Donna Panebianco's home on Staten Island was among the many hit when Hurricane Sandy blasted the New York shoreline nearly two years ago. Two floors of her semi-attached Dognan Hills house were inundated and rendered uninhabitable. But despite what she's heard of the science behind climate change and extreme weather patterns, Panebianco can't fathom another Sandy happening anytime soon. In her 20 years on the island, she said, there had never been anything like it.
"This wasn't rainwater," she told VICE News. "This was not a typical storm."
A few days after the hurricane, Panebianco applied for funds from New York City's Build It Back program to repair the damage to her home, where she lives with her now 18-year-old daughter. At about the same time she submitted the paperwork, the New York Times lamented the fact that taxpayer dollars were destined for "putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability that existed before the hurricane."
While many New Yorkers have recovered post-Sandy and others have moved away, some residents affected by the storm are still struggling, living on the upper floors of their damaged homes and seeking funding to rebuild — often in areas that could be permanently underwater in just a few decades as sea levels continue to rise due to climate change.
Build It Back is one of the programs handing out money to rebuild. The program's stifling bureaucracy has been frequently criticized for leaving many Sandy victims in limbo, but recently it has claimed new progress. New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced in early September that more than 500 homes had begun construction, and $9 million in rebuilding and repair reimbursement checks had gone to storm victims.
On the surface, those are positive developments. But the city's renewed energy behind the program seems to ignore a long-term future of higher sea levels and stronger storms. Columbia University scientists estimate that the sea level in New York City will rise five feet by 2100, just 86 years from now. On top of the swelling sea, the International Panel on Climate Change predicts increasingly intense precipitation and storm activity.
When asked whether the recovery effort might be shortsighted, Build It Back director Amy Peterson told VICE News, "These are longstanding communities on the waterfront, generations of homeowners. We want to make sure that the things that we put in place allow these communities to thrive."
Peterson emphasized that homeowners who saw more than 50 percent damage to their houses are also under a FEMA requirement to elevate them and meet other resiliency standards. New York City spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick also defended Build It Back as one part of the city's multi-layered approach.
"The nearly 400,000 New Yorkers living in the 100-year floodplain include some of our most vulnerable populations, such as public housing residents," Spitalnick told VICE News. "In a city as dense and populous as New York, it would simply be illogical to abandon our waterfronts and the people who live there. That's why the city is rebuilding stronger and more resiliently, with upgraded building codes and improved infrastructure — coupled with a comprehensive citywide resiliency plan — that will better protect our communities."
Spitalnick added that "structures built under the latest building codes were much safer during Sandy than older structures, proving that smarter coastal development is part of the climate resiliency answer in New York City."
'The problem is in all the public discussions, the most logical and humane alternative is never on the table.'
Not everyone sees it that way. Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and the author of New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, told VICE News that private interests often underlie the city's agenda. He said that the city's plans "perfectly reflect the inability of government to conceive of any comprehensive long-term solution, especially one that would challenge government to put the resources behind the solution. 'Rebuilding stronger' (and 'smarter') sounds nice and fair — but in practice who gets to build and who benefits when the money comes from the private sector?"
Angotti believes the private development rush is part of the legacy of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg called New York a "luxury product," and consistently showed a willingness to surrender the city and its waterfront to big developers with projects such as "SeaPort City," a proposal to build a high-end neighborhood jutting into the East River in Lower Manhattan.
"The problem is, in all the public discussions, the most logical and humane alternative is never on the table," Agnotti said. "Government has to intervene in a massive way to make sure that the outcomes are equitable and just and effective."
But an alternative scenario where communities might plan relocation while slowly transitioning some coastal areas into less risky parkland isn't an option without big changes to the economic system. This much is obvious to those who have been working on the ground.
Terri Bennett, an Occupy Sandy activist and the co-founder of Respond and Rebuild, a disaster relief collective, believes that relocation could not work with the city's sky-high real estate prices. Without government intervention to make housing more equitable on a larger scale, relocating people would mean "actually asking them to leave New York City," she told VICE News.
"The conversation isn't really about whether or not to redevelop the coastline," Bennett said. "I think it turns into who gets to redevelop the coastline."
The de Blasio administration is eager to distance itself from Bloomberg, and the city is now stationing more city officials in storm-ravaged neighborhoods and conducting ongoing local resiliency studies. But the new government sees a responsibility to maintain communities in areas at imminent risk, and is not immune to powerful financial forces encouraging new coastal building. De Blasio himself has a history of courting development, and in the last decade he has backed various controversial waterfront projects against the opposition of environmentalists and community activists.
Susannah Dyen, a coordinator for Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a Sandy relief and recovery coalition, said the difference in community engagement between Bloomberg and de Blasio feels like "night and day." But she acknowledged the need for a conversation about the harsh longer-term climate consequences in at-risk areas because, as she put it, "no one has the answer yet."
Meanwhile, people affected by Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan, the recent Kashmir floods, and mounting natural disasters elsewhere have experienced an approaching reality that governments and institutions don't seem ready to fully face: submerged cities and radically different coastlines.
"I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that the ocean came to my house," Panebianco, the longtime Staten Island resident, said. "I'm close, but I'm not that close."
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