Searching for Answers about “Critical” Resiliency Upgrades to NYCHA Buildings

While Hurricane Sandy is just a memory for many New Yorkers, thousands of the city’s public housing residents are still living with temporary boilers, closed playgrounds, mold, and other damage to their buildings, apartments and outdoor spaces caused by the historic storm.

Real help is supposed to be on the way from the federal government, but now there are concerns about more delays and even the assuredness of the repair dollars themselves.

On March 31st, the City announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding -the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency- to repair and protect at least 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Sandy.

The FEMA funds are supposed to go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens. Half of the funds are designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.

But a New York City Council oversight hearing yesterday found that “there is no clear timeline to begin construction and upgrades, and FEMA funding agreements remain unsigned.”

“It is evident…that NYCHA has no timeline or scope of work for upgrading its Sandy-impacted developments,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, chair of the public housing committee, in a statement after yesterday’s hearing. “NYCHA has only received $3.5 million from FEMA and it is not clear when it will receive the rest of the $3 billion grant it was promised.”

“There are still too many unanswered questions. I worry that months and years will go by and tenants will not see improvements,” Torres said.

Pushing for “Transparency and Accountability”

Torres said he would “continue to push NYCHA to articulate how it will ensure transparency and accountability to residents across the city.”

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New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Yesterday’s hearing was chaired by the Council’s committees on public housing and recovery & resiliency. According to a statement released by both committees, the origin of the FEMA funding for the NYCHA repairs is now also in question.

“The bulk” of the $3 billion FEMA grant will actually be coming from insurance companies, maintained Torres and recovery & resiliency committee chair Mark Treyger, “further muddying how the money will be delivered to NYCHA.”

Council members Torres and Treyger also stated that they requested copies of the FEMA-approved project worksheets and a spending plan for the funds from NYCHA “several weeks ago.” NYCHA has responded that it must complete several procedural steps before the worksheets are finalized, the Council members reported.

Major Endeavor for a Struggling Agency

Both Council members Torres and Treyger say they question whether NYCHA has the capacity and workforce necessary “to carry out these historic levels of repairs and upgrades.” The agency is consistently underfunded, and has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction.

According to the Council, NYCHA Executive Vice President for Capital Projects, Raymond Ribeiro, testified yesterday that construction will take place at 35 developments. Some of the projects will begin this summer, and will take between a year and a half to 3 years to complete, depending on the scope of the work.

Approximately 10,000 construction jobs will be created by the upgrades, Ribeiro noted. Council members and NYCHA tenant leaders say they will be watching closely to see how many residents obtain these jobs.

According to the City, the FEMA grant is subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – which gives NYCHA residents access to union jobs and training.

Council members and tenant leaders will also be tracking NYCHA’s development of specific timelines for work at each of the 35 developments, and the agency’s community engagement process as it carries out the upgrades.

“We want to ensure that this investment is appropriately monitored…and that public housing residents benefit from this funding,” said Reginald Bowman, President of the City-Wide Council of Presidents, which represents NYCHA residents. “The first priority must be an assessment and plan by engineers and architects that specialize in…these types of projects,” Bowman said.

Losing Time and Money

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Temporary boiler installation at Red Hook Houses after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Leticia Barboza / NYCHA.

Time is of the essence. NYCHA is reportedly spending nearly $467,000 a month to rent the temporary boilers that are still in use at impacted developments across the city.

And the city’s public housing stock is just as physically vulnerable today as it was before Sandy struck in 2012. Several major NYCHA developments lie in the city’s greatly expanded flood zones.

“Residents have serious questions regarding when work will finally begin…and when their lives will finally return to normal after hearing about this historic $3 billion [federal] commitment…Progress must be made on behalf of those families,” said Council Member Treyger.

No “Climate Plan” but NYS Still Moving Ahead, says Cuomo Administration

Finalization of a “Climate Action Plan” for New York State, which is mandated by a state Executive Order, is not a priority for the Cuomo administration. So says Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Joseph Martens, who spoke on Central New York WCNY’s Capitol Pressroom friday.

Rather than an overarching plan, Martens said, the focus is “action.”

New York City, by contrast, continues to release plans detailing its approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation. This Earth Day, the de Blasio administration rolled out its “OneNYC” plan, which links climate resiliency and environmental sustainability with social equity.

Commissioner Martens was asked by radio journalist Susan Arbetter about the state climate plan mandated by Executive Order No. 24, which set a goal to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels.

Executive Order No. 24 also created the New York State Climate Action Council, which is supposed to prepare an action plan that would assess how all economic sectors can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. The Plan would also identify the extent to which these actions support New York’s goals for a clean-energy economy.

The Climate Action Council never finalized a plan, but it did release a detailed interim report in 2010, which includes an examination of what is needed to achieve a low-carbon, clean energy economy in New York.

Concrete actions on climate change are more meaningful than “a plan on a shelf,” Commissioner Martens argued. He noted that the state’s mitigation and adaptation objectives are built into current initiatives, such as requiring state agencies to take future climate risks like storm surges, sea level rise and flooding into account when planning, and overhauling how energy is produced and consumed in New York.

Five billion for clean energy- but the devil is in the details

Martens pointed to a $5 billion “clean energy fund” proposed by Governor Cuomo, along with the state’s 10-year, $1 billion commitment to developing a self-sustaining solar market in New York.

The $5 billion fund Martens spoke of friday represents a seismic shift in how the state plans to expand the development of renewable sources of energy.

As discussed in an article by GreenTechMedia, the state plans to raise $5 billion from electric bill surcharges over the next ten years to create a Clean Energy Fund, which would “essentially take over responsibility to ‘ensure the delivery and continuity of clean energy programs’ statewide.”

The state plans to transition from renewable-energy and efficiency mandates, which are expiring this year, to a “new regulatory and economic model that brings distributed, customer-owned [not utility owned] energy assets into account.”

Examples of customer-owned energy assets include rooftop solar, on-site generation, energy storage systems, and smart home or building energy controls.

New Yorkers pay a variety of surcharges on their utility bills which are set to expire, creating an opportunity for the state to adjust its approach to energy planning. One example is the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The EEPS has helped to fund state energy efficiency programs with the goal of reducing New York’s electricity usage by 15 percent, relative to forecast levels for 2015.

Some of the existing surcharges support programs that assist low-income New Yorkers with their energy costs. Consumers could also see lower costs in a restructured energy market, say proponents.

Instead of the EEPS and other state-led initiatives, New York’s ratepayers will eventually support a Fund designed to encourage private investment, through market development and “technology and business innovation”, to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“Rather than mandating a certain share of renewable energy or better efficiency,” GreenTechMedia explains, “the Clean Energy Fund will create a market for making this investment worthwhile.”

Advocates push for a climate framework

Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York, an Albany-based watchdog group, said that decisions in the absence of a comprehensive climate plan lead to bad public policy. “In the end, whatever progress made is undermined by poorly-vetted decisions that exacerbate our climate challenges,” he said in a statement.

Finalization of the State’s Energy Plan, a planning process separate from the market restructuring described above, is now more than two years late, Iwanowicz pointed out.

Iwanowicz referred to inconsistencies in clean energy policy, such as the state’s “bailout” of a coal-fired power plant in Dunkirk, located in central New York.

Under Governor Cuomo’s plan, according to Capital New York, “the 435-megawatt plant is to be converted from burning coal to natural gas, which requires a new pipeline to bring in gas fracked in Pennsylvania. Taxpayers will contribute $15 million to the project, which despite the administration’s promises that it would be cleaner will still be able to burn coal on some days.”

Environmental groups have also criticized a recent “$41 million budget raid of the state’s premier carbon abatement program.”

“Governor Cuomo has embraced an Executive Order that says New York has a goal to reduce climate pollution 80-percent by 2050 and that all New Yorkers will know the plan to achieve that goal…Whether the Governor reconsiders that order or develops another, New Yorkers deserve a climate action plan,” Iwanowicz said.

 

 

 

With Equity as Goal, City Releases New Sustainability and Resiliency Plan

“Environmental and economic sustainability must go hand in hand,” declared Mayor de Blasio today as he released the City’s new sustainability and climate resiliency plan: OneNYC.

OneNYC builds on PlaNYC, the multi-pronged “sustainability blueprint” created under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to de Blasio, OneNYC will expand on the targets established in previous plans, while also incorporating the priorities of his own administration.

Growth, sustainability, and resiliency remain at the core of OneNYC – but equity is now an additional guiding principle throughout the plan.

The City highlighted four goals in its release of OneNYC today:

  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty over the next 10 years
  • Zero waste to landfills by 2030
  • The cleanest air of any large city, and a dramatic reduction in emissions
  • Elimination of long-term displacement from homes and jobs after shock events by 2050

“This is a bold and ambitious plan – and New York City requires nothing less,” de Blasio stated.

The plan is organized around four major “visions”- “Our Growing, Thriving City,” “Our Just and Equitable City,” “Our Sustainable City,” and “Our Resilient City.”

The Challenges Facing New York City

New York City faces a number of challenges, says the City, including a rapidly growing population, rising inequality, an aging infrastructure, and climate change. OneNYC lays out a series of targets and initiatives to “prepare New York City for the future generations,” including:

  • Making New York City home to 4.9 million jobs by 2040.
  • Creating 240,000 new housing units by 2025, and an additional 250,000 to 300,000 by 2040.
  • Enabling the average New Yorker to reach 25% more jobs – or 1.8 million jobs – within 45 minutes by public transit.
  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near-poverty by 2025.
  • Cutting premature mortality by 25 percent by 2040, while reducing racial/ethnic disparities.
  • Reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, over 2005 levels.
  • Sending zero waste to landfills and reducing waste disposal by 90 percent relative to 2005 levels, by 2030.
  • Ensuring New York City has the best air quality among all large U.S. cities by 2030.
  • Reducing risks of flooding in most affected communities.
  • Eliminating long-term displacement from homes and jobs after future shock events by 2050.
  • Reducing the city’s Social Vulnerability Index for neighborhoods across the City.
  • Reducing annual economic losses from climate-related events.
  • Continued investment as part of an over-$20 billion program that includes a range of physical, social, and economic resiliency measures.

Does the City’s Plan Prepare Us Sufficiently for Climate Change?

As you read the City’s plan, here are some questions to consider, especially in its discussion of climate resiliency.

How Will the City Carry Out Its Vision?

The New York League of Conservation Voters applauded the Mayor for “laying out an aspirational vision of the city we want to become, a city that is not only environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable,” in a statement today.

But, the League added, “as PlaNYC showed us…successfully achieving our ambitious goals requires a roadmap that allows us to measure progress. The de Blasio administration should quickly follow up with an implementation plan that includes funding sources, a timetable, baseline indicators to track progress, and an agency responsible for implementation.”

Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?

At one of many such meetings now taking place throughout the city’s waterfront, residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, gathered recently at a local community center to hear about the dramatic expansion of federal flood zones in their area and what the new designation would cost them.

As in other coastal neighborhoods, Red Hook struggles with a variety of flooding-related issues. Area homes, businesses and public housing developments suffered heavy damage from a five-foot storm surge during Superstorm Sandy. Red Hook also has long-term stormwater drainage problems.

So as the March 31 meeting night wore on, and residents sat closely together staring grimly at maps of their neighborhood, their fatigue and frustration was palpable.

One described still not being back in his home more than two years after major damage during Sandy. Another, in exasperation, asked city officials and their Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who presided over the meeting, “What are you going to do? We are having meeting after meeting [about recovery and resiliency] and the neighborhood is still flooding.”

Red Hook is not alone. Similar issues and worries are being played out in waterfront communities throughout New York, from the Lower East Side to the Rockaways.

Problems like localized flooding will become all the more urgent as climate change progresses. But the threat to each neighborhood is different, depending on where it is located relative to the city’s 500-plus miles of coastline, and factors like socio-economic conditions, building stock, and critical infrastructure.

City officials are far from indifferent. Its strategy, in a nutshell, is to gradually strengthen the coastline, upgrade building stock, and protect critical infrastructure. Next week on Earth Day, April 22, the city plans to release a major progress report, the first in four years, on its multi-pronged sustainability framework, known as PlaNYC. As in the past, the report is expected to include discussion of climate resiliency, that is, the city’s ongoing and developing preparations to manage for the effects of climate change.

The PlaNYC update is the result of “an extensive engagement process,” city spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick recently told Capital New York, including meetings in every community board district, a survey available in seven languages, and an “expanded advisory board.”

In anticipation of the city’s report, news partners Gotham Gazette, AdaptNY, and the NY Environment Report raised a series of key questions about resiliency planning with a group of planners, engineers, architects, elected officials, and other experts.

  • What is the pace of preparations? And are there sufficient financial resources?
  • Is the city using the best data possible?
  • What’s the impact of expanding flood zones? And is retreat an option?
  • Can we improve the decision-making process? Expand public engagement?
  • What are the institutional obstacles?
  • What are the social implications of resiliency planning?

The overarching question: can the process of becoming resilient make New York, in the end, a better city – more livable, environmentally sustainable and socially cohesive?

Among other key takeaways, we found:

  • The city’s multi-faceted preparations for climate change are viewed as sound, but greater public clarity is needed on fundamental details of project rollout and funding.
  • There is fairly widespread frustration with the pace of execution, and ways to speed up the public review process should be examined.
  • It’s unclear how residents will manage rising insurance costs within expanded flood zones.
  • Better data could improve the understanding of the climate risks ahead, and there is an open question about how far to look into the future.
  • Residents could be engaged more meaningfully in the planning process, such as through participatory budgeting.
  • In a number of ways, civic society is coming forward with proposals for how the city can further improve its resilience plans.

Although creating resiliency is an ongoing process and climate change is long-term, the need to plan is urgent. “We are holding our breath,” said Staten Island City Council Member Vincent Ignizio about the approach of this year’s hurricane season.

“There will be more sea level rise; there will be more frequent storms; they’ll be more intense,” said Steven Cohen, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “If it [another catastrophic storm] comes in the next year or two, we’re in trouble. If it comes 5 or 10 years from now, we’d be better off.”

Added Cohen: “The question is can we build a city that’s strong enough to withstand that and then recover quickly. And I believe we can.”

What’s the timetable?

One outgrowth of PlaNYC targets a ten-year approach to resiliency. The city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, or SIRR, was first released by the Bloomberg administration post-Sandy, in June 2013, and subsequently endorsed by the de Blasio administration.

The SIRR plan includes 257 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. It has a particular focus on five vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the East and South shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

As of last fall, at least 200 of the SIRR projects have been started and 29 were complete, said Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. For instance, the city, with support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been replenishing beaches in vulnerable areas like Coney Island and the Rockaways, and rebuilding dunes on the Staten Island coast.

Critical infrastructure is being hardened throughout the city, Cohen pointed out. Hospitals are moving generators to higher floors. The Con-Ed power plant on the East River has been made more storm resilient, and the MTA is developing contingency plans to keep water out of subway tunnels, he stated.

But all of the major flood protection projects appear to be in some sort of “study” phase. For instance, an “integrated flood management project” for Red Hook, which could include a natural greenway, deployable flood walls, elevated streets, and drainage pumps, was originally scheduled for completion in 2016. Now, the City is currently issuing “requests for proposals” for the project, and hopes to begin construction in 2017.

A much larger project, the elevation and expansion of riverfront parkland adjacent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side meant to protect thousands of local residents, could take seven years to move through the review and permitting stages, and another three years or more for construction, according to a 2014 city feasibility study.

The “multi-purpose levee” is only the first section of Manhattan’s “Big U” flood protection project, which is supposed to one day stretch from West 57th street south to the Battery and up to East 42nd.

In the coming weeks, the Army Corps will also be releasing public studies for how best to protect the Rockaway peninsula and the East Shore of Staten Island. And flood protection feasibility studies for Coney Island Creek, the Gowanus Canal, Jamaica Bay, Hunts Point, and Lower Manhattan are also ongoing.

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Flooding in Lower Manhattan.

So how fast can the city realistically move?

Making New York truly climate resilient will require years and, in some aspects, decades. The raising of individual homes and their mechanical systems above flood levels alone “will take a generation,” observed Cohen.

Flood protection infrastructure in the Netherlands has taken decades to put into place, observed Henk Ovink, a Dutch advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even SIRR has a caveat – climate change is a long-term problem, it notes, and “many of the strategies and initiatives [in SIRR] will evolve over a similarly long period of time.”

But growing anxiety and some frustration with that pace is evident in conversations with local elected officials, such as in Staten Island, which is racing to prepare for another Sandy.

The Rockaways also has worries, in part because of historic stormwater drainage issues like in Red Hook. City Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents roughly half of its almost 120,000 residents and chairs the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, said he is anxiously awaiting the results of the Army Corps study. Richards expressed concern that it could take as long as a decade to fully execute the Corps’ recommendations.

Meanwhile, plans to repair the Rockaway peninsula’s protective bulkheads are mired in inter-agency confusion, Richards maintained. Besides beach replenishment and the eventual repair of the bulkheads on the Rockaway coast, asked Richards, “How are we really protecting these people?”

Where’s the money?

With the launch of the SIRR plan in 2013, city officials made clear that about one-half to three-quarters of its estimated $19.5 billion price tag was in hand. The rest would need to be raised from various sources, such as federal or state funds, and the city’s utility ratepayers.

Capital projects and studies outlined in SIRR would cost almost $14 billion. Another $5.5 billion is needed for “various other housing, business, and city agency recovery and resiliency needs,” said the report.

But, according to SIRR, that $14 billion is associated with only the first phase of its projects and programs. It doesn’t include implementation costs for projects, for instance, that are to be completed beyond the 10-year time frame of the plan.

Think of SIRR as laying the groundwork for the city’s ongoing resiliency work, and realizing a first round of projects. Phase 1 projects, such as beach nourishment in Coney Island or a storm surge barrier in Newtown Creek, are included in the $14 billion. But “full build” SIRR projects, like an integrated flood protection system for West Midtown, or a storm surge barrier for the Rockaway Inlet, are not.

City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency and represents Coney Island, argues that the pricetag for the SIRR plan is steadily rising, and that the flood protection studies happening right now are going to drive the real cost of the projects.

“I am fairly confident when I say we don’t have all the money to actualize that vision. I’m not even sure if we’re anywhere close to it,” said Treyger, referring to what he saw as the mounting complexity of each flood protection project.

According to the city’s “Sandy Funding Tracker,” which is current through the end of 2014, more than $13 billion in federal recovery funding has been earmarked for projects in the city. This includes $7.3 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a $4.2 billion Community Development Block Grant from HUD, and $840 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

City officials declined to clarify how much of that $13 billion is actually for SIRR. For instance, it appears that at least $1.7 billion of the HUD CDBG funds was allocated to Build It Back, the city’s controversial rebuilding program for homes damaged by Sandy.

It’s also unclear whether the portion of the $4.2 billion HUD grant covering some of the new flood protection projects is totally secure.

Council Member Ignizio of Staten Island raised the concern that by 2018 the city must have shovel-ready plans – with all the relevant permits and such – or else possibly lose some of the money. “The city is pretty far behind,” said Ignizio. “There’s a lot of stuff that still hasn’t been planned out.”

City officials did not respond to questions about the HUD grant either.

Nonetheless, federal funding for Sandy rebuilding is already helping to make New York more resilient.

“The city is now required to come up with certain resiliency measures when they take federal [rebuilding] dollars,” said Treyger. An example is the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which received a $1.6 billion FEMA grant to both repair and elevate critical infrastructure.

Similarly, the federal government has just allocated $3 billion to repair and make more climate resilient 33 public housing developments that were heavily damaged during Sandy. Included in the grant are all six New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments in the Rockaways, along with 14 developments in Manhattan, and 12 in Brooklyn. The grant is the largest in FEMA history, said the city.

How good is the data?

The starting point for the city’s resiliency plans is its understanding of flood risk along New York’s hundreds of miles of coastline. That, in turn, is largely guided by FEMA’s designation throughout the five boroughs of 100-year flood zones, areas that have a one percent chance each year of flooding.

The last time that FEMA’s flood maps were completely overhauled was in 1983, over thirty years ago. Updated maps are to be released next year, and the drafts of the new maps indicate that almost 85,000 buildings in New York will soon lie in a flood zone. That’s a three-fold increase.

But there is a very practical reason for using FEMA’s flood maps as a planning guide: Only projects that address flood risks identified by FEMA are eligible for federal funding.

“By necessity, the SIRR was set up to put New York City in a good position to receive federal money to do these projects,” explained Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate and social scientists and risk management experts which advises the city.

But Nordenson, who worked on the SIRR plan, argues that the city could benefit from a more robust assessment of coastal storm hazards.

In the simplest terms, Nordenson maintains that hazard assessments for New York also need to include projections for 500-year and 2500-year flooding events.

Why? Because these types of events are already happening. “Depending on how you calculate it,” said Nordenson, “Sandy was definitely greater than a 500-year” event. “It was closer to what we’re looking at as the extreme [2500-year] event.”

Another way of understanding this, said Nordenson, is that the FEMA maps used by the city look at flood events with a 40 percent likelihood over a 50-year span. But over the next 50 years, what type of flood has a 10 percent likelihood of occurring? Or a 2 percent likelihood?

The 2 percent standard is what the U.S. uses for earthquake and tsunami protection guidelines, said Nordenson, who served in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program in the 1980’s.

Nordenson, who is collaborating with the Army Corps, is also incorporating climate change projections into his flood risk models. Significantly, FEMA is not using climate change data as it updates its flood maps.

While Nordenson believes that “[New York] City is way ahead of the majority of communities up and down the East Coast” in terms of resiliency planning, the ultimate goal, he said, is to “do a better job of encompassing the full range of uncertainty.”

He pointed out: “If you consider what happened in Katrina and what’s happened in many cases in floods, there’s always something that goes wrong. There’s always flooding in places that we don’t expect. There’s always failure of some levee or other form of protection.”

What’s the impact of our growing flood zones?

Over 400,000 city residents will soon be living in 100-year flood zones.That’s an increase of 84% from the current 218,088. What does adding tens of thousands of residents to the updated FEMA flood zones mean in financial and social terms?

The most pressing issue is the specter of working class, waterfront communities facing steadily rising flood insurance costs on top of other economic challenges. Council Member Treyger calls it an approaching “financial storm.”

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FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps. Photo credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency via FEMA

To control the costs, FEMA currently recognizes elevating one’s home as the only mitigation step. But because elevation is untenable in many cases, the city has been pushing FEMA to take New York’s existing housing stock into account.

Otherwise, the only viable option for many New York homeowners will be to abandon the first floor of their houses. That’s often a critical source of rental income. “Many of us are losing one-third of the value of our houses,” said one angry Red Hook resident at the March meeting.

The dilemma was brought home by Alexandros Washburn, an architect and chief urban designer at the Department of City Planning under the Bloomberg administration. He rode out Sandy at his home in Red Hook, which was heavily flooded.

“If I were to follow the regulatory path of least resistance [by using FEMA guidelines],” Washburn explained, “I’m supposed to take out my Victorian storefront, fill my basement, pour a concrete slab and park cars…Then my house is resilient.”

But then Red Hook would become a neighborhood of parking garages, he argued. “We would have killed the social heart of our neighborhood.”

There are solutions. Neighborhood flood protection projects, in planning now, could eventually provide mitigation credits for homeowners. That, in turn, would lower their flood insurance rates, said Treyger.

And the city’s resiliency projects could do more than help lower the cost of flood insurance for residents. They could also help whole neighborhoods get out of the flood zones altogether, said Washburn.

“If we succeed in making a beautiful and effective perimeter protection for Red Hook, we take Red Hook out of the flood zone, out from under the requirement for FEMA [flood] insurance. We remove the problem,” he said.

Is that realistic? “Totally doable,” Washburn responded. “That would be the [city’s] end-goal.”

Added Treyger: “My message to the city is that when we’re planning resiliency, are we aligned to the FEMA standards? We have to make sure that we have the relevant city agencies on the same page with FEMA, who have to be on the same page with the Army Corps.”

Is retreat an option?

Is there a point at which New York residents should simply move away from an increasingly flood-prone coast? That question begins to make sense when you look at the findings of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, or NPCC, whose most recent report was released in February.

The NPCC has found that since 1900, New York has seen sea levels rise around a foot, nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

This trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the panel’s most recent report, sea level could rise another 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, according to the panel’s worst-case, though lowest probability scenario, it could increase as much as six feet.

Indeed, after Sandy, some homeowners on Staten Island had already made the decision to give up their homes. They are participating in a joint city and state program under the state’s NY Rising community reconstruction initiative. The acquisition program is currently only available in three Staten Island neighborhoods and Suffolk County.

Despite this, the city has maintained a “no retreat” policy thus far. “New York City will not retreat,” the SIRR plan declared. “[It will] stand with its waterfront neighborhoods.”

But how far into the future should we try to look? “For the foreseeable future, we can manage risk and we can make neighborhoods safer,” argued city resiliency official Zarrilli, in an interview last month on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“And in the future if things are going either faster or slower in the climate than we anticipated, we can continue to react,” Zarrilli maintained. “It’s not an all-at-once implementation that needs to happen.”

A concrete example is the City’s approach to inundation. By the 2050’s, some neighborhoods are expected to experience weekly or even daily tidal flooding due to sea level rise. The city said it plans to monitor the situation and raise the height of coastal edges, with bulkheads and beach nourishment, as necessary.

But others see it differently. “I think we need a realistic, thoughtful conversation about what a sustainable strategy looks like with our waterfront,” said Mary Rowe, vice president of the Municipal Art Society, a century-old organization with a special focus on design, planning, architecture and resilience. “There’s a significant question about what does New York look like in 50 years. What are the alternatives?”

And some go even farther. For instance, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist affiliated with the Earth Institute, who also sits on the NPCC, has pointedly argued that the city must plan now to move coastal residents to higher ground.

But the Earth Institute’s Cohen responded that “abandoning [the coastline] is not practical and not cost-effective.” Part of Cohen’s concern relates to the working class makeup of many of the city’s coastal communities. Given the current housing affordability crisis, asked Cohen, where are the almost 700,000 residents of the city’s most vulnerable coastal areas going to move?

Another issue Cohen raised is the massive financial loss that would be incurred by walking away from the critical infrastructure, like powerplants and wastewater treatment facilities, that has been constructed all along the city’s coastline.

In any event, Cohen is not convinced that the most dire projections made by the city’s climate scientists are inevitable. In 2014, greenhouse gases actually stabilized, he stated.

The global economy is moving away from coal, and will eventually replace all fossil fuels with renewable sources, Cohen said, and that will slow the pace of climate change. Fossil fuels will be driven from the marketplace “long before we’re under five feet of water in New York City,” he argued.

Can we improve the decision-making process?

One of the challenges of resiliency planning is that the timetable for infrastructure projects is guided by lengthy public review processes, which were originally established to provide more oversight and opportunities for the public to weigh in.

“The pace of climate change is such that we have to find a way of speeding up the public process,” observed Washburn, the city’s former chief urban designer. “The ability for top-down and bottom-up to come together and reach a decision is critical. You can’t act without deciding first.”

He added: “The expeditious part, for me, is not the amount of time it takes to build the thing…It’s the time it takes to get to a decision on what you are going to build and how you’re going to pay for it.”

Washburn believes he may have one piece of the puzzle. He now runs a coastal resilience research lab at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and said his lab, along with architecture firm NBBJ, has developed a computer software program that will “let us plan coastal protections together with the community in real time.”

Local residents can use this so-called parametric analysis tool to gain a much deeper understanding of the physical effectiveness, social impact, and cost of each proposed project, Washburn argued.

”[You] let everybody get into the room, whether it’s a virtual or actual room, and play with the parameters,” Washburn continued. “If you substitute a concrete wall for a vegetative berm, you can keep track of the costs. You can see what it looks like. You can see what the view from the street is. … It’s tools like that that let you go through the same interactive process that ULURP [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process] is hoping to establish of community input and top input and modification.”

Washburn added: “The tools are now out there for the city to get to success. The city’s got a pretty good foundation. The number one smart thing the city is doing is taking a neighborhood approach. The question is can they take it the last step and make a reality that’s effective but also improves quality of life.”

Do residents have enough say?

Another concrete way to engage the public is to give people more direct say over how resiliency dollars are spent, say some policy advocates. This is already a pressing issue in cases where residents have been heavily involved in developing resiliency proposals, but risk being left out of the final decision making process.

A case in point is the Hunts Point community of the South Bronx, which has actively participated in developing one of the winning coastal resiliency projects chosen by HUD’s Rebuild by Design program.

The revised price tag for the Hunts Point Lifelines project is now $481 million. So far, HUD has allocated $25 million, and the city is prepared to offer another $20 million.

Some community leaders are asking how what is ultimately built in Hunts Point will be decided upon, and who will participate in that process.

We need “clear points of decision making,” said Kelly Terry, executive director of The Point CDC, at a public meeting about the project on April 10. She said the community is looking for clear criteria on who gets to participate in a working group created by the city, along with accountability and open communication.

There are multiple potential ways residents can participate in resiliency budget discussions.

One possible first step could be for the city to provide financial support for some of the “first responder” community groups who were so essential during Sandy. This is a “no-brainer,” argued Michael Menser, an assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Where is the funding program for [the first responder groups] to build their own capacity, to improve their spaces and community infrastructure, to hire more, to have better relationships with the [city] agencies?” he asked.

A next step, said Menser, chair of the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project, would be to utilize participatory budgeting for certain types of local resiliency projects. Participatory budgeting is already used in almost half of New York City‘s council districts, including several Sandy-impacted areas.

“What’s been missing is any kind of process that connects neighborhoods to city agencies and city government in a medium-term way,” Menser said. “There’s been no real defined way that people could participate.”

To be clear, Menser is talking about actual decision making, not just offering one’s opinion at a community board meeting or in a survey. Community boards can only make non-binding recommendations in the city’s land use review process, for example.

Giving residents a pot of funding could “really enliven and strengthen the city’s resilience-enhancing goals,” said Menser. As part of the participatory budgeting process, communities would work with the relevant city agencies to develop resiliency proposals that are technically and legally appropriate, he said.

Going even further, using participatory budgeting on a citywide level would significantly ramp up the city’s resilience process, Menser argued, and be especially useful for overcoming the isolation of Sandy-impacted communities. Referring to the fact that climate change will ultimately affect every New York neighborhood, whether coastal or not, Menser observed that “this is a regional issue.”

But the underlying question for Menser is how to maintain substantive public involvement in resiliency planning on an ongoing basis. In the participatory budgeting paradigm, “expertise plays a critical role, but it’s driven by community need,” he said. “And in the process, you create more trust among the government and the community, but also within the community, and also you help to promote interagency coordination.”

How are residents being engaged?

Our previous reporting found striking disconnects in communication between the Bloomberg administration and some of its community boards regarding resiliency planning.

Additional interviews last fall with several dozen residents in two of the city’s most vulnerable areas found that a significant number were simply unsure what measures, if any, were being taken to protect their communities. The overwhelming majority thought they were no safer, two years after Sandy, from the risks posed by climate change.

As noted earlier, the de Blasio administration has pledged to increase community engagement as it updates PlaNYC, and, so far, has done so by meeting with all 59 of the city’s community boards, and disseminating a survey about a variety of sustainability and resiliency topics.

The administration has decided not to re-activate two task forces that were convened after Sandy to enable communities in vulnerable areas to weigh in on resiliency planning.

But resiliency planning bodies and advocacy groups are springing up throughout the five boroughs. Resiliency and rebuilding task forces have been established by the borough presidents of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, Council Member Treyger noted.

Treyger said that he has jump-started a resiliency task force in his community, Coney Island.
“I would encourage all of the communities [with] these studies underway [to organize],” said Treyger. “Let’s not wait for them,” he said of the city. “We can do it ourselves.”

Resiliency task forces are even being formed at the hyper-local level. For instance, residents in some of the public housing developments in the Rockaways have set up planning groups, said Council Member Richards.

Richards observed that a major challenge for the city was figuring out how best to “intertwine environmental justice communities with PlaNYC planning. They have been left out of the conversation.”

The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a citywide coalition of labor unions and community, faith-based, environmental, and policy organizations formed after Sandy, shares Richards’ concern.

The city’s rebuilding process must include a commitment to “the elimination of environmental disparities across communities,” the alliance says on its website. The goal is a process that “prioritizes transparency and community inclusion, [and] creates new economic opportunity for all New Yorkers –particularly low-income communities and communities of color.”

Richards stressed that he believes community involvement in resiliency planning is a “personal issue for the mayor.” He said that the de Blasio administration was making an “honest effort” to engage the public and to “really listen” to feedback.

What are the institutional obstacles?

All levels of government, including Congress, will have to collaborate closely to protect the eight million-plus residents of New York City from the impacts of climate change. At last month’s meeting in Red Hook, Rep. Velazquez ruefully observed how hard the New York delegation has had to fight for funding in the Republican-led Congress.

One issue that is often overlooked in resiliency discussions is the impact – positive and negative – of state funding decisions on the city. Insufficient funding for basic water infrastructure projects, like upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and water mains, has reached a crisis level across the state, say Democratic and Republican legislators in Albany.

This relates directly to climate change because New York is projected to see increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme precipitation events. Yet some coastal neighborhoods in Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn still lack the proper infrastructure to handle run-of-the-mill rainstorms.

The city is struggling to play catch-up and is engaged in stormwater infrastructure projects in several communities. This includes building grey infrastructure, like sewer mains, as well as green infrastructure, like blue belts (natural drainage corridors) and bioswales.

The good news, according to those interviewed for this report, is that individual city agencies are increasingly working together on resiliency planning.

Challenges remain. For instance, despite ongoing pleas from residents and elected officials, the city cannot seem to determine which agency has ultimate responsibility for repairing some of the bulkheads that will protect the Rockaway coastline until larger coastal flood protection projects are in place. Council Member Richards described the situation as “convoluted.”

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The Rockaway Peninsula.

But there are concrete measures that could enable city agencies to work more effectively together, says CUNY’s Menser.

“It would be a really good time to have a [city] charter review in a year or two,” argued Menser, referring to the fact that city agencies now function in the complex and shifting world of climate change. The issue affects their responsibilities, and may alter how power needs to be distributed, especially vis-a-vis the public, he said.

A charter review could also address jurisdictional issues relevant to resiliency planning, or even increase the power held by community boards. The last full review was in 1989. An examination of how government is structured is merited, Menser said. “We’re due.”

And the underlying point, said Menser, is that climate resiliency is going to require more than technical solutions. It will also require “social support” and “bureaucratic changes” – a point echoed by others. More specifically, true resilience “requires a remaking of bureaucratic institutions, and the relationship between the public and those institutions,” Menser continued.

As an example, Menser cited the city’s housing authority, NYCHA, which has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction. Many public housing developments were badly damaged during Sandy, taking an enormous toll on residents.

“Remaking the buildings isn’t going to be enough,” he said. For NYCHA residents to be able to control resiliency spending in their developments, set their own priorities, and get their needs met, said Menser, “requires a reforming of the Housing Authority.”

What are the social implications?

It’s likely that the city’s resiliency plans will ultimately be judged by how well the most vulnerable in society – the disabled, the poor, the elderly, non-English speakers, and others – survive the next crisis.

After Sandy, for instance, some of the most harrowing stories to emerge came from disabled residents who were trapped in group homes and other living facilities in the devastated areas. In testimony to the City Council after the storm, some described losing power, water, and, eventually, access to food and medication.

As MAS’ Rowe observed, the communities that fared the best during Sandy were the ones with the most social cohesion. It’s a lesson born out time and again.

Case in point: NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg’s research on the 700-plus deaths that took place during a 1995 heat wave in Chicago. The tragic death toll, he concluded, was the “result of distinct dangers in Chicago’s social environment” – not primarily the forces of nature. Death rates were far lower in Chicago neighborhoods where social ties were stronger.

Building social cohesion and social capital – strengthening the foundation which underlies communities – can come in many forms. The de Blasio administration’s “One City” plan seeks to make all publicly-owned buildings more climate resilient and less polluting, creating scores of local jobs in the process, and potentially a whole new sector of the economy.

Menser described the plan as empowering for city residents and an “incredibly ingenious extension of the SIRR plan.”

The more the city can empower residents in its resiliency process, the more its resiliency plans will truly respond to the conditions of each community, and the more residents will be able to help protect each other from what is to come, whether it is a devastating storm or a heat wave.

“You tend to tilt yourself to focus specifically on the disaster that most recently occurred to you,” observed Rowe. “Whereas what you really want is to build the capacity of those neighborhoods to anticipate any number of kinds of challenges that may come…It may be something quite different.”

The city has a tremendous base of social capital on which to build- think of the bands of neighborhood volunteers who canvassed public housing developments across the city after Sandy, providing food and medical assistance to homebound residents; or the volunteers that cleared debris from ruined homes and businesses; or those who set up kitchens in storm-battered neighborhoods.

And as much as there are tremendous risks posed to New Yorkers by climate change, there are also opportunities to build a stronger city, both physically and socially. The two are completely linked with, and reinforce each other, Rowe argued.

She also pushed back against referring to city government as one monolithic entity, which will “solve” the climate change “problem.”

“Resiliency is too important an urban challenge to just be left to government,” she said. “Resilience is really a movement. One of the important principles of resilience is there are many, many, many parts – no one solution, no one answer. That’s the challenge – how do you mobilize and then connect those many parts.”

But it is equally important to point out that government is the only entity in society whose core responsibility is to maintain public safety and well being. This point was raised more than once during our interviews.

And only government has the resources and legal status to carry out the large-scale resiliency projects that are needed.

“Climate change is the issue of our time,” agreed Council Member Treyger. “It’s already happening…Now we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing? Are we doing enough?’”

Feds Allocate $3 Billion for 33 Sandy-Damaged NYCHA Developments

Our summary of a statement released yesterday by the Mayor’s Press Office:

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer have announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding to repair and protect 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Hurricane Sandy – the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency.

The Mayor’s Office described the FEMA grant yesterday as “unprecedented.”

“This historic and essential funding will restore livable housing for thousands of families and fortify NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] against future disasters,” says the City.

Several major NYCHA developments lie in flood zones. The FEMA funds will go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens.

Half of the funds will be designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. The funding is authorized by FEMA’s Alternative Procedures, which provides a lump sum payment instead of the typical incremental funding by FEMA.

“Too many [NYCHA residents] are still feeling the impact [of Sandy],” said Mayor de Blasio.

“This investment…won’t simply bring NYCHA developments back to pre-Sandy conditions,” said the Mayor. “It will allow us to fortify buildings and utilities…From elevated boilers and standby generators to flood protection, this investment will go a long way for thousands of NYCHA residents.”

According to City Hall, the new Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency is implementing other “key” climate resiliency measures, including flood protection systems in lower Manhattan and Red Hook, Brooklyn, and many other short-, medium-, and long-term measures across the five boroughs.

Protecting NYCHA Residents from Future Storms

The approximately $3 billion in FEMA funding will allow the New York City Housing Authority to make critical repairs at 33 developments where Sandy’s storm surge flooded basements and first floors, severely damaging boilers and electrical and mechanical equipment, and leaving many residents without power and heat for days or weeks.

In many cases, NYCHA electrical and mechanical systems were completely destroyed during Sandy, says the City.

The FEMA funds will also allow NYCHA to take measures to make the 33 developments more resilient to future storms and extreme weather. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.

NYCHA Residents Targeted for Resiliency Jobs

The work completed via this funding will be subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – allowing NYCHA residents to gain access to union jobs and training and helping ensure swifter capital construction.

FEMA $$$ Aside, NYCHA Is Facing a Massive Budget Deficit

NYCHA requires more than $18 billion beyond the funding announced yesterday to address its broader unmet capital needs across its portfolio of more than 330 developments.

Eroding annual support for NYCHA has resulted in more than $1 billion in lost funding in recent years, hindering the Authority’s ability to keep its buildings in a state of decent repair and maintain a basic quality of life for the more than 400,000 New Yorkers living in NYCHA.

[Editor’s Note: The Daily News reported in December that NYCHA was nearing a deal to sell a 50% stake in almost 900 apartments to a pair of private developers. Some of the 900 apartments reportedly targeted for the deal are located in NYCHA’s Campos Plaza development in Manhattan, which is also receiving some of the just-announced FEMA funding.

The cash infusion from private developers would raise $100 million over the next two years and another $100 million through 2029, according to the Daily News.]

The 33 NYCHA developments slated to receive FEMA funding

Manhattan

  • Riis I
  • Riis II
  • Metro North
  • Wald
  • Baruch
  • East River Houses
  • Smith Houses
  • La Guardia
  • Campos I
  • Campos II
  • Lavanburg
  • Rangel Houses
  • Two Bridges
  • Isaacs

 

Brooklyn

  • Red Hook West
  • Red Hook East
  • Gowanus
  • Coney Island Houses
  • Coney Island Site 1B
  • Coney Island Sites 4 & 5
  • Coney Island Site 8
  • Carey Gardens
  • Surfside Gardens
  • O’Dwyer Gardens
  • Haber Houses
  • Gravesend

 

Queens/Rockaways

  • Redfern
  • Hammel Houses
  • Ocean Bay Oceanside
  • Ocean Bay Bayside
  • Carleton Manor
  • Beach 41st
  • Astoria

 

Repair and mitigation work at the 33 developments will include:

Mechanical

• New elevated boiler buildings to be built at an elevation above the recent FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) to reduce future flood risk
• Removal and replacement of building heating plant equipment, including boilers, pumps, tanks and traps throughout the submerged portions of the buildings
• Removal and replacement of Sandy-damaged compactors and lifts

Electrical

• Installation of standby generators to protect quality of life in any future storm power outages
• Removal and replacement of existing electrical equipment at lower levels of the buildings
• Removal and replacement of conduit and associated wiring below the flood level throughout the sites, as well as replacement of associated lighting
• Installation of CCTV/Layered Access systems
• New electrical buildings, to be built above FEMA FIRM to reduce flood risk, that will house buildings’ main electrical components.

Architectural

• Removal and replacement of Sandy damaged doors, walls, floors and fixtures throughout buildings’ first floor apartments and common areas
• Replacement of damaged roofing components
• Installation of a flood barrier system for lower levels of buildings

Site Work and Environmental

• Removal and replacement of damaged play areas, fencing, sidewalks and parking areas
• Removal and disposal of any regulated or hazardous materials

 

Coastal Communities Risk Being Swept Away by Rising Insurance Costs

New Yorkers were exposed to the harsh realities of climate change when Superstorm Sandy hit more than two years ago. Those living in coastal neighborhoods like Coney Island and the Rockaways are struggling to deal with the mounting impacts of climate change. But now it’s not just the storms they fear, it’s the rising cost of flood insurance that threatens to drown them.

Come next year, revised flood zone maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) go into effect, expanding the amount of land considered at high-risk of flooding. The new maps will include roughly 60,000 more buildings, according to an analysis by the City Comptroller’s office. The city’s high-risk flood zones will soon be home to 400,457 New Yorkers, an increase of 84% from the current 218,088.

The projected increase in flood insurance premiums is significant. For a typical home in the high-risk zones, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030.

Flood zones have expanded in every borough. The increase is particularly dramatic along the eastern and western edges of Staten Island, and in South Brooklyn and South Queens.

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Street in the Rockaways in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 Looming Affordability Crisis

The central concern, shared by City and federal officials, community representatives and most importantly, residents, is the looming insurance affordability crisis. The future of low and middle-income communities in coastal areas throughout the city is now in question.

The effect of the projected insurance rate increases on homeowners will be “devastating,” said Jonathan Gaska, district manager of Queens Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways. “People are forced to make a decision to either raise their homes at an exorbitant price or paying a phenomenal amount of money for insurance,” he said. While he believes the City is trying to help the locals stuck, he added, “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Over one-third of homeowners in the City’s high-risk zones have an annual household income of less than $75,000, reports the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a non-profit working for affordable housing for New Yorkers.

The owners of multi-family buildings in the zones are also vulnerable. Two-thirds of tenants have a household annual income of less than $75,000.

“I’m really worried we’re going to destroy the fabric of these communities,” said City Council member Donovan Richards, a Democrat who represents the Rockaways. The Rockaways already have the third highest notice of foreclosure rate of any community in New York City’s high-risk flood zones.

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Housing at water’s edge in the Rockaways. Photo: Samar Khurshid

Calling housing foreclosures a “silent killer” of the community, Richards said, “It’s a mixed community. As someone who lived there, in Ocean Village, paying $860 for a two-bedroom that overlooked the beach, I’m fighting to ensure that these people are protected. I want everyday people to be able to have a beautiful view without being billionaires,” he said.

Rising waters and rising insurance

Homeowners in the city’s greatly expanded high-risk zones will be required to purchase flood insurance (either through the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA or through private insurance providers) if they meet certain federal criteria. For instance, if they have received FEMA assistance in the past, if they have a federally-backed mortgage, if they received a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan or if they are registered with the City’s Build It Back Sandy-recovery program.

For those already on insurance plans, their rates are set to increase owing to legislative changes in the last three years.

Almost two-thirds of the owner-occupied housing units in the high-risk zones have mortgages, says the CNYCN. Homeowners with mortgages who refuse to purchase insurance are usually subject to force-placed insurance where their lender purchases a policy and passes the cost on to them. Those who cannot pay have little choice but to sell their homes.

Why are insurance rates going up? Federal legislation, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, has reduced government subsidies on insurance in order to make the NFIP financially viable.

“I’ve lived here a little over fifteen years but if the rates went up, I’d move out of state,” said Rockaway Park homeowner Paul Fitzgerald, 56, a retired Fire Department Captain who lives in a single-family home with his wife. “The taxes are already killing me. I’d move to a Red state. Costs are going higher and higher here and it’s very difficult to get by.” Fitzgerald has heard rumors of the insurance rate premiums increasing, but so far he has no clarity on how much he may have to pay. He currently pays around $2,000 a year.

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Paul Fitzgerald in front of his home in Rockaway Park. Photo: Samar Khurshid

The Rockaways are home to many retirees like Fitzgerald and his wife. Living on a fixed income, they’d be among the hardest hit. According to the City, 22 percent of housing units on the Rockaway Peninsula are occupied by senior citizens, aged 65 and older. Almost forty percent of the peninsula’s population receives some form of government “income support” such as cash assistance, Supplemental Security Income, or Medicaid.

Conciliatory efforts may be in vain

Congress has made attempts to limit the impact of the rate hikes through the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014. Applied retroactively, it repealed certain provisions of Biggert-Waters and lowered rate increases that went into effect after July 2012, while preventing future increases in some cases. Many policy-holders who had their rates go up were provided refunds. The Act also set aside resources for an affordability study to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and required FEMA to appoint a Flood Insurance Advocate who would push for fair treatment of NFIP holders.

Most importantly, the Act provided that future rate increases would be gradual for those with currently subsidized rates under the NFIP, with no more than an 18 percent hike each year until a full-risk policy is paid.

Even with these controls, flood insurance rates will rise significantly. For a typical home, granted an 18 percent annual increase and no future changes in federal law, insurance premiums could increase from around $1,000 in 2014 to nearly $14,500 by 2030. For properties newly mapped into high-risk zones, lower premiums will apply with the same rate of increase.

[Flood insurance rates for commercial properties are not covered by the 2014 Affordability Act and still fall under earlier policies. This spells trouble for small businesses.]

Homeowners could face even higher rates -paying nearly $10,000 a year- if their home elevation is significantly lower than federal requirements. Either that or bear the brunt of elevating their houses for a massive one-time investment.

According to estimates, elevating a single-family home can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000. (Some homes are simply not suitable for elevation. In these cases, homeowners can build an extra floor and convert the bottom story into a non-living space.)

Insurance rates for homes in the city’s high-risk zones are calculated on the basis of Base Flood Elevation (BFE), the level to which water is expected to rise in the case of a “100-year flood” which has a one percent chance of being equal or exceeded each year. It is the national standard for the NFIP.

For a home that is 4 feet below BFE, for example, the estimated annual premium is $9,500. Homes in high-risk areas built after 1983, the year when federal flood maps were first adopted, are required to obtain elevation certificates for their insurance policies. An elevation certificate helps determine insurance rates by determining the BFE of a home. Homes built before 1983 do not require elevation certificates.

FEMA Maps Don’t Take Climate Change Into Account

The key aspect of planning for future disasters is understanding -and incorporating- the long-term impacts of climate change. A recent report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects that sea levels could rise as much as two feet by 2050. Many parts of the city, with its 520-mile coastline, could be partially if not completely submerged, which is of particular concern in the peninsular Rockaways.

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Housing at water’s edge in the Rockaways. Photo: Samar Khurshid

FEMA’s new flood maps don’t account for this, but the City’s building codes were revised after Superstorm Sandy to set a higher home elevation (at least 2 feet higher than BFE in most cases) for flood damage repair and new construction.

This apparent policy gap doesn’t go unrecognized. “Federal agencies could use [the climate panel’s projections] in any future projects,” said Andrew Martin, mitigation spokesperson for FEMA Region II. “At some point, in the future, there’s a chance that they could be [incorporated into FEMA flood maps] but I couldn’t say when with certainty.”

But he conceded that, “FEMA recognizes that sea level rise and climate change exists and we’re just trying to figure out how to address that.” According to Martin, FEMA is conducting pilot studies in San Francisco, Puerto Rico and Florida to examine “future conditioning” for climate change, but these are not expected to be completed until late 2016.

Maintaining Affordability While Planning for Climate Change

Donovan Richards, in his role as chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, agrees that the problem is far bigger than insurance rates. Climate change needs to be addressed at a larger level to tackle long-term issues such as sea level rise, he says.

Mayor de Blasio started the Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) in March last year for that very purpose: creating sustainable, resilient infrastructure while maintaining and protecting communities. And coastal affordability is a key priority of the Mayor’s affordable housing plan, Housing New York.

But neither the City nor federal agencies can completely protect people from insurance rate hikes. They can simply mitigate the effects. “We work closely with the ORR on outreach, meeting with elected representatives like Council members, those from Congress, Committee leaders to explain the changes in the new flood maps,” said FEMA’s Martin.

The de Blasio administration is also advocating for reduced insurance premiums for residents unable to elevate their homes or even buyouts for those without any options. Unfortunately, buyouts, made with federal disaster relief funds, require State approval.

A possible solution would be partial credit for partial mitigation, whereby homeowners could receive more accurately priced insurance rates by partially reducing the scope of possible flood damage. For instance, flood-proofing basements, elevating or reinforcing mechanical equipment, storing valuables in the attic, and securing propane tanks and other possible debris.

Living With Uncertainty

Uncertainty about future premiums, policies and procedures is a large part of the struggle for homeowners.

Richie Binder, 55, a retired ferry pilot, lives in Belle Harbor, Rockaway with his wife and two children. His wife runs a small business in the area. But they don’t have flood insurance on either property. “It’s a joke to have it,” says Binder. “The way they pay you is such a slow process.”

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Richie Binder of Belle Harbor, Rockaway. Photo: Samar Khurshid

Binder’s home is on a higher part of the peninsula so eight months before Sandy hit, FEMA officials told him he wasn’t in the flood zone, he said. But his basement flooded and he was eventually granted federal funds. “They nickel-and-dime everything,” he said, frustrated with the red tape involved and the prospect of having to pay an insurance premium that he won’t be able to afford. “It doesn’t work out for the poor slob that owns a house,” he said.

The situation in the Rockaways is analogous across the city’s coastal communities.

In Coney Island, Brooklyn, 48-year-old Lucia Acevedo dreads the day she receives her insurance papers. “I’m afraid just opening the envelope,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief that her premium only rose $20 this year. But her anxiety about next year is not abated. “If they do raise rates, I’ll have to sell my house and I’ll lose value on it,” she said.

Acevedo lives with her two daughters and grandson in the fifth house on an attached 13-house strip, leaving her with limited options. She can’t afford to raise the house, which in itself is a complicated proposition considering the attached homes. Having heard nothing from the City about how much she might have to pay in the future, she added, “I don’t have the answer, and no one’s given me the answers.”

Who has the answers?

The focus now for the City, even as they work on possible mitigation solutions, needs to be outreach and education. Earlier this month, Council Member Richards and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods (CNYCN) hosted Rockaway and Rosedale residents to inform them about the changes in insurance rates.

“We’re focused on making sure people know and do enough to help them deal with this enormous challenge,” said Matthew Hassett, director of policy and communications for CNYCN. “The biggest thing is they should know whether they’re in a flood zone or not,” he said.

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The Rockaway coastline. Photo: Samar Khurshid

CNYCN released a report last September focused on the issue of housing affordability in flood zones and the long-term effects of climate change. They also launched FloodHelpNY, an online portal to educate the public on the insurance rates hike.

To its credit, the Mayor’s office has also taken steps in this direction. In May 2014, the City announced two affordability studies for both 1-4 family homes and multifamily homes. They pushed for federal flood insurance reform, which was ultimately successful. “We will also soon be launching a consumer education campaign on flood risks, maps, and insurance,” said Amy Spitalnick from the Office of Management and Budget in an emailed statement.

“I think the City is looking at the effects not only in the next five years but the next 50 years,” said CNYCN’s Hassett. “The City is doing its best in a tough situation.”

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Samar Khurshid is a freelance journalist living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and mainly covers politics for the Gotham Gazette. Khurshid grew up in New Delhi, India. He worked for the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, for two years before moving to New York. This is Khurshid’s first story for New York Environment Report.

Enviros to Cuomo: Don’t Raid State’s Climate Fund

This story was updated on March 2nd with additional information about how the Governor is seeking to allocate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds this year.

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New York City, and the rest of the state, is bracing itself for the mounting impacts of climate change. But environmental and clean energy groups are calling foul as Governor Cuomo seeks to divert millions from a “climate abatement” fund, and move those resources into the state’s general pot.

As we reported last week, projections for sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation in New York City through the year 2100 are now available for the first time.

Area sea level could rise 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, sea level could increase by as much as six feet, according to a report released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

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The Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy.

Governor Cuomo has directly linked destructive storms like Sandy to the state’s changing climate. And he has made the expansion of renewable sources of energy, like solar, a priority for his administration.

But, at the same time, the Governor wants to divert $36 million this year from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a “wildly successful” carbon trading program in which New York and eight other states participate. RGGI is designed to cap and reduce power sector CO2 emissions.

The sum that the Governor wants to divert is not insignificant. Last year, New York State received almost $145 million from RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. That money is supposed to go toward energy efficiency and renewable energy projects across the state. Governor Cuomo is seeking to re-route about one-fourth of that amount this year.

What the Governor is proposing could be seen in two different ways: 1.) re-routing RGGI funds to support other important environmental priorities; or 2.) re-routing RGGI funds to fill budget gaps that the State arguably already has the means to address.

Paying for Carbon Pollution

RGGI includes New York State, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. It is the “first mandatory, market-based CO2 emissions reduction program in the United States.”

New Jersey was a participant in RGGI but Governor Chris Christie pulled the state out of the program in 2011.

Power plants in RGGI states must pay to emit carbon pollution. They participate in “auctions” in which they purchase “carbon allowances.” The price for these allowances is guided by a cap on how much carbon all RGGI states can collectively emit.

The idea is to keep lowering the cap in order to raise the allowance price- thus incentivizing power plants to switch to less polluting sources of energy.

RGGI has implemented a new carbon emissions cap of 91 million short tons for participating states. That cap is supposed to decline 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020.

Does RGGI Work?

Supporters say RGGI is a national model for reducing carbon emissions and accelerating the use of renewable sources of energy.

Climate pollutant emissions from power plants across the region have dropped by more than 40-percent since RGGI was initiated in 2005, a coalition of 26 environmental and clean energy groups wrote in a February 10th letter to Governor Cuomo.

The program has raised almost $2 billion from auction proceeds across the nine participating states since 2008. RGGI has “defied critics by proving that reducing climate-altering pollution in a way that raises funds for clean energy is a true win-win,” says Albany watchdog group Environmental Advocates.

New York, as the largest state in the coalition, and the one with the most pollution emitted, received a little more than one-third of all RGGI proceeds in 2014. The funds are managed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Since its inception, RGGI has raised more than $728 million for clean power, energy efficiency, technology innovation and green workforce development projects across New York State, says Environmental Advocates. Projects have been initiated in every county in the state.

Buildings = Carbon Pollution

A major portion of RGGI funds have been directed toward making the state’s residential building stock more energy efficient. New York’s buildings -residential, commercial and industrial- are the state’s second leading emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed only by the transportation sector.

In New York City, buildings are the number one source of carbon pollution.

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The buildings of Manhattan.

RGGI has paid for over 30,000 free or reduced-cost energy audits for New York State homeowners. It also helps to fund low-cost energy efficiency retrofits for single and multi-family buildings.

What’s the Danger in Redirecting RGGI Funds?

As part of this year’s budget negotiations, the Governor wants to redirect $23 million in RGGI proceeds towards the state’s General Fund, Travis Proulx, Environmental Advocates’ communications director told us.

Those proceeds would help to offset “various energy related tax credits.” The Governor’s plan sets a bad precedent, say environmental groups. Funds that are supposed to be dedicated for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects should not be free for the taking, they argue.

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Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“This diversion could threaten the integrity of RGGI in New York and cause a ripple effect throughout the region if other states also choose to shift carbon allowance revenues away from their intended use,” said the environmental and clean energy groups in their letter to the Governor.

Environmental Funds Up for Grabs

The Governor’s re-direction of RGGI dollars could also undermine another important source of funding for environmental projects.

Cuomo wants to use an additional $10 million in RGGI proceeds, Proulx said, to make an increase to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. The problem with that idea is that the EPF already has a dedicated funding source but, that too, has been systematically raided for the General Fund.

The EPF is supposed to be replenished by proceeds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax, along with other state revenue streams, like the Bottle Bill.

[Another $2 to $3 million in RGGI proceeds will go to the EPF, said Proulx. Not as an increase but to “continue to account for the underuse of the Real Estate Transfer Tax in meeting expected funding of the program.”]

Since the establishment of the Environmental Protection Fund in 1993, $2.1 billion has been disbursed toward environmental projects across New York State. But another $928 million has been “swept” from the EPF to the state’s General Fund for budget relief.

Environmental groups across the state have been pushing the Governor to bring the Fund back to pre-recession levels. Raiding one dedicated environmental fund to partially replenish another raided fund, is not a responsible approach, they say.

“The EPF is a proven job generator which has created parkland, protected farmland, and supported local recycling programs – it deserves an increase that doesn’t pit environmental programs against each other,” the groups, such as the NY Public Interest Research Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in their letter to the Governor.

“We urge the Senate and Assembly to support an increase to the EPF that doesn’t come at the expense of RGGI,” they concluded.

What’s Next?

We’ve reached out to Assemblymember Steve Englebright, the new chair of the State Assembly’s Environmental Conservation committee, to see what he thinks of the Governor’s budget proposal. Englebright, a Democrat from Long Island, is a supporter of a major wind energy project off the Long Island coast.

We’ll keep you posted about Englebright’s response, and how the state budget negotiations are shaping up.

But the bigger question is how best to prepare New York State for climate change head-on. State and local governments, like the de Blasio administration, are focused on both reducing carbon emissions, and determining how to most effectively protect residents and critical infrastructure.

“RGGI has proven that the state can take aggressive action on climate while stimulating economic growth. As proud as we are of this program, it is only a piece of the pie and not a substitute for a clear and comprehensive climate action plan,” said Conor Bambrick, Environmental Advocates’ Air and Energy director, last December.

“Governor Cuomo should deliver the framework of a real climate action plan – which includes but is not limited to expanding RGGI,” Bambrick concluded.

 

 

New Climate Report Underscores Need for Immediate Action in New York City

Key Points:

  • A new report released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change details projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation through the year 2100.
  • Sea level rise is happening, and is expected to accelerate over the next century.
  • New York City weather will become hotter and more extreme, with more heat waves and intense precipitation events.
  • These changes will have profound and dangerous impacts on New York City’s people, infrastructure, economy, and natural environment.

 


The data keeps piling up: climate change presents a clear and growing threat to New York City, and now is the time for action.

A new report released today, Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency, details for the first time projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation for New York City through the year 2100.

Overall, the news is grim: according to the report’s authors, annual temperatures are hot and getting hotter, extreme precipitation events are increasing in frequency, and the sea is rising faster than expected.

The report was produced by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent body of academic and private sector experts that advises the city on climate risks and resiliency. The NPCC was convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in August 2008 as part of PlaNYC. This is their third report since that time and presents work from January 2013 to January 2015.

Sea Levels Are Rising, and Fast

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Transportation infrastructure in New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: MTA via Creative Commons.

Some of the most startling findings from today’s report revolve around sea level rise projections. Since 1900, New York City has seen sea levels rise around 12 inches—that’s nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

But it’s not going to stop there: this trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the report, sea level could rise 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, it could reach as high as six feet.

Low-lying and coastal areas of New York City will certainly feel the brunt of this inundation—and many have already begun to experience the impacts. The report suggests that just the current 12 inches of sea level rise may have expanded Hurricane Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles.

Of all the boroughs, Queens has the most land area at risk of future coastal flooding due to sea level rise, followed by Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan.

More Storms, More Problems

While continued sea level rise is all but certain, the specific frequency of future storms like hurricanes and nor’easters has proven harder to predict. However, the report’s authors note that it is “more likely than not” that there will be more intense storms, and they will bring extreme winds and intense precipitation.

Coupled with already high sea levels, these storms could cause serious flooding in parts of the City that are already struggling to cope with climate impacts. The report states that “under the high sea level rise estimate for the 2080s, the current 100-year flood (a flood with a 1 percent annual chance of occurrence) is projected to become an approximately once-in-eight year event.”

These changes are reflected most strikingly in the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Residents across New York are already seeing the impacts of these maps being updated; if sea level rise continues unabated, by 2100, the area covered by 100-year flood zone will potentially double.

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To the Extreme

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New York City could see six dangerous heat waves per year by 2100. Photo credit: Chris Goldberg via Creative Commons.

It’s going to get hotter in New York City—but it’s also going to get wetter and more extreme.

Since 1900, temperatures measured in Central Park have risen 3.4°F, mirroring an increase that’s been seen throughout the entire Northeast, in both rural and urban areas.

By the 2050s, the NPCC suggests that annual temperatures could increase by 4.1 to 5.7°F. By 2080, it could be closer to 8.8°F.

That may not seem like much, especially as we shiver through a snowy February. But keep in mind that these increases will occur in all months of the year. To put things in perspective, the NPCC offers this: “By the 2080s, New York City’s mean temperatures … may bear similarities to those of a city like Norfolk, Virginia, today.”

We can expect to see more days above 90°F, more days above 100°F, and more heat waves (three or more consecutive days above 90°F), too. The NPCC report suggests that by 2080, the number of heat waves could triple—up to six per year.

But the extremes won’t be limited to temperature. Since 1900, annual precipitation has increased a total of 8 inches (about 0.8 inches a decade); the report suggests this increase is likely to continue, but will probably come in the form of short, intense bursts—perfect for flash floods and combined sewage overflows.

The Time for Action is Now

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NYC °CoolRoofs promotes the cooling of New York City’s rooftops. Applying a reflective surface to a roof helps reduce cooling costs, cut energy usage and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: NYC °CoolRoofs

While it is difficult to project individual weather events with any kind of certainty, the NPCC’s report is clear that climate change is a serious and imminent threat to New York City’s people, economy, infrastructure, and natural environment.

And while the City is taking dramatic steps to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it must also act now to protect against sea level rise, coastal flooding, and warming temperatures that are now inevitable.

“NPCC’s findings underscore the urgency of not only mitigating our contributions to climate change, but adapting our city to its risks,” said Mayor de Blasio. “The task at hand is daunting— and that is why we’re making an unprecedented commitment, with a sweeping plan to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, and a comprehensive, multi-layered resiliency plan that is already making neighborhoods safer.”

The City is also making progress on a number of key projects, including:

  • The launch of scoping and preliminary design work on the Lower East Side to implement a $335 million integrated, neighborhood-sensitive flood protection system to mitigate risk and help connect the community with the waterfront.
  • The Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR), partnering with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), has launched the first-ever, comprehensive regional resiliency analysis of New York City’s food supply chain network.
  • To combat the urban heat island effect, as of the end of 2014, NYC Cool Roofs has coated over six million square feet of building roofs with reflective paint to address the climate change risks associated with urban heat. The City’s recent green buildings plan commits to coating at least one million square feet a year more to continue mitigating the urban heat island effect and provide energy savings in affordable housing, public buildings, and non-profit organizations.
  • ORR and NYCEDC have also launched an approximately $100 million shoreline investment program to protect the most vulnerable waterfront communities, including Coney Island Creek and Staten Island’s South Shore, and other low-lying parts of the city that will be evaluated as part of the first phase of work.

Future efforts include upgrading flood protection systems and coastal protection in at-risk areas, preparing NYCHA for heavy flooding, investments in the Staten Island Bluebelt and other storm water infrastructure, and the construction of levees in Midland Beach and on Staten Island’s East Shore.

Many other sustainability plans are outlined in PlaNYC; the mayor’s office will release a progress report for those initiatives in April 2015.

How Michael Grimm Participated in Congress’ “War on the Environment.”

As the 113th Congress draws to a close, the performance of the Republican-led House of Representatives is described by the League of Conservation Voters as an “unprecedented assault on the environment and public health that began during the 112th Congress. Although Congress started 2013 with votes to provide disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s painfully clear that far too many members failed to heed the lessons of that tragic storm.”

The League of Conservation Voters is a non-profit organization. It endorses political candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who champion “priority” environmental issues, such as clean water, clean air and combatting climate change.

Of its 27 representatives, New York will be sending nine Republicans to the upcoming 114th Congress. Three are newly elected, Lee Zeldin (Long Island), Elise Stefanik (Adirondack Mountains and the Thousand Islands region), and John Katco (Syracuse area, Cayuga, Onondaga, Wayne, and Oswego counties).

Michael Grimm is the only Republican representative in Congress from New York City.

Democratic staff for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have compiled a searchable database of House votes on environmental legislation. They report that, as of September, 2014, the House “has voted 223 times to block action to address climate change, to halt efforts to reduce air and water pollution, to undermine protections for public lands and coastal areas, and to weaken the protection of the environment in other ways.”

Michael Grimm’s Environmental Voting Record in the 113th Congress

Michael Grimm represents Staten Island, which suffered the greatest physical devastation and loss of life during Hurricane Sandy. Sections of the island are increasingly vulnerable to rising seas and dangerous storm surges linked to climate change.

Grimm’s voting record is worth examining, both because he represents communities on the front line of climate change, and because he reflects the dominant ideology in Congress.

The League of Conservation Voters ranks members of Congress on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 being highest) relative to their voting record on environmental issues. Grimm scored 14 on the League’s scorecard.

According to the League’s analysis, Grimm’s voting record in the 113th Congress shows a lack of interest in climate change, a focus on undermining environmental review processes, and particularly strong support for the oil and gas industries. For instance, Grimm voted to stop the federal government from examining the economic costs of climate change when it makes public policy decisions.

Grimm also voted against an amendment reversing an 81 percent cut to the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program. The amendment would have restored $329 million in federal investment in “cutting-edge renewable energy technologies.”

Grimm voted to restrict the federal government’s ability to establish baseline protective standards for hydraulic fracturing. The same legislation delays the EPA’s Congressionally-mandated study of the impact of fracking on drinking water sources. Grimm also voted against allowing the Department of Interior to control methane emissions from drilling activities on public lands. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, and it contributes to smog.

Grimm voted in favor of legislation removing the requirement for a Presidential Permit to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, “eliminating the Obama administration’s ability to complete adequate safety and environmental impact studies on the project.”

Grimm also voted in favor of expanding off-shore drilling off the coasts of South Carolina, Virginia, California and in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. According to the League of Conservation Voters, the same legislation weakens the environmental review process for off-shore drilling.

No aspect of the nation’s environment was off limits to Grimm and his Republican colleagues. Grimm voted against more safeguards for nuclear power, and against enhanced protections for oceans and the Great Lakes. He supported the expansion of logging in publicly-owned forests.

An Interest in Undermining Environmental Laws & Public Oversight

Grimm and his colleagues supported legislative efforts to undermine EPA enforcement of environmental protections like the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts. Grimm voted against a bill amendment seeking to re-establish U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authority over clean water standards for streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources. He also voted against a related amendment reestablishing ACE authority over mountaintop removal activities that impact local water supplies.

But perhaps most striking is Grimm’s support for legislation that challenges public oversight. He voted against an amendment to protect the environmental review process established under the National Environmental Policy Act. This process preserves the public’s ability to participate in decisions that have “profound impacts on their safety, the environment and the economy,” concluded the League of Conservation Voters.

How Did New York’s Representatives Perform?

In the first session of the 113th Congress, representatives Nydia Velazquez, Yvette Clarke, Jerrold Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, Charles Rangel, Joseph Crowley, and Nita Lowey, all from New York City except Lowey, were the highest scorers from New York State.

Chris Collins, Thomas Reed, Richard Hanna, Peter King and Michael Grimm had the lowest scores within the New York delegation.

How Did Your Representative Perform?

New York’s Congressional representatives are listed below by district. Their environmental voting scores, according to the League of Conservation Voters, are bolded. Find your Congressional representative here.

  1. Timothy Bishop (D) 89
  2. Peter King (R) 14
  3. Steve Israel (D) 93
  4. Carolyn McCarthy * (D) N/A
  5. Gregory Meeks (D) 86
  6. Grace Meng (D) 89
  7. Nydia Velázquez (D) 96
  8. Hakeem Jeffries (D) 89
  9. Yvette Clarke (D) 96
  10. Jerrold Nadler (D) 96
  11. Michael Grimm (R) 14
  12. Carolyn Maloney (D) 96
  13. Charles Rangel (D) 96
  14. Joseph Crowley (D) 96
  15. Jose Serrano (D) 93
  16. Eliot Engel (D) 93
  17. Nita Lowey (D) 96
  18. Sean Maloney (D) 79
  19. Christopher Gibson (R) 43
  20. Paul Tonko (D) 93
  21. William Owens (D) 50
  22. Richard Hanna (R) 11
  23. Thomas Reed (R) 4
  24. Daniel Maffei (D) 86
  25. Louise Slaughter (D) 86
  26. Brian Higgins (D) 93
  27. Chris Collins (R) 4

 

 

 

 

Number of NYC Buildings At Risk From Flooding Has Tripled

Nearly 85,000 buildings in New York City are officially in a flood zone, according to a report released by the City Comptroller Scott Stringer last Wednesday, on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Almost half of those structures are in Brooklyn.

More than 400,000 people live in these zones, and Stringer’s report estimates that the property value at risk is upwards of $129 billion.

Moving the Frontline

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FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps.

The report, “ON THE FRONTLINES,” analyzed updated maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that depict which parts of New York City are at risk from a 100-year-flood—meaning areas that have a one percent chance of flooding each year.

FEMA’s flood maps for New York City have not been re-issued in any meaningful way since they were created in 1983. Small expansions or updates are occasionally released; Stringer’s report compares a 2010 update with overhauled versions proposed at the end of 2013. Those maps should take effect in 2016.

According to Stringer’s analysis, “FEMA’s revised maps depict a greatly expanded floodplain that places almost three and a half times as many structures in high-risk zones and anticipates greater severity of flooding for those buildings already in the flood zone.”

Properties included in the expanded flood zones jumped from 23,885 structures in 2010 to 84,596 in 2013—an increase of more than 60,000 buildings.

The number of buildings in flood zones more than doubled in all boroughs except the Bronx, but the largest spike came in Brooklyn: more than 42,000 structures are now identified as at-risk, compared to the previous 5,648.

The value of properties located within flood zones has also increased accordingly. The Comptroller’s Office estimates that $129,139,514,673 worth of structures are now at risk — an increase of more than 120 percent over previous maps.

In Manhattan and Staten Island, the value more than doubles. In Brooklyn, it triples.

Maps with Consequences

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Storm damage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Pamela Andrade via Creative Commons.

The new FEMA flood zones will have important implications for resiliency projects, human safety, and government policy, but nowhere will the impact be felt more than on individual home flood insurance rates.

The National Flood Insurance Program uses floodplain maps to determine insurance rates for homeowners.

The expansion of the flood zone means that mandatory insurance rates could spike for thousands of New Yorkers by as much as 18 percent.

Researchers identified 28,000 homes that within the zones that could see insurance rates soar from $400 to between $5,000 and $10,000 for the same amount of coverage.

These dramatic increases pose an enormous hardship to thousands of New Yorkers. According to a study conducted by the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, more than 30 percent of homeowners in the floodplain earn less than 60 percent of the New York City Area Median Income.

FEMA Maps Fall Short

Despite the expanded coverage of FEMA’s new maps, some critics say they actually don’t go far enough.

In April, Natural Resources Defense Council released a report stating that the new FEMA maps are already based on outdated data that does not take into account future effects of climate change, including sea level rise that has occurred in the last 10 years.

In the summer of 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which requires FEMA to update maps while taking into account the “best available science regarding future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.” But because the New York City region’s FEMA maps have been underway since 2010, they are exempt from the law.

In addition, NRDC found FEMA’s computer models were not calibrated against data from Hurricane Sandy. As a result “the new 100-year flood zone mapped by FEMA is significantly smaller than the area at risk of flooding assuming 3 feet of sea level rise or the surge from a Category 3 hurricane.” By comparison, Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm.

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Click for a larger version. Graphic via NRDC.

“As a result, [FEMA maps] continue to underestimate the people, buildings and critical infrastructure at risk from flooding during future storms” states NRDC.

Investment and Reforms Needed

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Flooding in downtown Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Patrick McFall via Creative Commons.

With more than $129 billion worth of property now officially at-risk from flooding, Stringer concludes that the City must move forward with “the necessary investments to protect our homes, our businesses and our neighborhoods from the future effects of climate change.”

These investments include surge barriers, artificial reefs, dunes, jetties, living shorelines, and floodwalls, which “have the potential to transform the City’s topography and protect our coastal areas.”

However, FEMA’s current mapping process does not take into account resiliency efforts, even though these enhancements “are proven to help stem the effects of localized flooding and substantially lower flood risk.” That means New Yorkers could continue to pay high flood insurance rates even though the risk of flooding has gone down.

“FEMA should be required to regularly review the efficacy of implemented resiliency measures on a regional basis, with an eye toward reducing premiums for homeowners in region’s that have chosen to invest in fortifying their shorelines,” states the report.

With Sandy’s historic impact still being felt two years later, it’s clear that effective preparation for the next storm—and effective protection of citizens—will require coordination and collaboration at all levels of government.