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Billions for NYC Sandy recovery has gone unspent, says comptroller report

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The city has yet to spend billions in available federal aid, according to a new report by the city comptroller

Once devastated homes in Breezy Point, Queens were rebuilt and elevated to stave off future flooding.
Nathan Kensinger

Nearly seven years after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City, neighborhoods continue to rebuild and prepare for the next storm. But the city has yet to spend some $8 billion in federal funds available for those efforts, according to a new report from comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.

The report, “Safeguarding Our Shores: Protecting New York City’s Coastal Communities from Climate Change,” found that only 54 percent of $14.7 billion in federal aid set aside for city repairs and resiliency has actually gone toward those efforts. Stringer blamed federal bureaucracy for slow spending, but argues a lack of urgency on the city’s part has left the five boroughs vulnerable as the threat of climate change looms.

“Rising sea levels and changing weather patterns mean that storms like Sandy won’t be so unprecedented in the years ahead,” Stringer said during a press conference overlooking the East River in lower Manhattan. “This is an emergency. There is urgency.”

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy laid waste to many parts of the five boroughs. Neighborhoods were flooded with up to nine feet of water, thousands of buildings were destroyed, and whole swaths of the city reshaped. The storm killed 43 people and caused $19 billion worth of damage, according to a 2013 report by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

Afterward, the federal government stepped in, allocating $10.5 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster recovery grants and some $4.2 billion in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

But a chunk of that federal grant money has yet to be tapped into, with the city spending just 43.9 percent of available FEMA funds and 79.5 percent of HUD dollars. And the breakdown by some of hardest hit city agency’s is starker, with NYCHA spending just 41.1 percent of its $3.1 billion in federal aid and NYC Health + Hospitals Corp. using a mere 19.9 percent of its $1.8 billion, according to the comptroller’s report.

The Mayor’s Office of Resiliency says there’s no lag in city spending and points to federal red tape—the city had to produce some 100 million pages of documents to be reimbursed by HUD for its Rapid Repair program—preventing the city from accessing funds. HUD dollars were not even fully available to the city until 2015, a spokesperson for the city noted.

“The bulk of federal recovery funds for New York City were not made available until 2015, and we are not scheduled to spend all FEMA and HUD funds for years,” Jainey Bavishi, that agency’s director, said in a statement. “We are on track to meet all federal deadlines and we are spending our federal recovery funds faster than the national average.”

The city’s deadline to spend HUD money, which is allocated in a lump sum, is September 2022. Deadlines for projects using FEMA funds, which requires individual proposal submissions, vary and are reviewed on a quarterly basis. The city has submitted hundreds of such project proposals to FEMA, and the two have collaborated to expedite the approvals process, according to the city and FEMA.

“We have been consistently working with city officials to mitigate some of the issues referenced in the report,” said Don Caetano, a spokesperson for FEMA. “It is, however, an ongoing process that requires federal, state, and local entities to coordinate extensively with one another.”

Currently, several projects to combat climate change in New York City are in the works, including a $10 billion resiliency plan to extend lower Manhattan into the East River, a massive barrier to stem flooding in Staten Island, and an overhaul to the Lower East Side’s East River Park that will integrate flood protections.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed a $20 billion plan to protect the city from future storms, and in April released his “One NYC 2050: Building a Strong and Fair City” report as a blueprint to achieving a citywide 40 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030. The plan came shortly after the City Council approved its version of the “Green New Deal.” But those ambitious plans do little to garner immediate results and the city must do more to ensure the funds it has are put to use now, Stringer argues.

“You have about 10 years before we can’t reverse this,” Stringer said. “I fault no one for thinking about 2050, but I think the climate gods are saying to us, ‘We’re going to give you this much time left so use that time wisely. Spend the money.’”