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Inside the failures of post-Hurricane Sandy Build It Back program

Assessing the struggling program five years after Hurricane Sandy

Homes on Breezy Point’s Fulton Walk in 2014. The Queens enclave is one community that benefited from Build it Back.
Nathan Kensinger

Five years ago, on October 29, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the East Coast. In the five boroughs, the storm raged through the night, and in the morning, New Yorkers woke up to a different city. Thousands of buildings had flooded or were outright destroyed; the power was out in many more. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor at the time, estimated the storm had caused $19 billion of damage across the city.

Many politicians were quick to characterize the storm as a sort of “wake-up call” as the country grappled with the increasing threat of climate change. Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to step up and rebuild a stronger, more resilient city.

But if Sandy revealed how vulnerable the city is to hurricanes, the five years following have revealed how little infrastructure the city has to address them. “We still have a long, long way to go,” says City Council member Donovan Richards, who represents Southeast Queens and the Rockaways, areas that were badly devastated by the storm. “We are just as vulnerable as a city as we were five years ago.”

The scorn of many a New Yorker affected by the storm is directed toward the Build It Back program, initiated by Bloomberg in 2013. Through the program, the city promised construction funds to eligible New Yorkers seeking to rebuild their homes, using a city-selected developer with pre-approved plans, or by choosing a contractor to build a home following program guidelines and cost restrictions. In both rebuild options, Build It Back would make payments directly to the contractor.

But in its first year, absolutely nothing was built back. It wasn’t until March of 2014, 18 months after the storm, that three reimbursement checks were mailed out—the program’s first sign of progress.

Though Build It Back picked up steam under current Mayor de Blasio, who was elected five months after the program’s inception, it’s been criticized along the way for “a lot of dysfunction, a lot of misinformation, confusion, and mass disarray,” as City Council member Mark Treyger, whose district includes South Brooklyn, puts it.

It’s worth noting Build It Back wasn’t the only program to address Sandy aftermath; the so-called Rapid Repairs initiative, a partnership between Bloomberg and FEMA, helped get more than 20,000 families who applied to the program back in their homes in the first few months after the disaster. (Treyger, however, characterized that work as “rushed… a lot of it had to be redone.”)

Build It Back had ambitious goals and a $2.2 billion budget. It was the first time the city attempted a partnership between government, contractors, and homeowners to rebuild damaged homes to be better equipped for the next storm. And that may be why it became, as Comptroller Scott Stringer put it, “a case study in dysfunction.”

Build It Back kicked off in the summer of 2013 as Bloomberg’s term was ending, and the people initiating it knew they would not be around to see it through. “Our goals were to devise a program that would provide viable re-housing options for every displaced New York City residential property owner and renter, to streamline the process for implementation, to maximize registration of property owners and renters, to support resilient rebuilding initiatives, to make certain that the program was adequately funded, to be as cost-efficient as possible in rebuilding, and, of course, to get started on reconstruction,” Brad Gair, the former head of the Bloomberg’s Housing Recovery Operations, tells Curbed. “In addition, we hoped to position the incoming mayoral administration to be able to get most of the homes restored by the two-year anniversary.”

A home in Broad Channel, Queens, being rebuilt in 2013.
Associated Press

But in 2015, after he left the post, Gair called the program “a categorial failure.” He says the blame doesn’t wholly rest on the city. In a 2016 paper he explained how “we have yet to agree at the national level upon how much we should do to aid disaster survivors.” (Any agreement seems far from being reached, as the widely criticized federal relief efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria show.)

The paper also shows how existing recovery and resiliency programs through the federal government are poorly structured and badly implemented. “The federal government often speaks of the sequence of delivery in disaster assistance as if there is a coherent plan behind it all,” Gair wrote. “In reality, it is a series of patchwork programs that more than anything else confuse, frustrate, and demoralize both those in need of aid and those trying to provide it.”

Such disorganization carried down to New York City government, which depended on federal support and funding to grapple with the scale of devastation. A timeline by DNAinfo lays out the seemingly never-ending struggles that unfolded from there: Build It Back applicants were initially listed under varying “priority” numbers based on need and income—further complicating an already complicated program—as well as homeowners claiming they were prematurely pushed out of their homes before construction began. One homeowner in Gerritsen Beach actually died in his wait to return home.

Two Year Anniversary Of Hurricane Sandy In New York Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Council members Treyger and Donovan, who both serve on the City Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, pointed to a few major missteps. “The early outreach did not reflect the diverse neighborhoods of our city,” Treyger says, noting that immigrant communities in his district did not know the program existed. He also criticized the program capacity, which did not have the manpower to address the “thousands and thousands of homeowners who signed up for the program and were deemed eligible.” Offloading work to contractors didn’t always pan out; Comptroller Stringer’s audit found the city paid $6.8 million for "flawed or incomplete" work.

The contractors, architects, and engineers responsibly working on projects also faced unprecedented design difficulties. “The combination of budget limitations and the technical requirements for flood-protecting these homes were very challenging,” a spokesperson for WXY architecture + urban design, a firm that designed two homes for Build It Back, said in an email.

The program—which also struggled with a shortage of architects and contractors—had established criteria geared toward larger firms. WXY, a firm that's worked often with the city and designed the Rockaway boardwalks after Sandy, got creative and invited four emerging firms, Peterson Rich Office, Jaklitsch Gardner Architects, Ariel Mesznik Architect, and Fete Nature Architecture, to apply for the program as a team. The team designed 10 homes; five moved forward with construction, while the other five were “determined to be either ineligible or unsuitable.”

For all its struggles, Council members Treyger and Richards do credit Mayor de Blasio’s administration for hiring more staff and pushing through as federal funding and support has dried up. (According to the 2016 DNAinfo timeline, “Build It Back now has ‘war rooms’ with multiple city agencies at work to cut through some of the red tape.”)

Mayor Bill de Blasio provides an update on Sandy-related home recovery in July 2014.

This year, the city finished 189 out of the total 500 houses that will be rebuilt through the program—three times more than the 53 homes finished a year ago. De Blasio recently announced that 87 percent of the 8,300 applicants with one- to four-family homes were completed through the Build It Back program.

But there are still problems. The number of applicants has decreased from around 20,000 when the program launched under Bloomberg; as it languished, thousands either withdrew their applications, stopped responding to Build It Back officials, or were found ineligible for a rebuild. A recent New York Daily News report shows the toll this takes at the human level, as homeowners who are still waiting for promised repairs—or ones who’ve been deemed ineligible for the program—struggle to move on, five years after the storm.

“In the future, I’m very concerned with the government getting involved in the rebuilding efforts,” says Richards. “It has not shown that it should be in the rebuilding business.” He wonders if homeowners should have received funds to rebuild themselves, “rather than going through this bureaucratic system.”

Build It Back also helped spur a conversation about what construction and design should look like in post-Sandy New York. “Architecture and urban planning teams have elevated the discussion,” says a rep with Fete Nature Architecture. “So resiliency is not just defined as readying a building structure or landscape to handle rising waters, flooding, and high winds, but to think about survival during power outages and disruption of heating and cooling systems, too.”

In an effort to fast-track rebuilding, the city has now turned to modular design. Roughly 100 modular homes set atop pillars will be installed in Staten Island and Queens, which Build It Back reps say cuts construction time in half, down to four or five months.

The modular program began as “uncharted territory,” according to Lou Mendes, Build It Back’s chief operating officer. “But it’s become another avenue for getting things done faster,” he says. Since starting the program at the beginning of 2017, 12 homes—fabricated by several companies out of Pennsylvania—have been in the works, and are expected to be installed by the end of next week. The size of each home is dictated by its lot and zoning conditions, but they range from roughly 900 to 2,400 square feet. According to Mendes, it’s a prototype for rebuilding in a more efficient manner—something that may be crucial if and when another Sandy-level storm hits.

Knickerbocker Village in Manhattan, which received a grant from Build It Back.
Courtesy Knickerbocker Village

Knickerbocker Village, a 12-building complex on the Lower East Side, highlights the level of complexity of rebuilding New York, post-Sandy, on a micro level. Cherry Green Property Corp., the building owner, secured a $33.5 million grant this year through HPD’s Build It Back Multifamily Storm Recovery. After Sandy, they spent nearly two weeks pumping water out of the boiler room. After immediate repairs, the complex is now in the midst of a multiphase and multiyear flood-protection plan that includes flood-proofing the electrical wiring and the boiler room and replacing interior and basement walls with heavy-duty, flood-proof walls.

“It’s not every day you’re dealing with a complex from 1934, with 1,500 residents who need continued service, and you’ve got to figure out this new design and approach,” says Dan Robinson, executive director of Cherry Green. “A lot of people have really worked hard to get this across the finish line.”

He considers Knickerbocker Village one part of a larger, necessary effort by the city to prepare for the next storm. “You’ve got experts coming at this from different areas, the buildings themselves, managing the perimeter of the city, mitigating the surges, landscaping, bioswales…. It’s a challenge for all of us,” he says.

Of Knickerbocker Village, he says, “with private and public collaboration of this magnitude … what matters is that both sides had a commitment to getting the work done and the leadership to advance it.”