As Texas mobilizes in response to the unprecedented floods of Hurricane Harvey, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo said government officials still need to learn from the critical mistakes made in New York in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Nearly five years after Sandy made landfall in New York, Staten Island remains vulnerable, Oddo added. The Build It Back homeowner rebuilding program is nearing completion, but work still remains to be done. And Staten Island, New York City, Texas and country as a whole could benefit from a candid top-to-bottom review of flaws in the government response to Sandy.
"As horrifying as the images are coming out of Texas, it's more heartbreaking to know that the disaster recovery mechanism in this country is still broken," the borough president said in an interview with City & State. "I have had many Staten Islanders come up to me and say as bad as Sandy was, the ‘recovery’ has been worse."
Currently, Oddo said Staten Island is just as vulnerable as it was at the time of Sandy, with the "game changer" being a planned Army Corps of Engineers seawall likely to start construction in 2019, for which he credited "phenomenal ally" U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Dan Donovan. "That's the real protection for a portion of the East Shore," he said.
One of the most frequent targets for criticism in the wake of Sandy was the city’s oft-delayed efforts to rebuild homes damaged by the storm.
"I think that's one of the real takeaways that our friends in Texas will find in the coming months, there has to be a robust, experienced, effective case-management process,” Oddo said. “It did not exist with Rapid Repair, the city swore they would get it right on Build It Back, they did not," resulting in lost paperwork and misinformation, he added.
Oddo said Build It Back only found its footing in the wake of a summer 2015 meeting held in his office with city, state and federal officials that he termed the "Red Wedding" – a “Game of Thrones” reference – where he vented his frustrations and "dropped many an F-bomb." That prompted Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris to visit Staten Island a week later and spurred a change in some of the bureaucracy, he said.
"The worst is behind us, we're nearing the finish line," Oddo said of the Build It Back recovery program, with now dozens of houses remaining to be finished by the end of the year on Staten Island. "It's been five, long, frustrating, heartbreaking, ugly years." He said Build It Back had been "flawed" from the start, with officials on the ground not being granted either the local decision-making ability or the high-level oversight they called for from the Bloomberg administration.
He said another program that could have made a difference would have been “acquisition for redevelopment,” an idea based on insights he gained from a January 2013 trip to New Orleans with former City Councilman Vincent Ignizio. He described it as a voluntary program to buy people out of their homes and give them a "right of return" once a more consistent rebuilding and resiliency effort is complete.
But failures of city and state coordination resulted in "ad-hoc lot by lot recovery," leaving many still vulnerable and an "unimaginable price tag" for those properties that were built back through the program. "It physically turns my stomach when I drive my old Council District ... because it is exactly what they warned us against when we went down to New Orleans" he said. "Those folks who haven't elevated (their property) are still in harm's way."
He said the idea never received the full support from either the Bloomberg or the de Blasio administrations. "In our task force meetings we couldn't get the city and the state to work together ... and what's really really frustrating for me is Staten Island ... birthed this idea, took it from our trip, and the program has been used with great success by the state in Long Island, but it never really provided the help on Staten Island.”
Oddo noted that in the past several months, the city initiated a smaller acquisition process to address some of the most difficult cases remaining, which he suggested would have been the cheaper approach from the beginning.
Last month, Oddo helped sponsor a symposium featuring a whitepaper by Holly Leicht, the former regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development who oversaw the Sandy recovery in the region. He emphasized her recommendations for the government to be more straightforward with the public about the difficulty of recovery efforts, which could make people more open to acquisition, and to implement a one-time "Common App" type form for people to apply for federal disaster assistance rather than navigate different agencies.
He has already shared the report with Schumer, and though he noted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is now requesting federal aid even though he voted against Sandy relief, Oddo aims to share it with him as well. “It would be great now for Senators Cornyn and Cruz to grab this whitepaper and take one or two of (her) recommendations … and change it now for the people of Texas and Louisiana so that they don't have to go through what people in New York and New Jersey did."
On the city level, Oddo said Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged publicly that a full reset of the program might have been better. “We're close to getting everybody home so I envision ... that sometime in calendar year 2018, (the mayor) directs that sort of A to Z review and demands candor about the previous administration and his own,” Oddo said. “Let's get a combination of people who were in the trenches, academia, experts. ... When independent outside entities echo and affirm what I'm saying, having lived this for five years, then I think we really have a chance to make changes at a local level that need to happen."