Rebuilding from the ground up

When Hurricane Sandy hit, nonprofit organizations with close community ties stepped in to provide food and clothing donations as well as check in on elderly and vulnerable people in the hard-hit waterfront areas.

Now, as the city prepares to submit its plans to the federal government on how it will spend $1.77 billion in recovery money, some of those organizations have come forward with a plan detailing how they think the money should be allocated.

“The saying goes, if you’re not at the table then you’re probably on the menu,” said Eddie Bautista, chief executive of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance at a press conference Monday in Manhattan to discuss the release of the Sandy Regional Assembly Recovery Agenda, which outline projects to improve communities’ ability to withstand and recover from storms like Sandy.

Rebuilding the Long Beach boardwalk is a post-Sandy priority for a coalition of community-centric groups. Photo: Ron Coleman/Flickr

“We didn’t want to wait for the government,” said Bautista. “We wanted to create an agenda that spoke regionally to the most vulnerable communities.”

Making sure the city spends the money where it is most needed is important, said Bettina Damiani, project director of Good Jobs New York, who compared the opportunity to how the government spent rebuilding funds after September 11. “The legacy of 9/11 is luxury housing and the Goldman Sachs tower,” she said. “If government is serious about engaging community, this is the opportunity.”

The Sandy Regional Assembly is an association of environmental justice organizations, community-based groups and labor unions that represent Sandy-impacted and storm surge–vulnerable areas in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island. The report proposed recommendations for capital projects that would cost more than $530 million, such as increasing the amount of permeable surfaces along the waterfront, clearing brownfields — abandoned ex-industrial sites — of toxic chemicals and improving coastal defenses. Also highlighted in the agenda, which has been endorsed by more than 30 groups including the Natural Resources Defence Council and NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, were measures to repair the Passaic Valley sewage plant in New Jersey and reconstruct the Long Beach Boardwalk.

All 31 projects in the agenda were selected because they had previously been supported by or planned with city or state government. They have also already received some government money, either for design work or actual construction in early phases. For example, a proposed project to connect Sunset Park to the waterfront and make it easier to evacuate in an emergency has already been awarded $1.2 million of the projected $6 million cost.

“We’re asking for meetings with New York City, Albany and Washington,” said Bautista.

The city is seeking feedback from New Yorkers until April 4 on its action plan for the federal government, detailing how it intends to spend $1.77 billion in recovery money.

“We’re not asking for things that are pie-in-the-sky expensive,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, an environmental and social justice organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Rather, the goal, she said, is to make resilience to climate change a priority in urban planning.

“There’s a lot of knowledge in the community about dealing with extreme weather,” said Yiempierre. “Many in the community come from struggle and have experienced Latin American hurricanes.”

Certifying and training first responders who can use their knowledge of who is most at risk in the community, such as seniors or people on dialysis machines, would make Sunset Park more resilient during future storms, she said.

In the Lower East Side, community groups helped rescue many people who had not evacuated during Sandy. “We had a very keen understanding of folks in the neighborhood,” said Jeanette Toomer, a community organizer for The Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and preservation organization operating since 1977. “That helped us prioritize our response,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Lauren Passalacqua, said she had not seen the agenda but that the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency is working on a comprehensive report that includes analysis of the storm, and recommendations for steps the city can take to better protect against climate events. That report is due to be presented to the Mayor in May, she said.

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