Mayor de Blasio was on Staten Island yesterday, meeting with local elected officials about the island’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and its vulnerability to rising sea levels. “We know that there are tens of thousands of people in this city still feeling the effects of Sandy very sharply,” said the Mayor.

And the Mayor reiterated earlier statements that rebuilding efforts needed to be tied to broader goals, such as expanding access to city services and economic opportunity.

“Some of the communities that were affected [by Sandy] have been…neglected for decades. And never got the infrastructure they should have gotten in the first place. And if this is a moment for us to do something about that…for us to start to right some of those historic wrongs, we have to take it,” De Blasio argued.

The Mayor said that this philosophy applied as much to public housing residents in the Rockaways as it did to residents of Staten Island’s working class bungalow communities.

“It’s about taking a moment of crisis, trying to find the transformative possibilities within it, taking the resources that are coming in, and…saying what is the most we can get out of these resources that will leave people in better shape?” explained the Mayor.

Twenty-two of the twenty-three Sandy-related deaths on Staten Island occurred on its East and South shores. And while the East Shore, for example, is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades, because of a lack of proper planning by the city and inattention to the area’s location and natural topography.

Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development on the East Shore “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, the outgoing commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Re-thinking the Bloomberg Administration’s Rebuilding and Resiliency Plan

For the first time yesterday, the Mayor outlined the process that will guide his administration’s development of a rebuilding and resiliency plan for New York City.

“Going forward we have a whole series of very complicated things that we have to address,” the Mayor said. “We’ve got important parts of infrastructure, where we are still as susceptible today as we were two years ago…where generators are still in the basement, where all sorts of fundamental physical realities are just as vulnerable as they were.”

De Blasio said that economic security is part of developing truly sustainable communities. “We have people in areas…that have been in many ways left behind for many, many decades. We have to try to create better and more sustainable housing and economic opportunities for them,” the Mayor declared.

De Blasio said he “commended” the Bloomberg administration’s resiliency plan “because I thought it was realistic. It depended on a number of measures that we can take in the short term”. He added that he also wanted to focus on “smart longer-term solutions like restoring wetlands, for example, which are an organic solution and a proven solution.”

The administration’s task is two-fold: both to develop a workable plan that addresses the thousands of New Yorkers who remain displaced by Sandy; and prepare for future impacts of climate change.

We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward.

“Our job is to line them [rebuilding and resiliency needs] up…figure out where the resources are, what red tape we have to cut to get the resources in play, how to maximize the economic benefit it would have to the people who were affected…and just as quickly as possible, move each piece in a logical progression. That’s the way our game plan will look,” said the Mayor.

“We know it’s going to take so much work to really get everyone whole and then to really make these neighborhoods strong and resilient going forward. This is work we’ll be at together for years,” added de Blasio.

De Blasio said that City Hall would release a plan to move forward “in the next few weeks…I don’t think at this moment we have a clear starting point for that public discussion, and that’s our responsibility to put forward”.

Staten Island Pushes for A New Vision of Sustainability

But it was obvious yesterday that local leaders on Staten Island want to move forward immediately. Staten Island’s new borough president, James Oddo, is pushing the Mayor, arguing that the city should buy-out residents in some of Staten Island’s most vulnerable communities.

Oddo said that it was unlikely that the Cuomo administration would be providing more money for buy-outs, or that entire neighborhoods would be “seeded back to mother nature.”

But, he said, the city could confirm which residents remain serious about wishing to be bought-out. Using that information, swaths of contiguous property could eventually be acquired which would provide “a blank slate” for “smart” re-development. “And that means a different type of housing stock. That means putting in real infrastructure,” said Oddo.

Oddo believes the situation in Staten Island’s coastal neighborhoods is challenging but not untenable. “These folks live…on streets that are three or four or five feet below sea level…Any rain, they’re under water. [But] it’s a good place to live with the right infrastructure.”

The strategy proposed by Oddo, “Acquisition for Re-Development”, “gives help,” he said, “in the form of money, to people as quickly as possible, and it gives government a chance to…take a step back and figure out, how do we redevelop this property to create a better housing stock, to create a better community.” The borough president said this was a more forward-thinking and comprehensive solution than “doing one-offs– this bungalow here, that house there.”

De Blasio was enthusiastic but non-committal. “I am not ready to endorse a specific plan”, said the Mayor, “but I think it would be very healthy…to have a debate about where we’re going, and I think that’s one of the ideas that has to be on the table.”

Oddo observed that he was “dealing with some of the sins of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s here on Staten Island…I don’t want to be a part of making the mistakes that will impact the next generation.”

“We Have to Do Better”

The Mayor also acknowledged the mounting criticism of the city’s Build it Back program which channels rehab funding to Sandy victims. “It’s self evident that the pace [of the program] has been a profound problem,” de Blasio said.

Build it Back is managed by a private contractor, which received a reported fifty million dollars to administer the program. “We’re going to do a full review. That’s the whole point here,” the Mayor said.

“We know we have to do better,” de Blasio added. “It’s our obligation to put together a plan to build upon some of the things we think were done right…and address…some of the things that weren’t what they needed to be.”

De Blasio said his administration would also be announcing a new leadership structure for the city’s ongoing response to climate change.

Emily Lloyd, who ran the city’s Department of Environmental Protection from 2005 to 2009, is back at the helm at the DEP. The Mayor, when announcing her appointment last week, said that a major focus for the agency would be “infrastructure upgrades to improve our resiliency”.

It will also be Lloyd’s role, the Mayor said, “to convene public and private sector leaders to build upon the successes of PlaNYC [the Bloomberg administration’s far-reaching sustainability plan].”

“I had a lot of respect for and agreement with their plans of resiliency going forward and we’re using that as our initial blueprint,” said de Blasio. But, he added, “the response to Sandy was very uneven.”

Could de Blasio’s purported commitment to social equity impact other long-term environmental justice issues in New York City, from the siting of waste transfer stations to expanding access to open, green spaces to opening up the discussion about the city’s long-term energy strategy?

The Mayor observed when appointing Lloyd, “we also know, in everything we do, we have the potential to be the progressive leader.”