For the vast majority of New York City, the trauma of Hurricane Sandy has passed. Though huge swaths went days without power, weeks without mass transit and months without heat following the storm’s devastating landfall last October, this week’s one-year anniversary finds the city’s most obvious wounds healed and the lion’s share of its day-to-day operations unencumbered.
But on the periphery — in the Rockaways, on Staten Island’s South Shore and along Brooklyn’s edges — where the storm surge was highest and the damage greatest, evidence of Sandy still litters the landscape. There are miles of shuttered coastline, building lots specked with rubble, entire neighborhoods without habitable homes and blue tarps flapping like flags of surrender. All is not well underground, either. In the city’s dense subterranean layer, damage to the electrical grid and the subway system still keeps workers busy and city officials worried about infrastructure older than the average technician’s grandparents.
So, one year after Sandy, as waterfront development continues, Ellis Island re-opens and public housing residents prepare for another winter with temporary mobile boilers as their full-time source of hot water, how do New York City’s rebuilding and resiliency efforts stack up?
“We are prepared. In fact, we are better prepared than we were for Sandy,” said the Deputy Mayor of Operations Cas Holloway at a City Hall press conference last week. Since forecasters started tracking Hurricane Sandy, Holloway has been one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s key players for all things related to the storm. He oversees the Police Department, Fire Department and the Office of Emergency Management, as well as the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and its Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR).
In June, SIRR published a 438-page report presenting 257 policy recommendations, infrastructure priorities and community plans aimed at adapting New York City to risks associated with climate change. It also identified sources of long-term funding. The report included everything from calls to establish a citywide fuel security strategy to plans for a gated storm-surge barrier at the mouth of the Newtown Creek to a study of the feasibility of so-called Seaport City, a new and flood-ready Manhattan neighborhood that would be built on the East River south of the Brooklyn Bridge.
City officials announced last week that 20 of the 257 points in the plan have been completed. The finished projects included bringing beaches back to usable condition, passing new laws to aid in long-term planning, adopting new zoning maps and the construction and rehabilitation of coastal protection measures in low-lying and risk-prone communities throughout the five boroughs.
At the time of the report’s publication in June, officials expected 59 of the 257 points to be finished by the end of the year. That means the administration will have to complete a whopping 39 projects in the next two months if it hopes to stay on schedule.
New York City Transit workers move subway cars in Rockaway, where transit services were suspended after the storm. Photo credit: MTA
But a number of the recovery effort’s most noteworthy programs are all but stalled. A housing buy-back initiative supported with $648 million in federal monies, has managed to distribute some repair funds, but made only one acquisition so far: the purchase of a Staten Island woman’s home. At a news conference marking the closure of that deal, Mayor Bloomberg noted that more than 24,000 people have signed up for the initiative. He later added, “We’ll continue to help everyone else who’s eligible just as quickly as we can.”
A similar delay hampered rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. Eleven months after that storm, none of the more than 100,000 applicants to the Road Home housing-aid program had received federal money.
For thousands of New Yorkers still struggling to satisfy needs as basic as shelter and access to medical care, such comparisons, and renewed promises from the city, state, or federal government, are cold comfort. In fact, in the city’s hardest hit areas, the praise one is likely to hear honors family members, friends, neighbors and local organizations.
In Sandy’s immediate wake, traditional support networks like churches and community groups shouldered an enormous amount of the burden, and as the degree of devastation surpassed the capacity of those organizations, relief-oriented non-profit groups stepped up or were formed by area residents. Friends of Rockaway, a community-based non-profit that has helped with rebuilding its namesake peninsula, was formed in the aftermath of the storm and continues to provide rebuilding services to families in need of assistance a year later.
Other non-profits are just now finding a foothold. Doctors of the World, an international humanitarian organization that provides emergency and long-term medical care to vulnerable populations, opened its first U.S. outpost in the Rockaways on October 19 of this year. Noah Barth, Program Coordinator for the Doctors of the World Rockaways Free Clinic, wrote recently, “Make no mistake about it; the Rockaways still has a long fight ahead of it. Scratch just beneath the surface, spend some time, talk to a resident and you will find the need is still great.”
One thing that is certain a year after Sandy is that the bulk of what’s left to do — from quality-of-life issues to billion dollar infrastructure investments — will fall on the next administration. Mayor Bloomberg’s likely successor, Bill de Blasio, who made a name for himself during the campaign as a sort of anti-Bloomberg, offered rare praise of City Hall’s efforts at a candidates’ forum in August. “I see some real differences with the way he handles issues of fairness towards the outer boroughs,” de Blasio said. “But I think when it comes to the broad strokes of his recovery plan, there is a lot I agree with.”
Just how that agreement will translate into redrawn FEMA maps, waterfront development, flood mitigation strategies, zoning ordinances, disaster preparedness, mass transit investment and every other aspect of life in New York City is something that every New Yorker ought to watch closely.
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b