A Year and a Half and Counting: The Status of the Post-Sandy Recovery in the NY/NJ Region

More than eighteen months after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the Eastern United States, many of the worst-hit towns and neighborhoods are still waiting to return to a semblance of normal life. The protracted recovery process underscores the power of the storm, especially along coastal New York and New Jersey. But its slow pace also raises a question: Why is the implementation of post-Sandy rebuilding plans taking so long?

During a recent conference, federal, state and city officials involved in the rebuilding process pointed to a variety of factors that had slowed their efforts, ranging from the complexity of making good decisions about how to rebuild, to the challenge of coordinating a meaningful response among a large swath of local, state and federal agencies not necessarily accustomed to working together.

The conference, hosted by the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA) on April 24, was timely event held at an apt venue – a boat docked at a pier where the Hudson River empties into New York City’s harbor.

The Obstacles to Implementation

Approximately $60 billion in federal funds have been allocated to the task of rebuilding from Sandy.

“We want to see that the dollars are spent well, so there are rules in place to achieve that, but these rules are also slowing things down,” said Daniel Zarrilli, the director of resilience from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, who participated on the opening panel, along with representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and from the administrations of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

James Rubin, who directs New York State’s Office of Storm Recovery, acknowledged that there had been slowdowns resulting from the experience gained through Sandy that prompted reconsideration of past practices.

“Sandy required us to rethink things, and many of the internal delays simply reflected an initial lack of imagination on our part,” he said.

That rethinking involved decisions not only about the most effective ways to increase resiliency but also about modifying standard government procedures — for example, how to revise the process of assessing funding applications for rebuilding individual homes in order to administer the claims more expeditiously, Rubin said.

Implementation also entails more than the workings of state-level programs.

“The combination of vertical coordination with the federal government and horizontal coordination with counties and municipalities takes time,” said Michelle Siekerka, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Deputy Commissioner. “Otherwise, you’re challenged for lack of transparency in how the dollars are being spent,” she said.

Holly Leicht of HUD’s Region 2 agreed that Sandy required considerable rethinking because of the need to rebuild more resiliently. The addition of resiliency required coordination on the federal level among agencies that typically would have worked independently of one another and completed their tasks faster, said Leicht, who is the region’s administrator.

Overall, speakers stressed the importance of having careful planning and assessment before disbursing funds and of fostering collaboration among levels of government, even if the going was slower as a result.

But now that everyone is ready to implement, there is a need to disburse funding faster, Zarrilli said.

The Accomplishments to Date

Although obstacles were acknowledged, panelists also highlighted numerous accomplishments since December 2012, when President Obama charged HUD with assembling a multi-agency task force to ensure that the necessary resources were provided to states, local governments and tribal communities hit by the storm, and that recovery work properly coordinated among levels of government and with private-sector collaborators. As part of its responsibility, the Task Force also developed recommendations for a comprehensive regional rebuilding strategy.

Federal Level

In describing HUD’s role since the completion of the Task Force’s report, Leicht stressed that it now fundamentally works through its grantees — in the context of the MWA conference, New Jersey, New York State and New York City.

“The success of rebuilding is in their hands, and HUD’s role is to support them,” she said.

Leicht pointed to the recent launching of ten technical coordination teams made up of staff from various federal agencies. The teams will help state and local governments address issues such as improved coastal protection, enhanced resiliency of wastewater treatment facilities, and mitigation of future impacts to the region’s liquid fuels supply chain, all challenges that caused serious problems when the storm surge hit.

One example of the results HUD hopes to achieve can be seen in the $730 million grant awarded in January 2014 to New York State for the repair of the Bay Park Wastewater Treatment Plant on Long Island, which had been severely damaged during the storm. Leicht said three agencies coordinated the rebuilding plans — FEMA, HUD and EPA – and the resulting structure will have not only state-of-the-art protection against extreme weather events but also a greatly enhanced treatment capacity that will significantly improve water quality in Long Island Sound.

In addition, HUD aimed to drive broader innovation in resiliency through the creation of Rebuild by Design, an international competition that challenged interdisciplinary teams of engineers, architects, urban designers, economists, and ecologists to develop cutting-edge solutions to locally specific solutions that will also have wide regional applicability. When the winning proposals are chosen from among ten finalists later this spring, the design groups will also be folded into the technical teams, said Leicht. The pilot projects they will build aspire to test new approaches to resiliency against flooding from storm surges, sea-level rise and inland waters. HUD and the teams hope that ultimately, these more experimental approaches yield models that will benefit other cities and towns.

State Level

Representatives from New York and New Jersey also provided overviews of progress in their states.

The New York State Office of Storm Recovery oversees the distribution of about $15 billion in federal appropriations for recovery from Irene and Lee in addition to Sandy, said Rubin.

Some of the major steps that he described include the allocation of approximately $3.8 billion in funding from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to upstate and coastal residents for rebuilding homes and to highly floodprone communities that have applied as a group for home buyouts; around $50 million for small business recovery; and over $16 billion of combined federal and state funds for larger resiliency projects, including help for small communities to cover their federally mandated ten-percent share of infrastructure projects.

Rubin said that his office also recently funded 45 detailed reconstruction proposals that came about through the $500-million New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, developed to help a total of 102 severely damaged towns create comprehensive and innovative rebuilding plans with community-wide participation.

Siekerka described a comprehensive regional approach in New Jersey that entailed an initial mapping of problems, followed by development of so-called cluster strategies to resolve issues that exist in numerous communities, such as the need for home elevations, backup power generation, and replacement of outdated combined sewer systems that overflow.

The state has worked on leveraging federal monies by expanding EPA support for water and wastewater projects through a state revolving fund and extending Department of Energy and CDBG monies through an Energy Resiliency Bank that will increase available funding through public benefits charges on electricity usage, Siekerka said.

Finally, New Jersey has partnered with six state academic institutions to report on the best types of flood protection to develop not only from a resiliency perspective but also from an economic and social viewpoint, she said.

City Level

One of the recent accomplishments in New York City, said Zarrilli, was a “seamless transition from the Bloomberg to the De Blasio administration,” illustrated by an April 2014 update on recommendations from the post-Sandy report, A Stronger, More Resilient New York that details the status of resiliency steps in 22 separate categories and expands on ways the new administration will move funds for the rebuilding of homes and neighborhoods and increase economic activity at the same time.

According to the recent report, the city has fully completed 45 of 59 specified milestones and partially completed an additional 12. The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is working to develop a set of metrics that will assess the progress of very concrete resiliency steps throughout the city – for example, the percentage of regional fuel terminal capacity in the 100-year floodplain hardened against a 100-year flood, the number of buildings with reduced coastal risk due to coastal protection projects, and the percentage of New York City transportation assets adapted for climate change resiliency, says the report.

— By Eleanor Saunders

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