New York City must begin a planning process recognizing that major storms are becoming both more frequent and more severe. Governor Andrew Cuomo was correct when he noted that we’ve been getting hit with “storms of the century” less than every two years. There was a scant 14-month interval between Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy.
Right now, government must work with FEMA so that temporary housing is established in the coastal neighborhoods of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, and not in faraway places like Connecticut, where some of our impacted neighbors have been forced to reside in. Displaced families have a better peace of mind when they’re living near their own, damaged homes.
It’s critically important that government facilitate more town hall meetings across our city so insurance company and regulatory experts can help explain what is covered. New Yorkers need information in plain terms and are growing frustrated by the legalese and small print on their insurance policies.
Going forward we must develop a planning capacity focusing upon prevention. This planning must follow the chain linking residential housing, commercial real estate, schools, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as roads, bridges, tunnels, ferries, subways and airports, and of course power outages. This chain is only as strong as its weakest link, given the human toll of flooding, fires and power outages cascading through our communities.
Elected officials should not pretend they are planning experts, but should direct their focus to finding answers on financing and managing the rebuilding. Consequently, we need to pull together the experts along every link of the chain in that infrastructure planning process, creating the list of necessary improvements.
That list must be prioritized, not politicized.
We know that the process for rebuilding near the shorelines is going to be difficult but we need a fair process for those permanently displaced by the storm.
I have some micro suggestions meriting consideration: creating a deployable corps of volunteers to supplement first responders on non-emergency tasks when major storms hit; while schools are closed, provisions should be added to school bus contracts allowing these buses to be used by NYPD and MTA; Train and certify architects and engineers in advance, who can be called upon and utilized as emergency building and power restoration inspectors.
All three suggestions are aimed at addressing the inherent problem attending a storm: the volume of distress vastly exceeds traditional response capacity.
The next mayor and the newly elected City Council must marshal the financing to implement that planning process. We must also forge alliances with our suburban neighbors, across both the Hudson and along Long Island Sound, maximizing our ability to find the resources needed to rebuild our communities.
This will be a time for creating our own version of a Marshall Plan, which saved war-ravaged Europe, by melding common sense on behalf of the common good.
The next mayor must be the financial architect for implementing that Marshall Plan. The next mayor will need to possess both the experience in and understanding of capital markets, budgets and the procurement process to tackle this job.
Complicating matters, this challenge emerges when New York City’s budgets are already under enormous strain due to chronic structural deficits. We must erase operating deficits, while implementing robust capital budgets. In effect, we must trim waste like Ed Koch did during the fiscal crisis, while building like LaGuardia did when overcoming the Great Depression.
If we fail to rebuild our outer borough neighborhoods, we will witness the slow but steady decline of what makes New York, New York. We are a city whose middle class has been the hub, with spokes connecting the aspirations of wave after immigrant wave, from poverty through working class on to the middle class and eventually to affluence. For New York to prosper that wheel must continue to roll smoothly.
The first pictures of Sandy hitting our shores was the breach at Battery Park threatening the financial district, but the more significant long-term damage was to residential neighborhoods from Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn to Midland Beach on Staten Island. If we forget the overriding need to address the availability of affordable housing in neighborhoods we do so at our peril, for mixed residential communities with thriving retail districts are our city’s lifeblood.
There is a lonely blessing attending Sandy’s path of death and destruction. All notions of a divided city should have been washed away. The storm battered both bearer bonds buried in Wall Street’s vaults and homes where bungalows once stood in the Rockaways. The pull and tug of divisions by race, ethnicity and economic circumstances were not recognized by this devastating storm.
Expert planning, purposeful policies and sustained leadership must rise as if a governing surge, washing away politics as usual. Only a mayor focused upon that mission with an iron resolve for implementation can lead us to what we must really face – a rendezvous with responsibility.
William Thompson is former city comptroller and a candidate for mayor in 2013.