October 28, 2015

The Hurricane Next Time: Sandy and Its Aftermath 

By Bruce Cory and Alexander Bryden

October 29th marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the mid-Atlantic coast. Sandy was the worst natural disaster in New York City’s recorded history. It killed 44 people; flooded more than 15 percent of the city’s land mass, an area with more than 90,000 buildings; left nearly two million people without power; and massively disrupted such essential services as education, transportation, and health care. Sandy’s hardest blows fell on coastal communities, including low-income and working-class neighborhoods where, three years later, many residents are still rebuilding their homes and lives. 

“Hurricane Sandy + 3,” an Oct. 20th forum hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs, The New School’s Tishman Center for Environment and Design, and Feet in 2 Worlds, sought answers from City and philanthropic leaders, research scientists, grassroots organizers, and community residents to two key questions: Are the city’s neighborhoods better able to withstand storms like Sandy today than they were three years ago? And have we adequately addressed the underlying economic and social inequities in at-risk communities that Sandy laid bare?

In opening remarks, Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons, The New School of Design, answered the first of those questions bluntly: “We have failed,” said Towers.  "We consistently underfund this challenge. We do so at our own peril. We know things are happening and we choose to allow certain areas of the city and communities to live in greater peril than others.

Dan Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, argued that the City’s response to Sandy has been strong, though the job is not yet completed, "There is no victory lap anytime soon, we have a lot to do.”  He spoke about how the City’s recent One New York plan makes an explicit connection between sustainability and equity.  The administration was recognized by several panelists for engaging with community groups, while also encouraged to incorporate local leadership earlier in planning and decision-making processes. 

Similarly, Onleilove Alston, executive director of Faith in New York, an organization deeply involved in both immediate post-Sandy relief and long-term recovery, said that Sandy exposed years of economic and social injustice,  “The shame about climate change is that low-income people contribute the least to climate issues but they are the greatest impacted by climate change." 

Hugh Hogan, executive director of North Star Fund, described the City as having been "woefully unprepared" for Sandy's  social and economic effects on low-income communities. Since Sandy, he said, there’s been "an attempt on the part of government to really do this differently." Nevertheless, he added, there's a sense among the grassroots groups he works with that some of the administrative problems they encountered immediately after Sandy still persist. "We still don’t know who’s in charge when the next one hits,” he said.

Shermane Stewart-Lester, whose home in the coastal community of the Far Rockaways sustained severe damage from Sandy’s storm surge, recalled her experiences, and talked about the community’s need to be better prepared for future storms.  She described predatory builders, lengthy delays in insurance payments, and decisions, such as whether to elevate her semi-attached home, constrained by her neighbors and her family’s basic need not to live in a construction site.  She too described inequities, "I'm sure many have heard about the 'Tale of Two Cities.' It seems as though the west end [of the Rockaways] is getting as much help as is needed and the east end is forgotten. We don't even know our evacuation plan." 

Research scientist Klaus Jacob argued that, "We have to, at a minimum, look 50 years into the future... to have a vision, what would New York City look like with six to eight feet of sea level rise? If we don't do that, the measures we now take could become liabilities.  We have no roadmap for how we will deal with that in the year 2100 or 2150, so what we are doing right now is muddling around in the sand." In response, Zarrilli cautioned that too great an emphasis on the long-term can be "a recipe for paralysis....The things we're doing now don't preclude further options. This is the start of a very long conversation."

The Sandy + 3 forum covered a wide range of both short- and longer-term topics, including a discussion about whether "strategic relocation" from at-risk areas is feasible or may become necessary. Click here for the full video of the forum