The City Council and the New York City Housing Authority have yet to figure out who should provide social services and disaster relief for public housing residents— particularly the disabled and the elderly— during and after an emergency like superstorm Sandy. This much was clear during Wednesday’s second City Council hearing on NYCHA’s emergency planning and response following the disaster.
“Who’s responsible for what? That was a big issue,” Brooklyn Councilmember Domenic Recchia (D-Coney Island) said during the hearing, reflecting on the thousands of public housing residents in his seaside district who were left in the dark and without basic necessities like food and water after the storm.
NYCHA Chairman John Rhea, criticized for missing the first Council hearing on his agency’s Sandy response in January, came prepared with testimony for the latest hearing. He answered councilmembers’ questions alongside Cecil House, NYCHA’s general manager, Carlos Laboy-Diaz, NYCHA’s head of operations and Natalie Rivers, NYCHA’s chief administrative officer.
Rhea devoted his scripted remarks to explaining how NYCHA put its Hurricane Emergency Procedure — which has existed in various forms since 1964 — to work during Sandy. He acknowledged there was room for improvement, and said NYCHA planned to update these procedures before this year’s hurricane season started.
While Rhea said NYCHA’s fundamental commitment was “to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing,” he acknowledged that it also must figure out ways to facilitate access to services, such as medical care and emergency rations, that NYCHA residents would need before, during and after emergencies.
City Council members at Wednesday’s hearing said they were particularly concerned about NYCHA’s capacity to identify and aid elderly, disabled and otherwise vulnerable public housing residents before an emergency. Councilmembers also said they hoped NYCHA would be able to share with council members, and potentially with emergency responders, which NYCHA apartments have vulnerable residents living in them.
Throughout the hearing many councilmembers seemed themselves unsure what services NYCHA should provide directly to its residents, vulnerable or otherwise, during emergencies.
Councilmember Recchia asked Rhea and his colleagues if they’d considered establishing storage locations for essential supplies to distribute to NYCHA residents during emergencies.
Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo said she wasn’t sure NYCHA should be responsible for providing things like batteries, flashlights and water.
“I’m conflicted with expecting you to provide that for residents; I think that should be part of what we as individuals preparing should have in our homes as a matter of course,” Arroyo said. “Do you think it’s your responsibility to supply those things to residents?”
Councilmember Sara M. González gave an example from her district of a family health center near NYCHA housing in Red Hook that was left without doctors and in need of a generator after Sandy. González asked the NYCHA administrators if they’d considered having medical staff available in NYCHA buildings during emergencies.
“I don’t know if it’s part of [NYCHA], you tell me, to have available a team of medical folks,” González said.
Rhea did not answer these questions directly, instead saying in response to each that these issues were part of a larger discussion that needed to be had in the coming months.
“What’s the principal agency that owns that responsibility?” he said. “What’s the collection of agencies that needs to come together to make sure that the resources are available, and then what is the logistical set-up in order to ensure food, water and other needs are being met?”
He hinted that providing supplies and services may not be in NYCHA’s purview.
“We have limited resources, so part of this is a funding issue, but part of this also is kind of a mission issue,” Rhea said. “What [is NYCHA] well-placed to perform in terms of a set of services, versus some other agencies and organizations that that’s what they do every day?”
No answers materialized on Wednesday, and it was clear from the public testimony during the hearing that residents, volunteers and legal staff remain frustrated by NYCHA’s handling of Sandy.
Councilmember Arroyo joined the chorus of her peers who said that they hoped to work with NYCHA to address the agency’s needs in advance of future emergencies.
“We need to change how we engage in this process,” Arroyo said. “It’s not our life’s dream to beat you up at these hearings.”