After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City with an estimated $19 billion in damages, the federal government chipped in $15 billion in aid. A decade later, New York City has spent just 73% of that money, according to a new report from the city comptroller’s office released on Thursday.
The report described progress on recovery and resiliency efforts as “slow” and “far from complete” — but its findings provide recommendations for accelerating preparedness for future storms.
“Climate change is moving a lot faster than we are, and I mean that in a double sense,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. “We are not moving quickly enough to get ready for the next Sandy-like storm, but also in these 10 years, the aperture of what climate risk looks like has opened so much wider.”
Despite the lingering scars of Sandy and the perpetual threat of sea level rise, Lander’s office found waterfront development has ballooned since the storm hit. The comptroller’s team estimates more than $176 billion worth of property now lies in the city’s current floodplain — a 44% jump from a decade ago. This area includes housing as well as key infrastructure such as transportation, power generation, and waste management.
Just over 3% of existing structures in these areas have adopted the new building standards for resiliency – the rest are not obligated to follow these new codes. The comptroller projects the floodplain will have $242 billion market value by 2050.
The analysis found the East Side Coastal Resiliency funding — $1.9 billion meant to address some major post-Sandy vulnerabilities in Manhattan — remains mostly unused. The city had only spent about 13% as of June 2022. Some of its projects won’t be completed until 2030. Its design includes nearly 2.5 miles of berms and seawalls from East 25th Street to Montgomery Street.
Waiting to implement these storm protections not only leaves the city susceptible to flood damage and fatalities, but could also further sap municipal coffers. The city’s flood area includes an estimated $2 billion in annual property tax revenue. By 2050, that is expected to increase about 50%.
“We're not one iota more ready for an Ida-like storm than when Ida hit,” Lander said. “If we go at the pace of Sandy project — completing the work that we set out to do will take us about 15 years and that's too slow.”
Some spending faster than others
Federal dollars came from multiple departments in the wake of Sandy, and some pots of money have been better utilized than others.
While New York City has spent nearly all of its $4.2 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a third of its grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still available, amounting to almost $3.5 billion.
Part of the difference is that HUD funding is flexible in its use and application and also comes with “use it or lose it” clauses. These terms were set to expire this year until the recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Act extended the HUD deadlines to 2025.
“We have the possibility and the responsibility to use all these federal funds to get ready for the next one [storm],” Lander said.
Through the FEMA Public Assistance Program, money was allocated for the repair, replacement, and cleanup of publicly owned land damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But some New York City agencies received disproportionately more money than others. Four agencies received over $1 billion each: NYCHA, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Parks and Recreation. Nearly half of the city’s remaining departments received less than $300,000 each.
Most of the city’s 53 agencies have doled out a substantial portion of their federal monies. The hard-hit parks department, for example, has spent 61% of its grants.
But several agencies have more than half of their resiliency aid still on the books. The departments with the least-used funds are the NYC Economic Development Corporation (10% of $168 million used) and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (6% of $98 million used). Both are involved with economic development in the city.
A more accurate analysis of New York City’s progress on recovery and resiliency can be gleaned from the timelines of planned projects. For example, the Raise Shorelines program has a budget of over $100 million for elevating flood-prone roads. On its balance sheet, it has reported just over 40% spent, but only less than 1% has actually been paid out. According to its timeline, all work should be completed in June 2025.
Other projects have been “canceled,” such as the Breezy Point Risk Mitigation plan, which allocated $14.5 million to build coastal flood protection. Last year, this amount was reduced to under $1 million because FEMA said “there is no path forward to create public beach access to the project site.” The Breezy Point community has an exclusively private waterfront, which is in conflict with city waterfront access requirements.
Spend the money or lose future money?
New York City is scheduled to receive nearly $200 million in additional HUD funding for Hurricane Ida recovery, the comptroller’s office said, and more than $1 billion in federal monies through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without making changes to the city’s languid process of project design and delivery, the comptroller’s office said the city will not be able to take full advantage of these incoming dollars to secure the city’s future against climate change.
The New York City metro area is battling sea level rise at a rate that is close to double the global average. By 2050, shoreline water levels are expected to rise another 6 feet. That’s coupled with annual precipitation increasing by about an inch per decade and the intensifying of storm frequency and severity.
Handling federal disaster aid for a municipal department can be challenging. Many agencies lacked before-and-after evidence required to prove storm damage to use federal funding. Any changes made to a project also required many rounds of approvals on the city, state, and federal levels. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns sidetracked work, too, and when it restarted, supply chain issues and staffing shortages continued to plague many plans.
The comptroller’s office recommended accelerating these projects by removing roadblocks associated with internal approvals
The Department of Design and Construction recently released its Blueprint for Construction Excellence that outlines steps for improving all work stages from project planning to final assessment.
The report also urged instituting the reforms suggested by the New York City Capital Process Reform Task Force, an Adams-era initiative that seeks to improve the process of delivering public projects. The group met at Gracie Mansion on Oct. 12 and made 17 initial recommendations.
The report also calls for greater transparency for tracking funding. The city’s Sandy Tracker doesn’t currently show project budgets or completion dates of work in progress. The comptroller’s report also stated that the city lacks a strong long-term vision for preparing for climate change.
The analysis also recommends building sources that can be sustained, including tapping the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Green Jobs Bond Act. If passed in the November 2022 New York general election, this would provide more than $4 billion in statewide money for environmental and resiliency projects.
“Hundreds if not thousands of people would be at risk of dying,” said Louise Yeung, chief climate officer at the city comptroller’s office. “But we aren't planning for that climate event with the same urgency that we are planning even for the next coastal storm, on which we're moving too slow.”