Is New York City’s public housing ready for the next storm?
By Sophie Kasakove and Tracie Williams
[The New York City Housing Authority] is the largest public-housing authority in the country, with more than 400,000 residents living in over 300 developments across the city. The system was strained long before Sandy—NYCHA has suffered a $3 billion loss in federal funding since 2001, and a study of NYCHA’s needs conducted in 2011, the year before Sandy, estimated that the agency needed $16.6 billion to carry out repairs and renovations to its properties over the next five years. According to NYCHA, more than 280,000 repairs were needed citywide that year, with an average of eight pending work orders per apartment—estimated at an average of $2,900 per unit.
When Sandy hit the next year, it made all of this worse, and residents are still living with the fallout. At Red Hook Houses, six years after the storm, temporary boilers still sit between the buildings in what used to be green space. Mold grows over water-damaged walls. Promises for protection remain unfilled. “It’s never been the same since Sandy,” said Shaquana Cooke, a life-long resident of Red Hook Houses. “I’m still kind of devastated by it, because I feel like we haven’t really recovered.”
In the aftermath of Sandy, the city was abuzz with disaster-preparedness plans. There was talk of building massive seawalls, levees, and floodgates, developing wetlands on the tip of Manhattan to absorb storm surge, installing oyster beds or barrier islands in New York Harbor. In Red Hook, a plan to install floodwalls, raise streets, and improve drainage—called the Integrated Flood Protection System (IFPS)—was initially projected to be completed by 2016.
But, years later, little action has been taken to bring these proposals off the paper. The federal government agreed in 2014 to pay $335 million for the first phase of the “Big U”—a proposed 10-mile barrier extending around the southern half of Manhattan—but the project’s scope and other funding sources remain uncertain. Instead of the IFPS project, a temporary barrier of sandbags and tubes has been installed along Red Hook’s lowest-lying street, tall enough to protect from only the mildest of coastal storm surges.
A 2015 audit report of NYCHA by the New York City comptroller found a number of significant flaws in the agency’s emergency-response plan, including that NYCHA’s Emergency Procedures Manual did not “properly define the emergency management leadership” and that the agency was not complying with certain requirements, like maintaining accurate information on disabled tenants. NYCHA’s response to the report did little to build faith in the agency’s ability to learn from its mistakes. The agency stated: “We have enhanced our emergency management programs to plan for, manage and recovery [sic] from major disasters,” and claimed that “the findings and recommendations miss significant improvements NYCHA has made in relation to its emergency preparedness and response,” because of the time frame of the audit. In particular, the agency cited the creation of new plans and procedures for emergencies under the Office of Emergency Preparedness, established in June 2014.