When it comes to the devastation of Red Hook residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy, it’s hard to know where to start.
There’s the cumbersome roadblocks, preventing assistance to distressed homeowners. Or the unfathomable economic hardship, with trade-offs like financing much-needed repairs versus keeping the store open (and the staff employed). In housing projects, “temporary” emergency boilers and generators were installed but never replaced, and are now caked over with soot and mold, causing widespread respiratory illnesses. State and Federal funds have been squandered on pet projects and middle-manager consultants, with the storm’s actual victims never seeing a penny.
This was the testimony offered from residents at a Sandy Oversight Hearing at P.S. 15 in Red Hook on Tuesday evening.
But officials and administrative agencies, for once, seem to have gotten the message.
“This not a traditional town hall meeting, where we’re going to tell you how good we’re doing,” said Scott Stringer, New York City’s Comptroller since January. “We need to know your experiences because this cannot be allowed to continue. When you step off the speaking line, if you’re still not receiving aid, give us your information. You’re going to receive a phone call from my staff–tomorrow.”
Twenty months out from the storm and with little progress to show for it, the shift in approach was greeted as a welcome reprieve from a meandering status quo. Some residents–cautiously–expressed hope for a path forward.
“It’s important and terrific that the Comptroller is doing this,” said Monica Byrne, a local distressed restaurant owner who co-founded Restore Red Hook, a non-profit grassroots relief agency. “Officials need to actually hear from us what the end results are of all these programs–what we’re actually experiencing.”
Anger and helplessness seemed to be directed, in equal measure, toward the New York City Housing Authority and the “Build it Back” program for their astounding instances of incompetence and malfeasance.
“I’m educated, I’m savvy, and I still cannot fill out these forms,” said Mary Dudine Kyle, owner of Dry Dock Wine & Spirits. “And even if I can, too often it’s then like standing before the grand and noble gods. The level of ostracism is crippling. The level of alienation is crippling. And the people who tried to help out of the goodness of their hearts showed up with–excuse my french–shit we didn’t need. What do I do with cups of pudding? I need money to clean my house out.”
But help may finally be on the way. In April, the Mayor announced an overhaul of the city’s recovery programs, including a revamped pre-construction process, direct financial relief to homeowners, local job creation, and a new web portal to track paperwork and applicant status.
The result has been an increase in the number of people moving through the Build it Back pipeline, leading to the first construction start and reimbursement checks this spring. There are now 59 construction starts, as well as 254 reimbursement checks totaling nearly $4 million, compared to zero only a few months ago. The mayor has specifically committed to 500 construction starts and 500 checks by Labor Day.
NYCHA, for its part, has much to do. The Comptroller is in the midst of an audit of the agency, the results of which should be available in the coming months. However, according to budget testimony last week, basic repairs in Housing Authority buildings have been completed or are underway, including repair work on damaged playgrounds, apartment restorations, and community center spaces. Emergency work, such as the replacement of emergency mobile boilers, is also in progress. Significant work with insurance carriers has resulted in $230 million in insurance payouts to date. NYCHA is also working with FEMA on the development of Sandy Recovery and Emergency Preparedness required project worksheets to support significant levels of federal funding. Design work around emergency power backup is nearly complete, and the agency continues to work with HUD and the State on potential additional funding via the Community Development Block Grant or the Hazard Mitigation Grants Program. Design has been able to commence for permanent repairs, resiliency, and mitigation at 27 developments.
Separate from the Comptroller’s oversight hearing, NYCHA is conducting resident engagement meetings at all Sandy-damaged developments. Meetings were recently held in the Lower East Side and Coney Island and another 33 are scheduled through September. These meetings are the first stage of a resident input process that the agency plans to engage residents from design to completion.
For Red Hook residents of the Comptroller’s meeting, they came away pleased.
“There’s a lot of anger and emotion,” said Victoria Hagman, who attended with her family. “But if the people in charge can feel an ounce of what we felt–of what we went through–we can get somewhere.”
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