Solar panels rendering (image: Mayor's Office)
Eight years ago today, October 29, Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern seaboard, causing severe flooding and power loss throughout New York City and the entire region. Sandy was very personal to me and my family as I know it was to many of you and yours. Friends nearby in Brooklyn lost their homes and businesses, and one even lost her life. I was honored when President Obama asked me to lead a federal task force to ensure we recovered and rebuilt stronger. The Sandy effort showed how strong and resilient New Yorkers can be. Much was learned, much was done, but unfortunately, as the storm faded from the memory of city leaders, much was left undone.
Now, New York City is grappling with yet another tragic disaster. We’ve lost nearly 25,000 of our neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family to the COVID-19 pandemic and every day we see the human and economic impact of this disaster on our great city. Sandy and the pandemic share a common theme -- the most vulnerable are disproportionately at risk when disaster strikes, so recovery must help all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable.
There is no doubt that Superstorm Sandy, like COVID-19, devastated the livelihoods of low-income New Yorkers. For example, in the wake of Sandy more than 80,000 New York City Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents were left for weeks without essential services, such as electricity, elevators, heat and hot water. After Sandy, NYCHA residents in the Rockaways, Red Hook, and other areas suffered from damaged boilers, hot water issues, and mold, as well as damage to playgrounds and other community gathering spaces, lost access to polling places, and physical isolation in their apartments.
In the name of environmental justice, we must center equity and inclusion in our rebuilding efforts – prioritizing the hardest-hit communities that are often left behind in disaster response. To help protect our fellow New Yorkers from future crises and economic downturns, we can create a pipeline of good-paying jobs that promote clean energy and resiliency. Smart policy can ensure that these jobs are accessible to residents in environmental justice communities.
The process of recovery and rebuilding since Sandy has taken too long. Eight years later, NYCHA is still undergoing Sandy-related repairs and is not prepared to deal with future climate disasters and extreme weather events. We must take necessary measures to enhance resilience, like installing flood barriers and generators and elevating utilities to higher ground. Through close collaboration with tenant associations and robust community outreach, we can ensure that tenant voices are not only heard but are a driving force behind this work.
The ingenuity of residents has the potential to transform our public housing stock, but it must be harnessed. In the process, we should also create more jobs for public housing residents, by hiring from within NYCHA and from Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises. Better support for community-based organizations that help prepare and place residents into green jobs, and close coordination with NYCHA’s resident employment office, REES, will enable us to do this.
Looking beyond the public housing stock, adapting our city’s buildings to be climate-ready and pollution-free will require a workforce that is skilled and ready to take on the green jobs of tomorrow. Local, state, and federal leadership, both separately and in partnership, must do more to train New Yorkers, especially young people, people of color, and working-class communities to participate in the clean energy economy.
As mayor, I would establish a NYC Climate Corps, a citywide initiative focused on equity, inclusion, and job creation. The program would focus on equipping diverse young New Yorkers with the skills and experience they need to enter the green economy, while providing support to communities hard hit by climate change. This program would be built off the Clean Energy Service Corps, an AmeriCorps program initiated under the Obama Administration to support participants spending a year working on clean energy projects and creating green housing, via grants to nonprofits. But it would also build on local programs, such as the CUNY Service Corps and CUNY’s existing pathways to the green economy.
With an expansion and strengthening of AmeriCorps from the federal government, an investment in CUNY, and thoughtful support locally -- led by local nonprofits and hand in hand with communities -- the NYC Climate Corps could provide young New Yorkers the skills and entry-level opportunities to access careers in climate change resilience and clean energy, while supporting New York City communities. Such a program must prioritize recruiting and supporting participants from the communities they serve, and work in close coordination with labor apprenticeship programs, city agencies, and non-profit organizations supporting underserved youth college and career pathways.
I have spent my career building coalitions to solve the challenges of substandard housing, disaster response, and climate resiliency. New York City, one of the most economically unequal cities in the country, needs a mayor who is willing to work creatively across city, state, and federal lines to build a greener city and end environmental racism. Together, we can build a city that works for everyone.
Shaun Donovan was budget director and secretary of housing and urban development for President Obama and commissioner of housing preservation and development for Mayor Bloomberg. On Twitter @ShaunDonovanNYC.