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‘Moving Too Slow’: City Lags on Federal Sandy Funds as Coastline Still Vulnerable, Lander Says

Nearing the 10th anniversary of deadly Superstorm Sandy, the city comptroller examines how much federal money various agencies have spent on rebuilding and resilience.

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A June shot of the west side of Williamsburg Bridge shows the razing of plants and trees in East River Park for the resiliency project.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Ten years after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the city, much of New York remains vulnerable to catastrophic flooding while $4 billion in federal recovery funds remain unspent, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander revealed Thursday.

“The conclusion quite straightforwardly is that we are just moving too slow,” Lander said Thursday at the release of his office’s report on post-disaster spending. “We need to be able to implement resiliency projects with the urgency that we felt in those days right after Superstorm Sandy.”

The federal government in 2013 approved about $15 billion in local relief funds following the storm that killed 43 people in New York City, though most of the funds weren’t accessible until 2015, AMNY previously reported. As of this June, the city has spent about $11 billion, or 73%, of that money to rebuild and make infrastructure upgrades. 

It’s progress, since a 2019 report by former Comptroller Scott Stringer that found the city had spent just over half of its federal funding. The end-of-October 2012 storm caused $19 billion worth of damage, according to a 2013 report by the Bloomberg administration.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency alone sent $10.5 billion to New York City to pay for work like debris removal and the replacement of damaged, publicly owned facilities. 

While the majority of those funds have been spent, the agencies administering the various federal funds have used their allocations to widely varying degrees, the comptroller’s report shows. 

“We’re all, including the city, probably disappointed we haven’t been able to get all the dollars out the door,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design. “It’s the nature of post-disaster spending. However, the federal government needs to make it easier for states and localities to get the dollars out the door.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, Kayla Mamelak, said “the comptroller’s recommendations are welcome and will be factored into our continued efforts towards long-term resiliency projects.”

Deadlines Matter

The biggest chunk of FEMA funding  — over $3.1 billion — went to the New York City Housing Authority, which has already spent more than 83% of it on resiliency upgrades to its buildings. The work includes replacing heat and hot water systems, installing flood protection and upgrading generators.  

Of the 53 city entities that received FEMA funds, 24 have spent over 90% of those funds.

Of the 12 agencies that received over $100 million in FEMA funds, the Economic Development Corporation has spent the least, under 11% of those funds.

A spokesperson for EDC argued the agency has executed projects on behalf of other agencies including Health + Hospitals, Parks & Recreation and NYPD to the tune of about $1 billion, but that is not reflected in the comptroller’s report.

The city also received about $4.2 billion in federal disaster recovery grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was to be used to rebuild and shore up Sandy-affected neighborhoods. This past March, Congress extended the deadline for the spending of those funds from 2022 to 2025, and the city has about $321 million — or less than 8% — left to spend before then, or else it loses the money.

Mayor Eric Adams unveils a new retractable flood wall — one small part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project — at Asser Levy Recreation Center in July.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office indicated the city is on track to spend down those funds by the deadline.

The FEMA funds have no such expiration date.

Lander on Thursday pointed out how a larger share of the HUD funds has been used in comparison to the FEMA funds.

“In that case, the deadline worked to have the city work hard to spend those funds on time and there is no deadline for the FEMA funds,” Lander said.

Louise Yeung, the chief climate officer in the comptroller’s office, said conversations with various agencies revealed that the process of documenting and justifying damages to FEMA was lengthy, some projects were technically complex, and project changes required FEMA approval, all leading to delays.

“It sounds like from what we heard [from agencies], a lot of these projects are now underway. It’s just taking a really long time,” Yeung said at Lander’s press conference Thursday. She added that the development of a detailed, citywide capital project tracker could offer some transparency and ensure accountability.

The Long Game

Major projects to address climate change do take a long time to plan and get off the ground. Some coastal resiliency projects currently in the works aren’t expected to be done for several years and have only a fraction of their total budgets spent so far. 

For instance, City Hall has laid out only 13.3% of the total $1.9 billion budget for the Lower East Side’s East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, according to the comptroller’s report, which differs from what’s shown on the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations’ Sandy Funding Tracker. The latter tracker only accounts for spending of federal funds, not the total budget, which includes local commitments for the projects.

And city agencies have not yet spent even 1% of the $103 million budgeted for raising shorelines in neighborhoods like Old Howard Beach, Gowanus, Canarsie and Coney Island Creek, by the comptroller’s math. The Sandy Funding Tracker shows a spend of over 41% of federal funds on the same project.

The city has spent just 6.3% of the Hunts Point Resiliency project to install battery storage and solar panels on two public schools. An EDC spokesperson indicated construction on the project will begin in early 2023.

“New York City’s coastal resiliency projects lead the nation in complexity and size, but these projects take time to complete, and there is more work to be done,” said Mamelak, the mayoral spokesperson.

Rebecca Fischman, senior policy advisor in the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, admitted at an unrelated Wednesday event hosted by Urban Green Council that New York is lagging behind on some efforts.

“We do need to accelerate our implementation of a holistic resiliency program, those places that haven’t been protected yet. I think we need to both accelerate our capital project process and our funding process and our regulatory process in order to do so,” Fischman said.

Still, she contended the city is more prepared than it was a decade ago because of investments made to rebuild, acquire and elevate properties as well as harden infrastructure.

Even with the work done so far, the comptroller warned, there is about $176 billion worth of real estate — not including crucial infrastructure — in areas at risk of a so-called 100-year flood.

That’s a 44% increase in value since Sandy, according to Lander, and the value is expected to increase another 38% in value by the 2050s to about $242 billion.

“If they disappear, we are going to lose whatever the tax base is,” said Chester, “and we’re going to lose all of that housing, all of the small businesses that bring revenue into the city.”

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