The missed opportunities of Sandy recovery

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

In January 2013, a scant few months after Superstorm Sandy left 24 dead on Staten Island and thousands homeless in New York, a small contingent of city officials, including then-Councilman Vincent Ignizio and me, traveled to New Orleans. Our mission was to find out what to do – and what not to do – in the aftermath of a storm so destructive that the enormity of the recovery we faced was almost impossible to grasp.

It was there we learned about the Louisiana Land Trust. Created in 2006, the trust was tasked with acquiring properties from homeowners devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After the homes were acquired from willing sellers, the trust would then raze the buildings and offer the lots for sale to neighbors or interested developers – anyone with the financial means to build a stronger and more resilient housing typology than the one they were replacing.

Here, we thought, was the answer. This would give us an opportunity to acquire large parcels of land, using funds provided by federal Community Development Block Grants, and to rebuild these areas in a visionary and transformative way. These zones, where the original developments were not only haphazard but unsafe, would take on a whole new appearance, and the original homeowners who took advantage of the program would be given the right of first refusal if they wished to return. It was dubbed Acquisition for Redevelopment.

There’s a quote that sticks in my head, a political quote, to be sure, but nonetheless it expresses an important sentiment: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you thought you could not do before.”

And so it was that the storm gave us an opportunity to correct mistakes of the past, an opportunity to ensure that a tragedy would not be repeated, and an opportunity for government to get it right. Government is, by nature, reactive and often acts only after a tragedy. But what we do in the wake of such an event defines our willingness to learn from it.

In the wake of Sandy we had a chance to unleash our creativity to solve those kinds of longstanding problems that we are otherwise not likely, or able, to correct. Sadly, history will remember this ongoing recovery as one of those missed opportunities. We let an unprecedented crisis go to waste.

With a robust Acquisition for Redevelopment program that had the resources and full-throated support of city government, we could have made real, positive and sweeping changes. Instead of choosing this path, the city chose a kind of ad hoc redevelopment that will allow these festering problems to persist. It was a missed opportunity to improve the housing in what were historically summer beach communities that morphed into permanent neighborhoods.

When I asked the Bloomberg administration to follow the successful Growth Management Task Force model – local decision-making throughout the Sandy recovery process to ensure that the specific needs of Staten Island were met – the request languished. Instead, the administration took charge without adequate local input, and those decisions have haunted us since.

The New York state buyout program established after Sandy offers further proof of the efficacy of Acquisition for Redevelopment. The success of that program in several Staten Island communities, particularly Oakwood Beach, is an example of what might have been if the city had followed the state’s lead and given its full attention to the program.

In the weeks and months after the storm we heard Mayor Bloomberg swing many times at an imaginary foe when he repeated the mantra “We won’t abandon the waterfront.” But nobody was seeking that, and our AFR was our attempt to revitalize the Staten Island waterfront. The city’s approach, while not an abandonment of the waterfront per se, represented ad hoc development – just look at some blocks that are a mix of elevated homes, unraised bungalows and empty lots – that will not improve our communities long term.

It’s now four years later and people’s lives are still in flux. But this is the situation we face, and we will continue the work of getting folks home. Mayor de Blasio was right when he called for a hard deadline of the end of calendar year 2016 to complete the mission. We won’t meet the deadline, but I fully believe that without this pressure we wouldn’t have gotten this far.

So what happens now?

We at Borough Hall will continue to host our monthly Sandy Task Force meetings with city, state, federal and community representatives to ensure local input. My staff and I will also continue to help individual property owners navigate the bureaucratic maze.

As we continue this work, four years post-Sandy, we should begin the process of determining what went right in the recovery process and what didn’t – a task that should be undertaken by an outside institution to ensure an honest assessment. We owe this to future generations that may face similar situations.

We must also begin planning now for the next crisis. This means developing plans to ensure that on the day after a disaster there are plans already drawn up that we can pull off a shelf and begin to implement. No debate on the path forward, only a discussion of the details of implementation.

One item we should examine immediately is how to ensure that an acquisition program for shoreline communities continues even after the recovery process ends. It is simply good policy to create better and more resilient communities whenever and wherever we can.

Mother Nature dealt us a serious blow on Oct. 29, 2012. In the four years since, some New Yorkers are enduring more pain than the actual harm done by the wind, rain and tides. That must never happen again.

James Oddo is the borough president of Staten Island.