Additional reporting by Ben Fractenberg
This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news site covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
As the remnants of Hurricane Ida barreled through New York Sept. 1, drowning a dozen in New York City, Noreen Ellis’ Rockaway neighborhood experienced severe flooding.
Some local residents also experienced deja vu.
A decade ago, floods and fires devastated the area. In a span of 15 months, New York State suffered three devastating storms: Irene in August 2011, Lee in September 2011 and Sandy in October 2012. Together, these caused dozens of fatalities and over $6 billion in damage.
In response, then Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the New York Rising Community Reconstruction program (NYRCR) in July 2013. This federally funded $750 million initiative aimed to finance repair projects and install infrastructure to improve resiliency against future disasters.
The commitment elicited much applause at the time. “You’re not just leading New York, you’re leading the country,” then-Vice President Joe Biden praised Cuomo.
But as New York marks the ninth anniversary of Sandy’s destructive landfall on Friday, the program has virtually disappeared from public view.
Fewer than half of the 301 projects underway have been completed, according to the most recent report from the Governor’s Office for Storm Recovery.
Unnavigable bureaucracies, opaque decision-making and broken promises have defined the experience for nearly a dozen players in the planning process who spoke to New York Focus and THE CITY.
The result, they say, is a piecemeal approach that has fallen short in improving the defenses of vulnerable areas against storms, which are still susceptible to major damage from predicted inundation of coastal areas.
‘The Community is Still Suffering’
In Rockaway, Ellis chaired the planning committee charged with developing project proposals.
“Most of the committee members felt like they were duped because nothing really happened,” she said. “The community is still suffering. And who knows where all that money went which was promised?”
Among those still suffering this week is Amirah Khaafid, a mother of three who lives on Beach 84th Street near Jamaica Bay. Her family regularly sees the street flood after heavy rains like the nor’easter that barreled through on Monday night, and several inches of water still blanketed the street Wednesday afternoon.
She says the inundations take a constant toll on her family — including $8,000 in damage in December to her car.
“Fire trucks don’t come through here when it’s flooded. The police doesn’t come through here when it’s flooded. When it’s flooded, no one will come on this block,” she said.
To even get her children to school, she has to pluck them one by one and carry them to the car.
“It floods insanely all the time,” she said.
Elusive State Staff
The New York Rising Community Reconstruction program split the state into 124 areas, each with a planning committee tasked with proposing projects. Ellis was the chair of the planning committee for Rockaway West.
Among the highest priority projects the committee proposed in the plan it submitted in March 2014, was the creation of at least 50 bioswales — channeled depressions with vegetation that absorbs flowing water — to improve drainage and reduce flooding.
But Ellis received few follow-ups from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which manages the Community Reconstruction Program.
The last she heard about the bioswale program was in 2019, when she was informed by a governor’s office official that locations were still being explored. “The flooding during Ida might have been mitigated if projects had been implemented with more timeliness and efficiency,” Ellis said.
Throughout the seven years since the plan’s submission, Ellis has navigated what she described as an elusive bureaucracy with frequently changing managers.
New hires knew little about Rockaway’s needs or the committee’s proposals, making follow-up challenging, she said.
The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery told New York Focus that 21 bioswales are under construction in Rockaway, though none have been finished.
The office declined to provide a statement about progress on New York Rising projects.
Within two years of Cuomo’s first announcement, total funding had shrunk to $650 million. The state had disbursed $549 million to implement the program as of June 2021, according to publicly available data. But as recently as October 2020, just $165 million of the $750 million had been spent, suggesting that many projects are just beginning to get started.
Planning committee members aren’t the only ones to complain about the program’s opacity. Even members of the state Legislature have found it difficult to obtain information about projects in their districts.
“Part of those plans have gone into a black hole. There hasn’t been much follow through or follow-up,” State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat who represents several waterfront areas around southern Brooklyn.
“It has been very tough to get information from the Governor’s Office about projects, or about the funding plans and funding proposals,” Gounardes added.
Not a Single Valve
Judy Baron, a long-time resident of Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, says Sandy and its aftermath were the worst days of her life.
A neighbor was killed. She remembers people swimming out of car windows to escape drowning.
And that was just the night the storm made landfall. Then came weeks on end without power, heating or hot water during plummeting November temperatures.
“It was a horrible time and I don’t ever want to relive it,” Baron said.
Manhattan Beach’s waterfront location makes it particularly vulnerable to storms and flooding. Residential buildings, hospitals and schools in the area sustained significant damage during Sandy.
Paralyzed sewage treatment facilities sent untreated liquid waste flooding into homes.
“Every single house, every single home in my community had sewage in their basements,” Baron recalled.
So when Baron and her neighbors participated in the New York Rising public engagement process after Sandy, they prioritized preventing flooding and sewage backflow.
The committee for the area, of which Baron was a member, submitted its plan in March 2014, proposing the installation of backwater flow valves to block waste from entering homes.
Baron recalls that state officials had explicitly communicated a decision to install valves for all households in the area.
A few years later, Baron followed up with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, and learned, she said, that the state was moving to provide aid only to homeowners below a certain income threshold.
“I am fuming that this is what’s going on,” Baron said.
Not a single valve has been installed to date, according to Cristian Salazar, a spokesperson for the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, the nonprofit group implementing the backwater valve project. And only 25 homes have been approved for installation out of over 1,700 applications — an approval rate of just 1.4%.
Salazar confirmed that the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery introduced new eligibility criteria in January 2019, requiring participants earn less than 80% of the area median income. That’s currently $86,000 for a family of three.
According to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, the state added this restriction in order to align with federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding that pays for the program.
“There were so many rules for this program that it really made it very difficult for homeowners to get through it,” Salazar said.
“The population that could be accepted by it [the backwater valve program] was very small. And that’s just the reality of the program,” he added.
Baron expressed a feeling of betrayal.
“Don’t promise me something and then renege on it. Either you send the money properly, or don’t promise anything at all,” Baron said. “I’m still livid.”
‘We Were Never Told’
The decision-making process for which projects got approved in the first place was also highly opaque, community participants said.
The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery does not publicly explain why proposed projects have been rejected or even post information about which projects it has approved.
Marnee Elias-Pavia, now district manager of Community Board 11 in Brooklyn, chaired the planning committee for the Gravesend and Bensonhurst area, which submitted its plan in December 2014.
“After the plans were submitted, we have received no information from the state,” she said.
Elias-Pavia says some of the committee’s most important proposed projects for Gravesend and Bensonhurst — including a comprehensive waterfront plan — got overlooked.
“It was our number one priority project,” Elias-Pavia said. “There’s a disconnect between what the needs are and where the funding is going. There are some easy things that can be done. And how many years has it been? That’s frustrating.”
The result is a piecemeal approach to complex problems, Elias-Pavia says, that leaves the infrastructure of Gravesend and Bensonhurst little better prepared for future storms.
According to a state spokesperson, the waterfront protection plan did not make the cut because it was too expensive, at an estimated cost of $33 million.
Out of Reach
Funds remained out of reach for groups that had sweated through challenging planning and application processes, participants said.
In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, the planning committee proposed in 2014 to replant damaged trees and repair benches and other local infrastructure, at an estimated cost of $500,000. Committee member Theresa Scavo remembers the project being accepted.
However, a few years later, she received a call from the state informing her that the project had been dropped because of insufficient funds. The money would instead be used for another project in the same community, she learned.
“But we were never told what the money was going to be used for,” Scavo said.
“After a year on the committee, we should have been updated when the projects have been completed, and how the money is being spent,” she added.
Jeanne DuPont, founder and executive director of the Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity (RISE), thought her group was on track to apply for around $300,000 to repair its damaged facility and install a back-up generator and floodproofed entrance gates. She hired a consultant and spent a year and a half on the application.
But she gave up in 2019, seven years after Sandy, after seeing her state staff contacts come and go. Meanwhile, criteria for grants shifted — including a new requirement that her facility serve as an emergency evacuation center. She says that’s more than her small group can handle.
“We need infrastructure upgrades, we need schools, we need hospitals. But none of that has actually come to Rockaway,” DuPont said.
“If you ask me how Rockaway is better prepared to deal with disasters than it was before Sandy, there’s nothing I can really say.”