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NYC pol questions NYCHA’s readiness for the next superstorm

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The city’s fiscal watch dog is calling on NYCHA to update New Yorkers on how it’s better prepared for storms like Sandy

Through a chainlink fence a half dozen volunteers hold packages of bottled water. In the distance, a brown high-rise building part of the Red Hook Houses public housing complex can be seen.
Volunteers delivering water and food to Red Hook Houses tenants days after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A week after Hurricane Dorian decimated the Bahamas and swept up the east coast of the U.S., Comptroller Scott Stringer demanded that the de Blasio administration detail how the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has made “discernible progress” in updating its protocols to better respond to natural disasters, including hurricanes.

When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, the storm’s effects were disproportionately felt by public housing residents: Almost 20 percent of NYCHA’s 178,000 units were in buildings damaged by storm surge, and many of the nearly 80,000 residents of these buildings were left without electricity, heat, and elevators for weeks on end.

In the storm’s aftermath, New York City was abuzz with how to improve disaster preparedness for the future. But years later, has NYCHA made tangible improvements to how it ensures tenants safety after environmental calamities? The city’s fiscal watchdog isn’t so sure.

“It’s not a question of whether New York will be hit by another superstorm like Sandy, but when. Yet nearly seven years after Sandy struck, we still haven’t fully recovered and too many New Yorkers remain vulnerable to the next storm,” Stringer said in a statement. “Our City is responsible for mobilizing to protect New Yorkers the minute the next storm strikes and we can’t let NYCHA residents ... suffer because we didn’t learn our lessons from Sandy.”

In a September 6 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Stringer asked the city to spell out the steps NYCHA has taken to revamp several components of its disaster readiness programs, including assisting disabled residents who are stuck in their homes during emergencies, enacting flood protection measures, and ensuring that overhauled emergency management plans are in place at all 326 NYCHA complexes.

Stringer also blasted the agency for its lack of emergency drills and trainings with tenants in the past and calls on the authority to develop a contract plan with pre-negotiated rates to ensure emergency work is cost efficient and can begin quickly.

“This letter seeks assurance from your administration that the City has made discernible progress in developing new protocols to more efficiently respond to and recover from disasters, including addressing specific findings identified by the audits, letters, and reports issued by my office,” Stringer’s letter reads.

In a December 2015 audit, Stringer’s office slammed the embattled housing authority for “alarming deficiencies” in NYCHA’s emergency management that left the city’s more than 400,000 tenants at risk.

The audit found that NYCHA property managers did not have accurate emergency contact information for 80 percent of tenants who used wheelchairs or equipment such as oxygen tanks; did not conduct training events at 78 percent of its developments; and “lost track of the vast majority” of its emergency generators, severely reducing the authority’s ability to respond to power outages.

At the time, NYCHA pushed back on the audit. Less than a year later, however, the housing authority told the comptroller’s office in a November 2016 progress report obtained by The Nation that it was in the process of rewriting its Organization for Emergencies section of its Emergency Procedure Manual—the part that defines the responsibilities of agency leadership and employees amid an emergency. NYCHA pegged the estimated competition for that rewrite by December 2016, but NYCHA has yet to provide the comptroller’s office with the updated version.

NYCHA continued to push back on the comptroller’s prodding, and said that it is in the midst of reinforcing its emergency protocols and stressed that tenant safety is a top priority for the agency.

“The safety of our residents is always of paramount importance. NYCHA’s Office of Emergency Management responds 24 hours a day to NYCHA emergencies including weather events,” said NYCHA spokesperson Mike Giardina. “We work closely with NYCEM and first responders, and have emergency preparedness plans in place. We are strengthening the team by adding staffing, resources, and building out a permanent emergency operations center. We are reviewing Comptroller Stringer’s letter.”