Post-Sandy rebuilding again dominated the agenda as U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan visited New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this week to discuss what should be done -- and who should pay for it.
Donovan, a New York native and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, came armed with a report by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which he chairs and which President Obama initiated.
The report contained 69 recommendations, some already adopted, that the federal government says will help homeowners stay in and repair their homes, strengthen small businesses and help harden communities against future storms. It revolves around a $50 billion relief package.
“Sandy was of such an immense scale that we needed to do more. We need to finish the job,” Donovan told reporters at a press conference in Brooklyn, in front of a wastewater plant that remained functional during the Oct. 29 storm.
The report “sets out what we all need to do at every level of government, not simply to rebuild what Sandy destroyed but also to repair our region for the intense coastal storms and extreme weather events scientists tell us we have to get ready for,” Bloomberg said.
One hurricane recovery expert said, however, that the report fell short.
“It could have been more realistic and practical. I think they missed a huge opportunity by engaging in an academic exercise, not a practical solution,” said Alan Rubin, a government-relations analyst at law firm Cozen O’Connor LP. Rubin is nicknamed the “Hurricane Czar” for his Miami-Dade County work after Hurricane Andrew inflicted $30 billion of damage there in 1992.
“It was a charrette,” Rubin said, likening the task force report to an architects’ collaborative study group. “They’re doing what we were doing 21 years ago. Not much has changed. They need to drill down.”
Rubin said officials must answer situational concerns, such as what to do for the 10th-floor resident in a condominium complex who can’t get money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the need for mobile phone service and even banking divisions within federal and state bureaucracies. “Why aren’t things like that addressed?” he asked.
AT&T, for example, generated goodwill through the mobile units it rolled out in New York City’s five boroughs immediately after the storm, said Rubin. “If you’re a Verizon user, you might become an AT&T user,” he said.
Miami-Dade tapped the private sector for much of the rebuilding, according to Rubin.
“We had seven banks in Florida, the largest ones. They could immediately react to mortgages, payments, those sorts of things. Get Chase, Citi, Bank of America. They could set up June 1 and disband Nov. 1, after hurricane season ends. They could even meet informally after that.”
In addition, said Rubin, staffing the Small Business Administration with bankers, “not GS-5 and GS-11 people who don’t process information as quickly.”
Bloomberg himself proposed $20 billion worth of measures in June to harden his city’s coastlines. Shortly after he unveiled his proposal, Moody’s Investors Service called the expected federal aid a credit positive.
Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure will end Dec. 31. Unanswered questions his successor must grasp include who will pay how much, and what projects and areas will get priority.
“Another question is how much is private cost vs. public cost,” said Jonathan Peters, a business professor at the College of Staten Island. “The city, when it came out with its report, didn’t say much about funding other than it would be good for the federal government to pay. That was the shorthand version. “It’s difficult to involve the private sector,” said Peters, whose research includes mass transit financing. “You’re asking them to invest private capital, to risk its value, when they know they’ll not get a good rate of return.”
Room still exists for old-fashioned smarts, according to Peters. For example, he said, the NJ Transit system suffered $120 million in damage because it failed to follow a plan that had been in place for four months to move its trains to higher ground from the Kearny and Hoboken yards.
“That situation is less about mitigation than about better operational practices,” said Peters, whose research includes mass transit financing. By contrast, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority saved most of its stock my relocating cars to elevated areas.
Anthony Figliola, vice president of lobbying group Empire Government Strategies of Uniondale, N.Y., sees funding as a problem.
“There’s not enough money, specifically for hardening energy infrastructure,” said Figliola.
The skyrocketing costs of flood insurance through FEMA is another major concern, according to Figliola. Residents of Long Island’s South Shore have complained about insurance spiking from $2,000 annually to $12,000, he said.
“This is an immediate and dire situation that needs to be addressed by our state and federal elected leaders,” he said. “If a private insurance company were to pull that, people like [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] would be ranting on the Sunday morning talk shows about it.”
Figliola called on political leaders to learn from the massive Northeast blackout of 2003, which left roughly 50 million people, including many New Yorkers, in the dark. Power lines toppled in Ohio that August day, while an alarm system belonging to utility FirstEnergy Corp. failed.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, said the lessons go even further back. He recalled a visit to a South Street Seaport shop shortly after Sandy struck, in which he told the store owner he assumed all the equipment in the basement must have been destroyed.
“He said 'no, we don’t have a basement in this building,’ And I said why, and he said 'Well, 150 years ago when this building was built, they said there might be floods. Why would you put a basement in a building next to the water?,’ ” Bloomberg told reporters.
“Unfortunately we seem to have lost that lesson over a long period of time and a lot of buildings did have their critical infrastructure damaged, and we have to make sure that’s hardened.”
Rubin said one benefit for the metropolitan area is the cooperation across state lines.
“The state-federal-local coordination has been excellent,” he said. “People like Chuck Schumer, [Sen] Kirsten Gillibrand, [ and Reps.] Jerry Nadler and Peter King are experienced, nationally known, influential pols who are tapped into how to get it done. The New York-New Jersey delegation can put on a united front better than in other regions.”
In New Jersey, Christie said he recognizes the need for preparedness, even though he doesn’t fully embrace the notion of climate change.
“I’m tired of hearing the 100-year storm garbage,” he said alongside Donovan at a press conference in Little Ferry. “I’ve been governor for three and a half years, and I’ve had three 100-year storms, and I know I’m not 350 years old, so that’s not working anymore.”