While everyone remembers Hurricane Sandy differently, a common thread weaves together many experiences: flooding, darkness and loss.
But four years after the storm, what happened to those who lacked the funds to rebuild?
When the hurricane hit in 2012, upwards of 400,000 residents* lived in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings. In many flooded neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side and the Rockaways, these were the people who were without power for weeks. For some, almost a month. A number of these public housing buildings were old with mechanical and eletrical equipment in the basement, unequipped to handle a catastrophic weather event like Sandy.
Four years later, only four of the 33 NYCHA developments FEMA deemed significantly damaged have begun reconstruction. FEMA defines ”substantial damage” from flooding as any requiring repairs that will cost equal to or more than 50 percent of the market value of the structure to restore it. The remaining 29 developments are in the design or procurement phase, which began when FEMA granted $3 billion to NYCHA in December 2015. It was the largest single FEMA grant in the history of the agency.
Construction has been drawn out because, says NYCHA, the process of obtaining money is a very arduous one. Several parties, including NYCHA, New York’s Congressional Delegation and the deBlasio administration, had to negotiate the terms of the funding. This was not accomplished until March 2015. Before then, the Housing Authority looked to other federal funds and insurance to focus on immediate relief efforts. “We have pursued every funding stream available to us,” wrote Zodet Negrón, an NYCHA spokesperson, in an email to Colorlines.
“These are complex, intricate projects that can take anywhere from two to three years to completely construct because the work is not just repairs, but also the construction of resilient infrastructure and mitigation elements,” Negrón added in a separate email. Plans propose for buildings to be equipped with stand-by back-up generators, watertight infrastructure below the flood level and mechanical equipment and boilers above the flood level.
However, climate resiliency is not just about infrastructure. It’s also about a community’s ability to rely on its members to work together in order to survive. Disasters can either make this “community fabric,” as one researcher calls it, or break it.
“One of the most overlooked impacts of something like Hurricane Sandy is the damage it does to community fabric itself,” says Danielle Baussan, the managing director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress, who researches climate displacement. “[That community fabric doesn’t] happen overnight. It happens because a community has developed this, what I call, social cohesion that enables them to survive an extreme weather event. It also helps rebuild lives afterward and, in a perfect world, [allows them to] thrive in an event like that.”
In New York, all communities survived, though not all thrived. Colorliens reached out to people in three specific public housing buildings to ask: What do they continue to face four years after Hurricane Sandy?
Red Hook East and West, Red Hook, Brooklyn
Total combined population: 6,289
46 percent Black | 46 percent Latinx | 5 percent Asian
Allotted FEMA grant funds: ~$219,106,822 each
Estimated construction start date: 2017
Karen Blondel has lived in Red Hook West for 35 years. She says she was without power for almost a month after Sandy. And because she lives on the ground floor, her apartment got extremely wet. Centipedes and water bugs infested her home. So did mold, which she got rid of through independent contractors hired by the NYCHA. However, the problem persists for others in Red Hook East and West.
Though both buildings had mold problems before the storm, it appears to have worsened since Sandy, says Jill Eisenhard, executive director of the Red Hook Initiative, an organization that led the neighborhood’s post-hurricane recovery efforts. She is worried that the FEMA money set aside for these buildings won’t address the mold because funds can go toward Sandy-related problems only, and the mold existed before. Eisenhard says many people want to see the money go to what is needed, not what is allowed: “You might end up with more of a patchwork improvement to a building as opposed to being able to take the same amount of money and go to the core of what is needed most.”
Residents like Blondel required basic support the weeks following the disaster: access to food, communication services and medical care—especially for mental health. Community members on the ground took charge of these responsibilities by facilitating food distribution and coordinating relief efforts with other entities like NYCHA, which set up trailers for paperwork. New York University also came in with a clinic.
While infrastructure (like boilers that remain outside buildings) in Red Hook still needs attention, Blondel is proud that her neighbors demonstrated strong social cohesion: Once the water receded in 2012, the building’s occupants began grilling and sharing food that would spoil without refrigeration. Neighborhood leaders continue to grow as the Red Hook Initiative has trained 175 Black and Latinx adults 25 years and older to step up should the area face another weather disaster.
Redfern, Far Rockaway, Queens
Total population: 1,487
66 percent Black | 30 percent Latinx | 2 percent Asian
Allotted FEMA grant funds: $142,242,124.87
Estimated construction start date: 2017
Headline after headline post-Sandy made mention of the Rockaways, an area sitting on a thin peninsula in southern Queens, New York, between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. It was one of the most devastated parts of the city. The peninsula alone lost 1.5 million cubic yards of sand.
Meanwhile, residents of buildings like Redfern are still dealing with the aftermath of the storm. For many, the problem is PTSD, says Milan Taylor, CEO of the Rockaway Youth Task Force. For the youth, with whom Taylor primarily works, it’s a delayed trajectory: one more year of college thanks to missed deadlines or inevitable drop-outs after an inability to get to classes in Manhattan because the area’s only subway line shut down for nearly a month immediately after Sandy.
Similar to Red Hook, external boilers still exist in housing projects in parts of the Rockaways—indicating a clear need for further infrastructure support. The city and state have primarily used FEMA money to focus on the neighborhood’s beachfront—with its boardwalk and parks. The city already completed the boardwalk’s third phase of construction, which in total could cost up to $480 million, but NYCHA is just beginning the substantial recovery work on the public housing buildings now that it has the funding. One public housing development has begun construction, while NYCHA still awaits contracters to begin the full-scale recovery effort of Redfern.
Before the disaster, Taylor says, New York’s predominantly White “hipsters” could not ID the Rockaways on a map. Now, he’s rapidly seeing an increase of this demographic. The Rockaways have even been dubbed one of the city’s “next hot neighborhoods.” Taylor hopes that by building more local leaders, something he says was clearly lacking during the surge, Redfern and other Rockaway housing developments can avoid the displacement that all too often accompanies gentrification.
“We’re developing leaders who live in the community, who work in the community, who go to school in the community,” he explains. “That’s how you truly develop resilient communities from all fronts.” So far, his task force has trained 120 young people through its leadership course, which was created because of the storm.
Baruch, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Total population: 5,107
20 percent Black | 58 percent Latinx | 17 percent Asian
Allotted FEMA grant funds: $129,469,632
Estimated construction start date: 2017
Damaris Reyes’ lives on the fifth floor of the Baruch Houses, so she was not worried about flooding in her apartment—but she was very worried about her neighbors. This concern was natural given her position as executive director at Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a local housing rights organization.
With phone lines down after Sandy, Reyes says connecting with loved ones became more difficult. Con Edison did not bill some residents for a year and a half because the building’s electrical meters were damaged—yet after 18 months, some were hit with charges for the full amount. People on fixed incomes were unable to pay a thousand dollar electrical bill. Reyes and her organization helped get them to get financial assistance.
Four years later, she still sees repairs that need attention in the building, like mold and boilers that remain outside (similar to the Rockaways and Red Hook). So far, NYCHA has renovated first-floor apartments, remediated crawlspaces and destroyed the boilers in the Baruch Houses. Baruch is currently in the design phase for its major recovery.
The Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project aims to “reduc[e] flood risk due to coastal storms and sea level rise in Lower Manhattan,” the city website reads. This means featuring nature-based strategies like restoring coastal ecosystems and building floodwalls. While Reyes welcomes these ideas, she’s apprehensive about the project’s goal to increase access to the waterfront where her housing project sits. This can make buildings like Baruch more attractive to renters and private developers—creating the perfect conditions for gentrification. “That land is very valuable,” Reyes says.
Situations like these can exacerbate the displacement already happening throughout the historically low-income, immigrant community: Since 2000, the neighborhood has become nearly 10 percent more White and 12 percent more expensive to rent in, according a 2015 report by New York University’s Furman Center. Reyes is not sure who left and who returned after the waters rose during Sandy, but she’s certain some people never came back. NYCHA says it relocated some residents, particularly those who lived in ground-floor apartments, to other public housing developments.
As for those who stayed put? Though climate change inches closer to their homes, developers looking for prime waterfront realty pose the most immediate threat.
*Post has been updated to reflect the correct number of NYCHA residents in 2012. The previous number of 80,000 referred to the number of residents living in the 33 developments—not buildings, as was previously stated—that were significantly damaged.