Do New Yorkers believe, two years after Superstorm Sandy decimated the area’s coastline, that they’re safer from future storms and devastating floods?
The answer – according to 70 residents from around the city who spoke with our reporters and filled out our online survey – seems to be a resounding “no.”
City officials we interviewed argue that preparations are underway to protect New York from future climate risk. Yet some local City Council members confirm that the public sentiment we gathered is not misguided, acknowledging that more needs to be done to let New Yorkers know about resiliency efforts.
These were the findings of a team of nearly three dozen journalists conducting an investigation that ran several weeks and focused on two of the city’s worst storm-battered communities – Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The collaborative reporting project was conducted by Gotham Gazette with partners AdaptNY, a climate news site; the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; and the independent NY Environment Report.
The “Are You Climate Safe?” project sent our reporters into the field earlier in October. There, we interviewed residents and business owners, and subsequently surveyed online dozens of others from these two high-risk neighborhoods and other parts of the city and metro area (see our neighborhood coverage and a reporting wrapup).
The overwhelming majority of those we contacted told us they thought they were no safer. Just a handful said they believed they were better off.
A significant number also said they were simply unsure what measures, if any, were being taken to protect their communities. That despite the fact the city appears to be working steadily through a massive and costly set of resiliency initiatives, even as it struggles to make progress in responding to disappointment over the slowness of its “Build It Back” housing recovery program.
The degree of public disengagement with city planning work on climate resiliency we uncovered echoes our previous investigative findings of a striking disconnect in communication between City Hall and some of the communities most affected by Sandy.
“I have not seen any evidence of preparation against climate risk in my community, except for the new NYC flood risk zones map,” said one retired Red Hook resident. “I don’t believe we are truly informed on what has been done,” said another.
The collaborative also spoke with city leaders, including City Council Members and high-ranking members of the de Blasio administration. Other key findings from the investigation were:
–Many of the city’s large-scale climate resiliency projects, still in the planning phase, are essentially invisible to residents we reached.
–As a result, some prominent local officials argue that there needs to be a “clear, concise, understandable” version of the city’s resiliency plan, especially in these most vulnerable areas.
–But planning is clearly underway, such as with large-scale flood protection projects in Red Hook and the Lower East Side, both hard hit by Sandy-related flooding.
–Both communities are also about to see portions of $1.8 billion in FEMA funds for the permanent replacement of temporary boilers, installed after Sandy damage in the public housing complexes that many of their residents call home.
–Yet many residents, uncertain about broader resiliency measures being put into place by city officials, told us they are preparing personally for another catastrophic weather event. Some, especially in Red Hook, see themselves as more reliant on the efforts of fellow citizens in community groups and local community boards for protection from future climate extremes.
Resiliency Gap Between Residents, City
Flooding was the most frequent concern we heard from the residents we reached, with rising seas and storm surges creating a truly existential concern for some. Asked one woman: “Are coastal cities a thing of the past?”
Yet the city is emphatic that it will not abandon its coastline, and says it is preparing New York, especially its waterfront communities.
Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, told us “substantial progress” has been made on the city’s massive ten-year resiliency plan, which was launched by former Mayor Bloomberg in June, 2013.
Of the plan’s 257 initiatives, Zarrilli said 29 have been completed and more than 200 are “underway” (see the city’s latest official update). Included are major coastal protection systems being planned for both Red Hook and the Lower East Side.
Zarrilli said among the “great wins so far” are upgraded bulkheads, flood insurance reforms, and the replenishment of beaches. At a press conference in mid-October, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that 3.27 million cubic yards of sand have been placed on city beaches since Sandy hit, and 10,500 linear feet of bulkheads have been repaired all over the city.
But while some residents did make note of storm-related repairs made at their New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, developments and to neighborhood infrastructure, the overwhelming number of those we spoke with had little to no awareness of the more extensive resiliency projects.
“There have been no large-scale efforts on the part of the city/state/federal government to protect New York Harbor,” a Red Hook resident wrote us in response to our online crowdsourcing survey. “Until this is addressed, low-lying areas will not be safer, no matter how many Go Bags are distributed.”
“I know work is being done to prevent the complete mess that happened during Sandy,” one Lower East Side resident said in a survey response. “And we are all more prepared now. However, I don’t believe we are truly informed on what has been done.”
Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency acknowledged in an interview that “residents are not wrong about feeling unclear” regarding the city’s resiliency efforts.
Part of the problem, explained Treyger, is that many of those initiatives have most likely not yet moved beyond the study or design phase. And will the city be able to find funding for all of these initiatives? Said Treyger: “Everything is tied to the level of available resources. Do we have the resources to move beyond the study phase?”
Regardless, Treyger argued, “There needs to be a greater effort to make clear to all stakeholders – local elected officials and residents – what is the [resiliency] plan.”
Community-based Sandy task forces nixed
Zarrilli maintained that the City is working with local elected officials and communities throughout the five boroughs to plan for climate change. He said that outreach effort includes the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which he directs, as well as the Department of City Planning, which is examining how nine particularly vulnerable communities – including the Lower East Side – can become more climate resilient.
On the other hand, the City has also reversed itself and will not re-convene two community advisory task forces, established after Sandy, that directly engaged the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods in planning.
One task force, made up of elected officials and community board chairs from the areas of the city most impacted by Sandy, had met monthly in the five months leading up to the release of the mayor’s 2013 resiliency plan.
A second task force was “composed of community organizations from the impacted areas, which the community boards were also heavily involved in,” Zarrilli said.
Zarrilli had told us last year, in the wake of criticism about community involvement in City Hall’s climate change planning process, that the City planned to re-active the task forces as part of “broad-based outreach” to the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
But when we spoke with him earlier this month, he said the City had decided against reviving the bodies. The task forces, Zarrilli argued, “may not be the right model for how we engage in hyper-local issues.”
Not everyone agrees. City Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents the Rockaways and chairs the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, said he believed there was an ongoing role for the task forces.
“We should make sure that there are community boards, there are local leaders [involved]. Communication is key here. We have to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” he argued. “It benefits the administration to move in that direction to recreate the task forces. No one can say you’re not doing anything if you’re updating them.”
When asked about the citywide task forces, Treyger said, “I am open to anything. Nothing should be taken off the table.”
Richards did stress that the de Blasio administration has been responsive to his requests for information and engagement when it comes to planning for climate change in the Rockaways.
“It’s critical to hear all sides,” he added. “There’s no one who can tell you better what’s going on than the people on the ground. If we’re going to get this [recovery] right, it has to be a bottom-up approach. It can’t just be a top-down approach.”
One step the city is taking toward broadening its outreach is by conducting a Department of City Planning study on how communities can become more climate resilient.
The Lower East Side, and nine other neighborhoods, are part of “phase 1” of the department’s study. Red Hook is a “phase 2” candidate, per available funding. The DCP study is examining issues such as zoning, the city’s building codes and the new national flood insurance maps.
Zarrilli added that through this process, the City is working with community boards and local organizations. The idea is to “advance in a much more granular way,” he explained.
[Read more at the Gotham Gazette]
Photo credit: Emrys Eller