaways, and coordinated to place 4.2 million cubic yards of new sand on city beaches, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. The city has intermittently installed flood protection measures at 40 sites, including those most impacted by Sandy, according to the spokesperson. However, these efforts are largely temporary -- they are designed to mitigate flooding until permanent measures are designed and implemented.

In lower Manhattan, the city has advanced the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, an approximately $500 million investment in flood-risk-reduction projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood, The Battery, and Battery Park City. The plan is expected to cover 70 percent of the lower Manhattan shoreline, according to the city’s OneNYC Plan.

For the remaining 30 percent of lower Manhattan’s shoreline, which includes the seaport and the financial district, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told Gotham Gazette that a two-year master planning process is expected to be completed in 2021.

In terms of creating more resilient infrastructure, the city has focused efforts on upgrading building and zoning codes and investing $1 billion to improve the steam, electric, and natural gas distribution infrastructure of Con Edison facilities. In the aftermath of Sandy, Con Ed agreed to compile a report assessing the effect of the city’s changing climate on its electrical grid. The first chapter of the report (on heat and humidity) was due in 2014. Five years later, the chapter has not yet been delivered, with a new deadline set for the end of this year. And at a hearing last week discussing Con Ed’s response to summer electrical blackouts, Speaker of the City Council called Con Ed’s public response “inadequate and laughable.”

The city has also been working with federal partners, specifically emergency management (FEMA), to create a future flood risk map that can be to be incorporated into building and zoning codes. 

The city has also discussed plans to extend the shoreline of the Financial District and South Street Seaport somewhere between 50 and 500 feet into the East River. Due to the current proximity of businesses to the shore, implementing land-based adaptation measures would be difficult, Bavishi said at the Protecting New York Summit, on a panel alongside Brannan.

“Any land-based protection feature would have to go deep into the neighborhood,” Bavishi said. Instead, the city is planning to build into the water. 

The city will not be able to complete all of its projects without funding and relies on the federal system to receive support for many of its projects, Bavishi said at the summit.

“Funding is a challenge. We have a federal system that funds these kinds of projects in a very reactive way when we inherently want to take proactive action to address these challenges we know are coming,” Bavishi said.

“Our actions will protect Lower Manhattan into the next century. We need the federal government to stand behind cities like New York to meet this crisis head on,” de Blasio said in a March press release.

However, as the city moves ahead with efforts to fortify parts of Manhattan, many have been critical of its work to prevent flooding in the other boroughs, arguing that their risk remains as high as when Sandy hit in 2012.

“My goal with the new [resiliency and waterfronts] committee is to work with the city to make sure folks in the outer boroughs see what the city is working on in their area,” Brannan said at the City & State event. “That the city is focused on them as well, not just lower Manhattan.”

“New Yorkers deserve a mapped-out resiliency plan that protects every community — instead of a single neighborhood,” Constantinides said in a June press release announcing the five-borough resiliency plan legislation he and Brannan were introducing and referencing what some see as the over-focus on lower Manhattan.

However, city administration officials maintain that they are working equally hard to bring resiliency to the other boroughs in addition to Manhattan. Officials point to efforts to bring dunes to the Rockaways and the importation of sand to the city’s beaches. But Brannan and others pan the sand measures as something that might have made sense in 2013 or 2014, but not seven years after Sandy, when stronger and more permanent resiliency measures should either be in place or close to it.

For many of its resiliency projects, the city is working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To date, the partnership has resulted in the construction of around five miles of new dunes across the Rockaway Peninsula.

What More Can Be Done
The city is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers on $1 billion worth of resiliency projects, including the beginning of the construction of the Staten Island Levee in 2020, a measure expected to mitigate flood risks along 5.3 miles of Staten Island’s east shore.

In Southeast Queens, the city and the Corps are working on a plan to create a tapered groin field and “reinforced dune on Rockaway Beach combined with a system of berms, floodwalls, and nature-based features to increase resiliency for bayside communities,” according to the OneNYC Plan. The city also says it will soon begin building the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System, which is expected to reduce flooding in the area by installing “tiger dams” along the shoreline -- a system of plastic balloons that inflate with water and fill up to create a flood barrier as water moves inland.

In their 2013 “Sandy Success Stories” report, the Environmental Defense Fund found that wetland restoration was key in preventing serious flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. It appeared to work well in Marine Park and Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn, for example. However, few if any of the city’s plans include wetland restoration, and the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency did not include it alongside a litany of other projects they would be undertaking.

Among the wetland restoration recommendations in the Sandy Success Stories study are systems to choose plans for their tolerance to flooding and salt inundation, in conjunction with a slope of 1:3. 

“A moderately steep slope seems to provide the most benefits in terms of supporting plant life and habitat, preventing erosion, attenuating wave action, and ensuring survival in the face of sea level rise. At the same time, this slope is shallow enough to minimize the reflection of wave energy that erodes the wetland area,” the recommendation reads.

Council Members Brannan and Constantinides are trying to look at both immediate needs and long-term planning.

“In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure,” the two Council members wrote in their recent op-ed. “Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.”

The two plan to hold a joint October City Council oversight hearing on issues faced by coastal areas of the city, post-Sandy recovery, resiliency measures, and the resiliency plan bill they are cosponsoring.

“That is a big part of this committee I’m chairing, the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, where we’re going to take a really close look into what has been done and what has not been done to help make the city of New York more resilient,” Brannan said on Max & Murphy. “When we’re dealing with this thing that is literally a race against the clock, we can’t tie our own hands and sort of hold ourselves hostage to this bureaucracy of how things were done in the past.”

In his May report, Comptroller Stringer called for the city to “develop a citywide comprehensive coastal resiliency plan” while also accelerating the pace of investments into resiliency projects, and expanding a homeowner buyout program in targeted vulnerable neighborhoods, among other measures to protect the city, especially its coastal communities, from the effects of major weather events and climate change.

The citywide plan, Stringer says, “should blend data about sea level rise and other vulnerabilities from the latest science, information about the state of good repair of waterfront assets, and a deep level of community engagement and dialogue” and should be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and other agencies, including the proposed Mayor’s Office of the Waterfront. In June of last year, Council Member Deborah Rose of Staten Island introduced a bill to create such an office, with Rose calling the waterfront “in many ways our sixth borough.”

That proposal could come up again as the Council examines post-Sandy efforts next month.

“[Constantinides] and I are looking at doing an oversight hearing in October,” Brannan said, “to really dig into the seventh anniversary of superstorm Sandy and where we’re at, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing

corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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