Gotham Gazette Thu, 29 Oct 2020 08:03:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) A CLEAR Path Forward on Emergency Preparedness corona convenvens ex

Mayor de Blasio holds an emergency management briefing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

I’m writing this from my living room. My three-month-old daughter is across the room, sleeping in her activity gym. My wife is watching television. This should be another normal day, but all of us, including you reading this, knows it's not. Our daughter has barely seen her grandparents since February. My wife hasn't seen the outside world in almost two months. Aside from a few stressful trips along empty streets to the grocery store, neither have I.

Nothing about this pandemic has been normal — not even our response. The COVID-19 outbreak rekindles the darkness of Hurricane Sandy. No one knew what to do or where to go. By the time the government acted, it was too late. No master plan existed to deal with prolonged school closures, hold an election after a disaster, and mobilize large-scale relief efforts. Tragically that is still true.

There was no plan in place before the first coronavirus case was confirmed in New York City. The Greatest City on Earth is letting its people down time and time again because we fail to prepare for the next inevitable disaster. 

The City of New York needs to do better, and I have a plan to make that happen. My first bill introduced to the New York City Council will be the New York Create and Learn Emergency Action Response Act. The NY CLEAR Act would create a five-level, color-coded alert system based on the post-9/11 federal system. New Yorkers should be able to know green means everything is smooth sailing; blue could indicate a closure or restriction due to standard winter storms; and red would mean the city is shut down in its current form. 

The NY CLEAR Act would live up to its name by being concise and easily understood. It would be a universal language so our diverse communities all understand the severity of a situation. No matter which of New York City’s more than 200 languages you speak, you’d know that green means everything is fine — the city is safe. New Yorkers would know it’s safe to enjoy a park, go to work, or get on a subway that’s as unreliable as normal.

Blue would indicate the city is monitoring an evolving situation. This code should be in place when we send more police officers to Penn Station and other crowded areas after a terror attack, as we did the night of the 2015 Paris shooting. It would give New Yorkers a sense that the city is aware of a threat and is working to address it. Internally, blue signals to the Office of Emergency Management it must collect data on the event to adapt the city’s standard response plan. 

Yellow means that threat is now inevitable. Hospital administrators would start implementing plans to increase supplies and staff. Alternate side parking rules would be suspended, while garbage pickups and mass transit service would be modified. Small businesses should take yellow as a warning that their hours might change or close completely. 

Orange would mean the emergency is already happening — such as when the number of positive COVID-19 cases spiked over 1,000. Schools, courts, and all non-essential offices would immediately close. If severe weather has caused us to go orange, evacuation centers are opened. 

Red tells New Yorkers that leaving their home is life-threatening. At this point, each agency’s specific emergency plan would go into place. Pre-identified roads will close to non-emergency vehicle traffic. City government should be ready to deliver food, protective equipment, and other life-saving materials door-to-door. 

Imagine the number of cases we could have prevented, the number of lives saved, if city government had a wholesale plan in place for when a crisis strikes. Instead, our collective anxiety was compounded by the government operating on the fly — obviously without a serious plan for this type of situation and without the people of New York knowing how or being prepared to respond. 

The NY CLEAR Act will make New Yorkers safer. Informational posters will be clearly displayed at every workplace alongside other key documents such as the Department of Labor’s “know your rights” sheet. Every New York City hotel room would provide a mandated pamphlet, so visitors can learn the emergency system quickly.The NY CLEAR Act should also be taught at an age-appropriate level in classrooms so young people will know how to adapt in the event of an emergency. 

It is critical every New Yorker knows how to prepare for an emergency, and how to respond when the time comes. They deserve for New York City to declare an emergency at the right time, and for agencies to be held accountable for their responses. The NY CLEAR Act will mandate a hearing any time the city goes to yellow or higher. When a service is suspended, or when certain plans are put into place, it should require the city to conduct a wholesale look at whether protocols were properly followed and what we can learn to improve our response.

Crises have historically challenged us, well after the actual tragedy. We are judged both by our response in the moment as well as what we did to mitigate future catastrophes. Hurricane Sandy and COVID-19 both cost us too many lives. It’s time we learn our lesson and prepare. The next disaster will come. Whether or not we are ready, that much is clear. 

Nick Roloson is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 22, in Queens. On Twitter @nickroloson.

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A CLEAR Path Forward on Emergency Preparedness Wed, 20 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
James Oddo's Not Done Fighting the Bureaucracy, But He's Also Not Running for Mayor bp jim oddo press ferry

SI BP James Oddo, right, with Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

James Oddo, the outspoken Republican Staten Island Borough President, doesn’t want to talk about President Donald Trump or the contentious congressional race heating up in his borough, and says he won’t run for mayor of New York City or any other elected office ever again. But none of that’s to say that the zip is coming off Oddo’s trademark chin-music political fastball.

“The bureaucracy is too big and and the reality is but for one time—during Rudy Giuliani—that's when we were treated really well...So yeah, I would want to see us be our own city,” Oddo said of Staten Island secession from New York City, during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast.

Oddo, an avid baseball fan, was asked the question of the ongoing but recently rekindled debate about Staten Island becoming its own city, jump-started again as his fellow Staten Island Republicans, City Council Members Joe Borrelli and Steve Matteo, have now introduced legislation seeking a study of secession.

Oddo said that after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, gave Staten Island special treatment, it was dealt with fairly well, as “one of five,” under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent (and now Democrat again as he seeks the presidency), but frustrations have grown again under Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat.

As for de Blasio, whom Oddo considers a personal friend, he said: “The perception, whether it's the truth or not, let's put that aside; the perception of this administration from early on was they're not about delivering services. Well, it's the Mayor's Office; it’s the Department of City Planning; it’s the Department of Transportation. That's your job. And so my job is, instead of working with my partners in government, is too often dragging them along.”

“Some commissioners, some agencies...they want to work with you,” Oddo said, digging into one of his favorite topics: his battle with government bureaucracy. “Some aren’t led well and there’s bureaucracy... some agencies again are really responsive -- School Construction Authority...Lorraine Grillo: absolute best; City Planning: absolute worst; insular; indifferent defiant.”

Oddo emphasized that his goal as borough president has been to steer clear of partisan bickering and instead focus on improving the effectiveness of his office and the city agencies it interacts with on a daily basis in its efforts to provide better services to Staten Islanders.

“My mission was to get Staten Island a little better,” he said during the wide-ranging interview, reflecting on what will soon be six years as borough president. “I’ve never been ideological. I see my job as to establish relationships in order to get stuff done,” he said. As he often does, Oddo indicated that he works the phones and schedules meetings and pushes buttons in order to get answers and action from city agencies, but stressed that such progress shouldn’t depend on whether he can personally call the mayor and get him to spur a city commissioner to action.

Oddo continues to search for broader systemic change in how government does business. What does it ultimately come down to? Leadership at the top that establishes the right get-it-done culture, including striking the right balance of delegation and empowerment.

“You have to be hands on. You have to lead. You have to have to surround yourself with talented people who are leaders. You have to allow them to lead, but there's got to be accountability to you,” Oddo said.

A major difficulty in delivering effective government services comes down to a dysfunctional agency culture, Oddo said. City commissioners, for instance, enjoyed considerable power during the Bloomberg administration; Oddo called this the “golden era” of being a commissioner as Bloomberg kept many of the same officials for much or all of his 12 years, allowing the commissioners to run their departments without extensive outside accountability. The negative side of that era, Oddo said, is that those commissioners who were there a long time could become too calcified in their ways.

Local Issues
Oddo takes a very conservative approach to development on Staten Island, in part, he says, the island’s infrastructure can’t handle significant population growth and in part because Staten Islanders like their communities the way they are, and live on Staten Island to have something of a suburban lifestyle.

The borough president is frustrated by the recently-passed rezoning of part of northern Staten Island, which was led by the City Planning Department and approved by City Council Member Debi Rose, and he says the area isn’t ready for given its limited infrastructure.

“The biggest lesson in the history of Staten Island have to plan because we have no infrastructure,” Oddo said. “We already have three-and-a-half rush hours. We already have sewer backups in people’s homes. We already have communities that don’t have storm sewers. So, when you say you want to add density, you have to do it smartly and you have to put the investment in infrastructure.”

Oddo said he received support about combating “irrational development” from de Blasio, but that the results have been disappointing. The mayor charged City Planning with taking on the issue on Staten Island, but the department only created a working group, which met once, and no further action was taken, Oddo said.

But Oddo’s pleased with progress, in part due to his partnership with first-term Democratic Congressional Rep. Max Rose and federal funding, on the way in the form of an East Shore Seawall, as well as the coming expansion of the city’s fast ferry service to the borough.

Oddo’s list of priorities over his final two-plus years in office include implementation of the early phases of the seawall and the ferry service, continuation of his public health agenda, and devoting resources towards philanthropic organizations such as Meals and Wheels and Staten Island’s Children’s Aid Society.

“I don’t want to say it's, like, ‘It's personal, it's my time,’ but some of this is, when I look back, I want to make sure that, you know, I live true to my values,” he said, indicating repeatedly that he is focused on getting as much done as possible over the next two-plus years before he’s term-limited out of office.

Community health and wellness has been a major focus for Oddo, including efforts related to the proper amount of sleep, especially for young people. And Oddo argued that the benefits of investing in local health programs extend to all taxpayers.

“And if you're a taxpayer, if you are in my political party and you’re like, ‘What is Oddo doing on health and wellness? That's not what government should do,’ I could sit down and have a cold beer with him and I think make the argument from a very conservative point of view about as a taxpayer why I'm tired of paying for people's health care,” Oddo said.

On issues related to policing and crime in the borough, and the ongoing aftermath of the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, including the recent firing of NYPD Officer Daniel Panatalo, Oddo expressed overall optimism and in particular cited the increased presence of neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs), part of the neighborhood policing model de Blasio has instituted across the city, as a successful program.

“I think we are in a much better place today than we were a few years ago in terms of overall police-community relations,” Oddo said. “The NCOs and community policing has gone a long way. It’s a major success on Staten Island…[Neighborhood policing] works for different reasons in different parts of the borough in terms of race relations. I think the community has gotten to build a relationship with these cops. I think the police officers have gotten to build relationships with the community. I think the tensions have dissipated to a large degree.”

On Pantaleo’s firing and the atmosphere on Staten Island, where many NYPD officers live, Oddo said that the process, while difficult for the community, had not appeared to undermine the progress around police-community relations or how officers are doing their jobs.

“There’s been no ‘Pantaleo effect’ that we can see,” he said, referring to the notion that after Pantaleo’s firing officers took few police actions out of hesitation or protest. “They’re going out there, and they’re doing a good job,” Oddo said of police officers.

“You won’t see my name on a ballot in a competitive race again,” Oddo said at one point in the interview. But why not run for mayor, given Republicans’ only chance to win could be a more moderate, government service-oriented straight-talker? “I don't think I can win. And I don't want those parts of the job,” he said of some of the politics.

He continued: “I do, though, have aspirations and ambitions of actually being on the inside...Put me on the inside with some TNT and watch me blow up the bureaucracy.” Oddo has previously said a dream job for him would be first deputy mayor. Reminded of this during the interview he said he wouldn’t even need that high of a position, just some control over key pieces of the city government he’s been wrestling with for so many years from outside mayoral administrations.

Before the city is fully focused on the next mayoral race, the 2020 elections will dominate local and national politics. Those themes meet on Staten Island as first-term Democratic Representative Max Rose seeks reelection in New York’s 11th Congressional District, which includes all of the island and a slice of Brooklyn. Rose is expected to face State Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis in the general election in a race that already has a lot of national attention, given that the seat has been somewhat reliably Republican in the past.

Oddo, who has developed a strong working relationship with Rose and does not appear close with Malliotakis, declined to give support for either candidate. However, while insisting that he was not taking “veiled shots” at either candidate, he broadly criticized what he called “perpetual campaigns” by career politicians seeking office over and over again.

“I don't like perpetual campaigns and I don't like two-year campaigns,” Oddo said. “And what this will be is...if Nicole Malliotakis beats Max Rose, Max Rose is going to run against her two years later. So this will be a perpetual campaign for four years. I don't think that's good for Staten Island. I don't think that's that that's good for the body politic.”

Superstorm Sandy Recovery
On New York’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy, roughly seven years after the storm hit and devastated many parts of Staten Island, Oddo expressed grave disappointment.

“The recovery has been the single most infuriating, heartbreaking experience of a nearly 30-year career in public service,” Oddo said, adding that he laid most of the blame on the administrations of Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio.

“We had the opportunity to take the harder path and rebuild a different way, and we didn’t. We did incremental instead of transformative,” he said. Oddo’s hope was that the city would engage in acquisition for redevelopment, buying out homeowners in some places, and rebuilding communities more comprehensively, with real planning conscientious of a variety of needs and of potential disasters like Sandy. While he’s pleased about the coming East Shore Seawall, that is still years away and little has been done since Sandy hit to prepare Staten Island for future major storms.

New York is “no better prepared for the next storm” than before Sandy, Oddo said. “When you look at the final product, it doesn’t honor the people we lost [during Sandy] and it really is an example of government at its worst.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Staten Island Borough President James Oddo]

by Ben Max & Stephen Wyer

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

James Oddo's Not Done Fighting the Bureaucracy, But He's Also Not Running for Mayor Mon, 16 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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 III: Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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.

7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed aerial view bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo: mayor's office)

This is part one of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- can be found 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.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, the city was hardly prepared for the disaster. Dozens of lives were lost, thousands of homes destroyed. It’s been well-documented and widely-acknowledged that the rebuilding process has been rife with mismanagement, and new resiliency measures have been slow to materialize as New York anticipates the next big storm.

Yet certain aspects of infrastructure in place when Sandy hit worked well -- and even helped mitigate some of the superstorm’s effects. 

In the days prior to the storm surge, short-range weather forecasts saw it coming, allowing the city to make some adjustments and preparations. Schools closed, shelters opened, and the city’s residents had some limited time to prepare themselves as best possible for the incoming barrage. Those emergency preparations, occurring from roughly 48 hours before the storm hit, “went as good as can be expected considering the region was not at all prepared for a storm surge of this magnitude,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Gotham Gazette just ahead of the seventh anniversary of Sandy.

One complicating factor was that too many residents in vulnerable areas did not heed the city's evacuation order, seemingly jaded by warnings of severe storms that did not materialize.

But even after the storm hit, some frontline areas – those especially vulnerable to residual flooding – mitigated disaster through a variety of protocols, according to “Sandy Success Stories,” a 2013 study by the Environmental Defense Fund that includes key lessons from 2012 and for the future.

Those measures included creation of buffers designed for durability and flood endurance, targeted placement of landscaping and structures, incorporation of durable building materials and waterproof finish, and elevation of sites and equipment. Elevated mechanical and electrical equipment (above a building’s bottom floors) protected it from flood and salt damage, allowing certain important operations to resume more quickly after the storm.

For example: At 200 Water Street in lower Manhattan and the Solar One building on East 23rd Street, elevation of mechanical and electrical equipment ensured it was protected from damages. At beaches where a landscaped dune system existed, including the Beachfront Bungalow Neighborhood in the Far Rockaways, the storm was less devastating.

The study also showed that waterfront parks with plans in place to control flooding and attenuate waves were more resilient when the storm hit. At both Bronx River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, both waterfront, topographic design that took into account flood-protection helped contain flooding. At Bronx River Park, a space was created that could detain water without damage, and at Brooklyn Bridge Park, multiple berms protected the park from flooding. 

Additionally, adherence or adjustment to building codes often proved a recipe for safety during Sandy, according to Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“With two houses right next to each other, the house where you step in right off the street would have gotten knocked off its foundation, and the house next door that’s elevated would have been totally fine,” Pawloski said.

Since Sandy, these building codes have been strengthened with an eye toward future storms and floods, with new waterfront buildings held to higher standards amid a changing climate and its realized and expected impacts. The capability of waterfront infrastructure to withstand flooding will be important regardless of massive storms like Sandy, Goldstein said. With sea levels rising due to climate change, shoreline areas are at risk of flooding following routine rain storms and high tide, he said.

While those waterfront areas that escaped flooding during Sandy were for the most part designed to do so, it was not really with disaster preparation at the forefront, according to Sandy Success Stories. Rather, efforts toward sustainability proved to serve a dual purpose, functioning as emblems of resiliency.

“Many of these actions grew out of the pursuit of social, economic and environmental sustainability – rather than from fear of storm surge – suggesting a strong tie between the current sustainability agenda and physical resiliency,” the study reads.

While many resiliency projects are neighborhood specific, the study showed citywide wetland restoration to have the potential to mitigate flooding. In parks and beaches along the coastline, plants that have a high tolerance for flooding and salt inundation can serve to absorb flood water at a significantly higher pace than freshwater plants, thus serving as an additional mitigating factor to decrease flooding. On beaches especially, dunes proved to be effective flood barriers. While the city has embraced dune construction as a mode of its resiliency projects, it has not shown as much interest in wetland restoration, a major flaw in its post-Sandy response.

Though many of the city’s resiliency projects are neighborhood or borough specific, some citywide initiatives -- like dune construction -- can be undertaken to improve resiliency, while others have been aimed at fixing the devastation Sandy left behind. [Part two of this series will look at the city's limited resiliency efforts since Sandy hit seven years ago.]

Build It Back
In the aftermath of Sandy, the city sought to help rebuild homes of residents that were destroyed in the storm; thus began the Build It Back program, designed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconstruct or fix damaged homes or reimburse residents for their worth, primarily through federal funding. However, it wasn’t until nearly two years after Sandy hit that the program began to reimburse for destroyed homes, and an additional year until homes began to be rebuilt.

“While we still have a lot of work to do, we are seeing real progress under Build It Back, and more families hurt by Sandy are moving home every week,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a 2017 press release, though he has regularly acknowledged that the program has had significant flaws, and has said that the city would do things totally differently if presented with a similar situation in the future. De Blasio inherited the program from the Bloomberg administration when he took office in January 2014, a little more than a year after Sandy hit. Neither administration managed it well.

According to the city, the Build It Back program has now served 100 percent of applicants, and 99 percent of homes in general, with construction, reimbursement checks, property acquisition or completed construction, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But while the city claims to have served 100 percent of applicants, many residents who would have qualified for the program left the area to avoid long wait times to rebuild their homes, Goldstein said. Others simply didn’t stick with the program.

One year after the storm hit, 20,275 households had registered for Build it Back, according to a joint study by the city and the Center for Urban Research at the City of New York Graduate Center. Of those registered, 26 percent hadn’t submitted an application for Build It Back, and an additional 26 percent completed an application but did not pick a program option, effectively withdrawing them from Build It Back. Four years after the storm hit, only 8,040 applicants - less than 40 percent of those initially registered - remained in the Build it Back program. 

“7 years later the fog of war clears a little,” Goldstein said. “But for many if not most of the residents they encountered interminable delays and bureaucracy. People who all of a sudden had no place to live and possessions waterlogged were faced with a lot of uncertainty that lasted months or even years.”

The Build It Back program also faced criticism from those who questioned whether homes destroyed by flooding should be rebuilt if they were to remain deep in flood zones, Goldstein said.

“You have to ask what is the strategy for long-term planning for houses that are located in areas subject to repeated flooding?” Goldstein said. “Dealing with the short-term need of property owners to get back into their homes to some extent sidestepped these longer-term questions of where it makes sense for New Yorkers to live in an era of rising seas and climate change.”

Though the city has developed some plans to curtail the effects of climate change on its many miles of coastlines -- including to extend lower Manhattan into the East River and to construct a 5.3 mile levee on Staten Island, from Fort Wadsworth to the East Shore -- there is no comprehensive citywide plan for dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable communities along the city’s coasts, Goldstein said.

Seven years after Sandy hit, two City Council Members recently introduced legislation that would force the city to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

“This is a long-term existential threat to the city and the nation and the planet. And unfortunately, in politics, oftentimes short-term issues take precedence over long-term matters even when those long-term matters are greatly important to the very future of the city,” Goldstein said. 

This is part one of a three-part series on 7 Years After Sandy. Read part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- here.

This 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.

7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed Mon, 16 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies cm carlos m cm dan gardonick marine

 (photo: William Alatriste New York City Council)

Billy Joel’s dystopian vision for New York City, laid out in the very upbeat but equally terrifying “Miami 2017,” is coming true. The lights have indeed gone out on Broadway. Perhaps the only difference is that Queens won’t stay. 

This is New York City in 2019: a near 100-degree heat wave shut down power for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, who then trudged through flooded streets once the high temperatures gave way to torrential rain. 

One thing became clear as climate change brought its greatest hits to the Big Apple: we are nowhere near ready for the next big storm. 

Considering we’re quickly approaching the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s decimation to Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, that’s downright shameful. The City of New York needs to move into high gear for both short- and long-term solutions that protect every single neighborhood from the effects of climate change, because this is a public safety crisis. 

Don’t believe it? Clearly you haven’t seen the footage of a straphanger at the Court Square station who was nearly swept onto the tracks by downpours. Twitter is filled with cellphone video of Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue flooded by water from the Gowanus Canal, which is a Superfund site. Or maybe you haven’t heard of instant New York legend Daphne Youree, who got out of her car near Exit 25 on the Long Island Expressway and used an orange traffic cone to clear a clogged drain to alleviate flash flooding. 

These sound like a new version of the stories our parents told of the bad old days in the 1970s, when the Fiscal Crisis turned New York City into a living performance of Mad Max. But, as skyscrapers for the ultra-rich keep cropping up along 57th Street, we can’t shrug at the fact that half of New York City’s 10 wettest years have come since 2003. 

If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today — though we hope it doesn’t — New York would be brought to a grinding halt based on what we’ve seen in the last week. Temperatures caused some 53,000 customers to lose power last weekend, as Con Ed pulled the plug on parts of Brooklyn and Queens, apparently so the grid wouldn’t be further strained. Even after the heat broke, on Tuesday, almost 3,000 customers were still without power and they were overwhelmingly in the outer boroughs.

Add a hurricane’s storm surge to the mix and our electrical grid would crumble. 

Con Edison has failed its duties as a public utility throughout the heatwave, which begs the question: how would they perform if a big storm hit tomorrow? The men and women who worked in the heat should be commended for getting power back up, but they shouldn’t also be responsible for communicating that to those suddenly cleaning out their refrigerators. That’s their bosses’ job — one they didn’t do well enough. All the while, they’re asking New Yorkers for a collective $695 million rate hike. 

Meanwhile, New York City’s streets are starting to look like Venice. You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape. 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. 

In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure. 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.

But we also have to make sure our kids don’t have to deal with the mess we were too scared to clean up. Earlier this year we introduced a bill requiring New York City to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

Lower Manhattan is great, but asking Congress for $10 billion to protect a single business district when JFK Airport could be underwater by 2100 seems fiscally irresponsible. Failing to protect every neighborhood from Riverdale to Rockaway helps stave off tens of thousands of climate refugees the National Climate Assessment warned of when the seas come to claim our coasts.

We look forward to holding a hearing on this bill in October ahead of Sandy’s anniversary, so we can get to work on doing the long-term resiliency work. In the meantime, our city agencies need to mobilize, assess what’s causing rampant flooding throughout the city, and fix the problems immediately. Lastly, we need to make sure our threats against Con Edison have teeth and give the utility an ultimatum: give us the resilient, renewable grid we deserve or we’ll come for your power lines. 

The status quo is quickly sinking under the floodwaters, and New Yorkers are taking notice. Just like we’ve put our foot down to demand reliable service from the MTA, we need to take a stand on infrastructure. Because being late for work is one thing — being unprepared for a storm is fatal. 

Costa Constantinides represents western Queens in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection; Justin Brannan represents southern Brooklyn in the City Council and chairs the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts. On Twitter @Costa4NY & @JustinBrannan.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Getting New York City Ready for the Next Big Storm - & the Next Heat Wave, Flash Floods & Other Climate Emergencies Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Suggestions for Better Disaster Relief from Former HUD Leader NYC Ferries

NYC Ferries (Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As the city approaches the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the eastern seaboard and wrecked homes and businesses in New York’s coastal communities, a new report says there is more work to be done to prepare for the next storm.

Former HUD regional administrator for New York and New Jersey Holly Leicht, who oversaw the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $15.2 billion Superstorm Sandy recovery program, presented a report last week with 41 recommendations for how the government at the federal, state and local levels could better approach natural disaster preparedness and recovery. Leicht’s report was the centerpiece of a symposium sponsored by the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC), a nonprofit organization that deals with affordable housing for underserved communities, and the Staten Island Borough President’s office.

The 51-page report includes numerous proposals for stronger coordination between federal and local authorities in the wake of a disaster, streamlined funding for disaster relief, improved communication with affected communities and reduced bureaucratic hurdles in disaster response.

For instance, Leicht suggests creating a single disaster relief website where individuals could go to seek assistance from multiple agencies, making a single office in charge of disaster recovery, and instituting fundamental readiness standards. She floats the idea of giving HUD the authority to appropriate disaster recovery funding, encourages standardization of disaster relief funds to prioritize low- and middle-income families, and recommends that Congress and White House allocate additional tax credits to replace lost rental housing units with new affordable housing. 

“This is something we can accomplish without our heads exploding,” Leicht joked in her opening remarks at the CPC conference. “We’re making incremental change in an area where we need to be making drastic change and fast change.”

Asked what she would say to critics who might question the cost of such reforms, Leich told Gotham Gazette, “I think my message is that a lot of these things are cost neutral. Out of 41, we could probably do 25 without expending much money or having to change laws. The key thing is having leadership to get started.”

From 2011 to 2013 alone, the federal government spent a total of $136 billion on disaster recovery. Leicht argued that not nearly enough funding is being spent on mitigation to prevent damage from future natural disasters. According to her report, prioritizing mitigation can save $1.2 billion in funding annually.

“I know this is difficult,” said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, who participated in the panel discussion during the event. “We, as government, made mistakes...I’m not trying to pick a fight with a billionaire ex-mayor, I had plenty of dials with that administration back in the day. I’m not trying to tug on the current mayor’s cape, but I owe it to my constituents to make sure there’s a process that is frank about what went wrong.”

One of the major criticisms regarding the recovery effort after Sandy is the amount of time it took to repair and restore homes that had been destroyed. According to Leicht, 18 months was considered the gold standard as to when individuals could expect to move back into their homes after Sandy, and many homeowners were not aware of this.

“I absolutely believe had my constituents known that they were looking at an 18-month, two year, three year, five year process, they would have made different decisions,” Oddo said. Many are still not back in their homes as the five-year anniversary of the storm approaches this fall.

There also seems to be lingering confusion around how recovery is defined in government agencies that are supposed to be providing relief to victims. Recovery could simply mean making sure the person affected by the disaster is able to get back on their feet, or it could also mean that recovery has not been achieved until the victim has been fully compensated for what was lost.

“We’ve gotta make some substantive changes here,” said Brad Gair, former director of Housing Recovery Operations in New York City and currently the senior managing director of Witt O’Brien’s, a private sector crisis and disaster management firm. “This recovery was a disaster. We failed the people of New York -- I’m talking from a city perspective. The problem is, what are we trying to do here? When we talk about post-disaster housing have we ever had the discussion of: do people, who lost their houses because of a disaster, are they entitled to a new home at the government’s expense? I’m not saying yes or no. I’m saying we’ve gotta talk about that. Until you talk about that, you get what you get.”

Nonetheless, the city and state have taken some steps to safeguard against future damage caused by hurricanes. For example, some properties in coastal areas that are at risk of being impacted by storms are being bought by the government to prevent individuals from moving back in.

But Oddo concluded with some cautionary words for lawmakers and administrators. “Be careful of the struggle between building quickly and building smartly,” he said. “We were so careful we did neither.”

Suggestions for Better Disaster Relief from Former HUD Leader Tue, 25 Jul 2017 19:36:45 +0000
Bill Mandates Board of Elections Emergency Plan treyger william alatriste

City Council Member Mark Treyger, left (photo: William Alatriste) 

New York City is no stranger to calamity, be it natural or man-made, and many city agencies have emergency response plans for varying levels of crisis. On Wednesday, City Council Member Mark Treyger will introduce a bill to ensure that the Board of Elections, which administers voting in the city, joins these agencies in formulating its own disaster-preparedness procedures for conducting the polls.

"We have to make sure that democracy perseveres through a crisis," Treyger told Gotham Gazette. The Council member represents parts of southern Brooklyn that were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just a week before election day. Treyger's experience with the storm and his role as chair of the Council's Committee on Recovery and Resiliency give him a unique perspective on the issue.

"Every agency, NYCHA or DOE, are all in the process of updating their emergency response plans," Treyger said. "I'm curious to know what the BOE has done to better respond to emergencies post-Superstorm Sandy and what level of coordination exists between the City and the State."

Treyger's bill would mandate that the BOE be prepared for extreme situations by working with the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management to create a reasonable plan to conduct an election amid a crisis. In the interview, Treyger emphasized that he is sensitive about the primary goal during an emergency of protecting life, but wants to make sure that the democratic process isn't lost in the fray "once emergency relief efforts are concluded and all lives are accounted for." It would require, he said, coordination between multiple agencies, and between city and state authorities.

"Quite frankly, one crisis should not be an excuse for another crisis," Treyger said, citing New York's low voter turnout in past elections and how this record is worse in years when catastrophe strikes.

Superstorm Sandy had the Board of Elections scrambling to ensure that people could vote. Many polling stations were damaged by the floods and had to be moved with little public notice, which Treyger said affected at least 250,000 people. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a day before the election, issued an executive order that allowed affected residents to vote with an affidavit ballot at any polling site. Treyger said these affidavit ballots started to run out at many sites. He insisted that these issues could have been averted if there had been a contingency plan and poll workers were trained on how to conduct an election during an emergency.

Of course, Sandy wasn't the first disaster to hit around election time. In 2001, the primary elections were scheduled for September 11, and were postponed by two weeks in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

"There is no cost too high," Treyger said, "to make sure that democracy is administered in a fair and just way for all New Yorkers." When Gotham Gazette asked about the financial implications of the bill, he said that could be worked out once the proposal is considered and that this is the right time to do so. "It is budget season," Treyger said. 

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Bill Mandates Board of Elections Emergency Plan Tue, 08 Mar 2016 22:45:06 +0000
Time for NYCHA to Stop Wasting Our Money nycha construction pic empty

photo via NYCHA

In following the news over the past years, it has become readily apparent that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) must either be severely underfunded or grossly mismanaged. Unfortunately it's the latter.

There is no shortage of issues that have come up that demonstrate the ineptitude of NYCHA leadership. From failing to protect residents in advance of Hurricane Sandy to toxic molds to turning on the heat only if it gets to 25 degrees, NYCHA is failing its residents. To say that NYCHA is mismanaged and wasting our tax money is an understatement. Officials are throwing it away, literally - NYCHA actually recently threw away $550,000 of new supplies that were purchased but determined to not be useful.

But wasteful spending doesn't end there. NYCHA attaches Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) to all of their rehab and construction projects. These costly provisions mandate that a vast majority of workers come from the union halls, leading to fewer contractors bidding on the work and diminished competition.

Officials agree to these provisions even though studies show PLAs increase construction costs up to 30 percent. These additional costs come from reduced competition and antiquated jurisdictional work rules that prevent efficiencies. At a time when Mayor de Blasio has taken a stand for increased affordable housing in New York City by standing up to the powerful trades unions and telling them that they've out-priced themselves, NYCHA is acquiescing to their every demand, to the detriment of taxpayers and tenants alike.

An increasing amount of work is being done throughout New York City by merit shop contractors, and with good reason. These men and women have found innovative ways to build the best projects in efficient, cost-effective ways, while still taking great care of their employees. Go to any private job site today and you will more than likely see a diverse group of professionals working together as a team to get the job done. There is no bickering among differing trades as to whose responsibility it is to do key tasks like you see on public or taxpayer funded job sites.

Unfortunately, while these advancements have made construction better and cheaper, our union counterparts have been left behind, instead being forced to rely on their political influence to get publicly funded work such as at NYCHA. But as more and more of the general public is becoming aware of how this impacts their wallets and how much farther their dollar could go, this is changing too.

These changes have spurred the unfortunate rhetoric and baseless claims from union bosses who see their empires slipping away.

Imagine how much work could get done with 30 percent more capital to work with? Maybe those elevators could finally get fixed or the mold would finally be eradicated. Perhaps NYCHA could be more prepared for a disaster. And what if, not to be too bold, NYCHA could actually turn the heat on before it hits 25 degrees?

As a public authority, NYCHA has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of this city. This should encourage its leaders to stretch tax dollars as far as they can to get the most bang for the buck. They also have a moral obligation to the tenants of their housing. This means they should do everything they can to get the best housing available at the most competitive pricing - making more housing available to those who need it.

NYCHA needs to be cleaned up, and the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued the tenants and taxpayers of New York City needs to be addressed. The process by which NYCHA officials spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars is a start.

Our message to NYCHA is clear: while you've gotten used to throwing our money away, you owe it to taxpayers and tenants to open bids up, create competition, and get the most bang for our buck.

Brian Sampson is the President of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. The Association was founded on the shared belief that construction projects should be awarded on merit to the most qualified and responsible low bidders. The Chapter represents nearly 400 members in the construction industry throughout NYS.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Time for NYCHA to Stop Wasting Our Money Wed, 10 Feb 2016 00:32:49 +0000
To Fix Penn Station, Think Smaller Cuomo penn station plan presser

Cuomo with a new Penn Station plan (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)

Governor Cuomo deserves credit for jumpstarting the Moynihan Station project this week, albeit under a different moniker. After decades of neglect, commuters and long-distance travelers deserve light, air, and dignity.

But Cuomo's plan neglects the deeper problems that have long plagued Penn Station.

In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest.

Chaos ensued. Some routine trips now required three different types of tickets bought in three different ways. Passengers boarded from three different concourses with three different departure boards.

And worst of all, three different railroads clogged the same number of tracks.

Crowds, delays, and frustration become the norm. And after Superstorm Sandy decimated Penn's tunnels, the three railroads bickered and dithered as riders suffered.

Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It's unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut.

And with ridership climbing and Sandy repairs looming, the trio can barely keep up with the status quo — let alone support the expansion that the economy demands.

Cooperation would help resolve these problems. Running commuter trains between Long Island and New Jersey — rather than terminating them at Penn — could double capacity while opening up jobs to those on both sides of Manhattan. Coordinated communications and ticketing could ease crowding and nerves. And other options, such as sharing services, would slow the rate of fare increases for riders of all stripes.

To truly fix Penn Station, Cuomo must look beyond the building. Cooperation among the railroads is the missing ingredient in the governor's plan.

Adrian Untermyer is Deputy Director of the Historic Districts Council and was named an Emerging Leader in Transportation by the NYU Rudin Center. On Twitter @untermyer.

To Fix Penn Station, Think Smaller Thu, 07 Jan 2016 23:50:06 +0000