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Lawmakers lambast NYC over preparations for next Hurricane Sandy

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City Council members sparred with officials over its response amid a 4-hour hearing

Breezy Point in Queens was decimated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Nathan Kensinger

The seventh anniversary of Hurricane Sandy came with a deluge of criticism from the City Council over whether New York City is prepared for the next superstorm.

Lawmakers sparred with city officials Tuesday at a packed environmental protection committee hearing on what they decry as the city’s sluggish response, and argued that the outer boroughs have taken a back seat in the development of defenses against future storms compared to lower Manhattan.

“We don’t take any satisfaction in knowing that we’re right in that we’re not ready,” said Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents southern Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s resiliency and waterfront committee. “It’s seven years later and I keep hearing a lot about studies and sandbags.”

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the city. The Battery saw a record 14 foot storm surge, thousands of buildings were wrecked across the five boroughs causing $19 billion worth of damage, and 43 people lost their lives, according to a 2013 report by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

The recovery since has been mired in red tape and confusion, including problems with the city’s Build It Back program and delays on resiliency projects. Though several efforts have been completed or are in the works, lawmakers stress, many still are in their infancy—such as a project to reduce the risk of power failure to the city’s core food processing hub in the south Bronx, and a flood barrier in Coney Island Creek.

Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency, insists that the five boroughs are better off than when Sandy struck and that no section of the city has received preferential treatment. Bavishi points to 10 miles of new sand dunes across Staten Island and the Rockaway peninsula, temporary flood protection barriers at 50 sites across the city, and myriad major projects planned with $15 billion in federal dollars plus $5 billion in city funds.

“New York City is definitively safer and better protecter than it was during Hurricane Sandy seven years ago,” said Bavishi.

High-profile efforts to protect miles of Manhattan’s eastern shore, chiefly the $1.45 billion East Side Costal Resiliency Project, are in the works and Mayor de Blasio has proposed another multi-billion dollar effort that could extend lower Manhattan’s seaport into the East River with flood protections.

Queens Councilmember Costa Constantinides, who chairs the Council’s committee on environmental protection, and Brannan have put forward a bill that seeks to create a comprehensive plan that would evaluate each costal community district for short- and long-term protections.

The looming threat of sea level rise adds urgency to lawmakers concerns. William Sweet, an oceanographer with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testified Tuesday that by 2050, New York City could experience tidal floods of up to two feet for 45 to 125 days annually—more than a third of the year at the conservative end of the spectrum. Sweet projects floods of three to five feet could occur 15 days out of the year by then.

Complicating matters, and frustrating lawmakers, is the lack of new flood maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The federal agency and the de Blasio administration have butted heads, THE CITY reports, on boundaries of zones where homeowners who have federally insured mortgages would be required to purchase flood insurance, which can be cost prohibitive for cash-strapped New Yorkers. The new maps would expand those crafted in 2007 that are currently in place.

Bavishi said those flood maps aren’t expected to be finalized until 2024. Meanwhile, flood insurance policies have dipped in each borough except for Manhattan since 2013; only 16 percent of properties located within both the city’s 2007 flood maps and FEMA’s maps proposed in 2015 carry flood insurance, according to an investigation by THE CITY.

Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich has proposed a bill that would require the city to notify homeowners whose properties are newly included into the flood maps.

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not have a public schedule on Tuesday but conceded on Twitter that “we’re still vulnerable.”

“[The] work that began in those days of challenge and crisis has made a meaningful impact in the lives of every day New Yorkers,” de Blasio’s tweet continued. But not every city lawmakers is convinced that the de Blasio administration has followed through on its resiliency promises.

“We are better informed after Superstorm Sandy, but not fully prepared for the next big storm,” said Councilmember Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island and served as the chair of the Council’s former recovery & resiliency committee. “We have a lot of work to do.”