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Assessing the city’s Hurricane Sandy recovery program six years later

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More than half of some 20,000 people who signed up for recovery aid dropped out of the program

An abandoned house in Staten Island that was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Cem Ozdel/Getty Images

More than half of some 20,000 people who signed up for assistance through Build It Back after their homes were devastated by Hurricane Sandy dropped out of the beleaguered city-run program, a new study shows.

In a collaborative study by the city and the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center, researchers explored what went wrong with Build It Back, attrition rates, and why initial applicants left the multibillion-dollar program before receiving benefits.

Built It Back, which was initiated by the Bloomberg administration in 2013, promised construction funds to eligible New Yorkers seeking to rebuild their homes by using a city-selected developer with pre-approved plans, or by choosing a contractor to build a home following the program’s guidelines and cost restrictions. The program launched eight months after Sandy happened in October 2012. Now, some six years after the storm struck, the program’s budget has soared to $2.2 billion—$500 million more than its initial estimated budget.

“The city never faced anything like this before. Since then we’ve developed a tremendous amount of expertise,” said Amy Peterson, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations who has overseen the program since 2014. “There’s a real drum beat at better coordinating the benefits and changes that need to happen.”

Peterson strives to use the report’s findings as lessons learned to sidestep pitfalls and inform the city’s future disaster recovery efforts. One crucial aspect that needs work is the federal rules linked to funding that bogged down Build It Back.

“On the federal side, it took some time to clarify how much money would be provided, who would be eligible to receive it, and how it could be disbursed,” the report states. For instance, it wasn’t clear that federal assistance could only kick in after all other resources were exhausted—insurance or loans—and if those benefits surpassed the amount spent on reconstruction, homeowners would have to pay back the difference.

Another program barrier was quickly assembled intake centers to sign up homeowners that should have been better married with on-the-ground outreach.

“On the City side, it took a long time to develop a sufficiently well-trained staff who understood all the rules, to develop effective means of outreach and support to the applicants, and to learn how to bring them through the administrative process smoothly,” the report continued.

Ire over the program’s failings was widespread, but climbing attrition rates stemmed from its early basic design structure—in big part from the challenge of coordinating duplicate copies of benefit requirements to the feds. Paperwork sometimes got lost in the shuffle.

Some 20,275 households had registered for Build It Back by the end of October 2013. Of those registered for Build It Back, 26 percent didn’t submit an application, while another 26 percent did complete an application but did not pick a program option—this in essence withdrew them from Build It Back. Come October 2016 8,040 applicants stayed in the program, the report says.

Today, 97 percent of homeowners who stayed in the program have had work on their homes completed and received their full benefit, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations.

To ensure that future disaster relief programs serve the broadest range of New Yorkers, Peterson’s office is delving into a series of recommendations included in the study on how to better target at-risk populations, publish clear guidelines, ensure that case management services are provided by qualified staff, amp up community outreach, and design a benefit package that can be quickly disbursed to homeowners

“I think what we need to do is continue to build on this and to really talk to communities,” Peterson said. “And that’s our next steps—to really work with communities and figure out what’s the best way to structure a program.”

The city plans to set up meetings with Sandy-impacted communities across the city to hear from locals about where they feel the program misstepped and what they would like to see when another storm of the century hits.

“We’re shifting our operations from recovery from Sandy to recovery preparedness,” Peterson said. “I think this is an initial piece but it’s going to be an ongoing conversation.”