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Here's What New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Did for a Troubled Sandy Relief Program

Money is finally flowing to New Yorkers whose homes were destroyed or damaged two years ago, but experts say disaster relief and infrastructure isn't enough to help the city cope with future shocks.

by Ari Paul
Nov 11 2014, 9:25pm

Photo by Mark Wiitanen

It's been just over two years since Hurricane Sandy battered the east coast of the United States, killing over one hundred people and causing $50 billion in damages, making it the second costliest storm to hit the country after Hurricane Katrina.

Sandy exposed just how deeply vulnerable New York City is to sea level rise and extreme weather events, which scientists say will most certainly occur more frequently and with greater ferocity due to climate change.

After years of criticism for its ham-handed disaster response the city is slowly turning things around. But experts point out, that in order to make the five boroughs more resilient to climate change, city leaders will need to do more than provide effective disaster response.

A program called Build it Back lies at the heart of the city's Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Established by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, the program reimburses homeowners for the cost of reconstructing damaged or completely destroyed homes.

The program has been criticized for its slow and sometimes inadequate response, but Mayor Bill de Blasio's has revamped the program and aid is beginning to flow to those in need.

"Nearly two years after Sandy, there's nothing more important than getting families home - and as a result of our overhaul, that's finally happening," de Blasio said ahead of the anniversary of the storm."When we took office, Build it Back simply wasn't working. Now, families across the city have started construction or received reimbursement."

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio discusses reforms of the Build it Back program at a Staten Island press conference on the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. (Photograph by Mark Wiitanen)

At the end of last year Build it Back had not issued a single reimbursement check or funded a any construction starts. As of November, however, 789 construction starts were underway and 1,188 reimbursement checks had been issued. De Blasio has committed the city to funding 1,000 construction starts and sending 1,500 reimbursement checks by December 31.

"Build it Back will continue to expedite relief until every homeowner is served," said de Blasio.

Public officials and community activists welcome the progress under de Blasio's leadership and say the program's early failures could be attributed to its initially flawed design.

"There is no question in my mind that the way the program was structured last year is one of the main causes of a lot of the delays we're seeing this year," Mark Treyger, Chair of the New York City Council Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, told VICE News. Treyger's constituents include residents of Brooklyn beachfront communities damaged by the storm.

"Twenty-two thousand people applied to Built it Back," Treyger said. "Over 6,000 have become unresponsive. That's very concerning to me. We have an obligation. Many of those people have just given up. I'm not giving up on them. The city should double down on their efforts to get them back in this year."

In order to address that backlog the Mayor's office has shifted program oversight from outside contractors to public employees, expanding eligibility to homeowners regardless of income level, and reached out to nearly 5,000 unresponsive applicants this year.

An empty lot and boarded up home along Rockaway Beach in New York City's Queens borough. (Photo by Mark Wiitanen)

"Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio's Build it Back overhaul streamlined the program, put in place a hands-on approach to management and communications, and added much-needed flexibility for homeowners," de Blasio spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told VICE News. "As a result, homeowners are now seeing dramatic progress."

The Rockaways, a coastal area of Queens, experienced heavy flooding as a result of the storm. Rebuilding has been slow in this working-class community — and in some circumstances has yet to begin.

"Thousands of households in Rockaway either remain displaced or still live in storm-damaged homes," Reese May, director of East Coast operations for St. Bernard Project, told VICE News. The project, founded after Hurricane Katrina, provides disaster recovery assistance around the nation.

"Rockaway homes still require major — sometimes complete — interior rebuilding, from treatment for two years' worth of heath-hazardous mold to a full replacement of walls and flooring," May told VICE News. "Despite making the right decisions — including spending relief and insurance funds on critical repairs — many residents cannot afford to finish rebuilding on their own."

The reason said May is largely economics. Many people continue to pay mortgages on their properties, while also needing to rent apartments or homes during the wait to rebuild their damaged structures.

Beachfront fortifications along Rockaway Beach in New York City's Queens borough. (Mark Wiitanen)

May was very critical of the Build it Back program under the Bloomberg administration but has embraced de Balsio's reform efforts and even appeared with the mayor at an event marking the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.

"Since January 1, we have seen a different Build it Back," May told VICE News. "It is a program that includes and incorporates and collaborates with community organizations committed to the recovery. It is a program with leaders who communicate directly with stakeholders and residents."

Everyone from affected coastal residents and relief organizations to the Mayor's office and city climate change scientists realize, however, that even the most robust disaster response is not enough to help New York City cope with future storms. The key, experts and homeowners alike say, is helping coastal communities to adapt to rising sea levels, extreme storms, and more frequent heat waves. By improving the city's resiliency to climate change, so the theory goes, disaster costs will diminish and the shocks of extreme storms and persistent heat waves might become less traumatic.

Since Hurricane Sandy, the city has proposed a wide array of infrastructure projects to help defend low-lying areas against flooding, such as a seawall around Lower Manhattan's Battery Park and strengthening dunes along the Rockaways.

"The city needs to adopt a resiliency framework, which is much more than infrastructure," Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, told VICE News.

Rodin is the author of The Resilience Dividend and says the next shock to the city's transportation system or utility grid may take an entirely different form than Hurricane Sandy. In her estimation strengthening social ties within communities will help them prepare for, withstand, and rebound from a crisis, whether an extreme storm, a cyber attack, a dangerous virus outbreak, or severe economic crisis.

"The real question for New Yorkers is not how we address a specific crisis," she told VICE News. "The goal is to prepare for any crisis."

Two Years Since Hurricane Sandy. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Follow Ari Paul on Twitter: @aripaul

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