More Sandy Money for New York: Will the State Use It Wisely?

New York State has submitted its plan plan for the next $2.1 billion in federal disaster assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for continuing recovery efforts to rebuild from hurricanes/superstorms Sandy, Irene and Lee.

The State’s plan is pretty good, but it could use improvement. Fortunately the public can submit comments up until March 19, and the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery held a series of hearings around the state where folks could voice their opinions. I was able to testify at one in Manhattan Tuesday night. (NRDC also signed onto comments on New Jersey’s funding request to HUD, which my colleague Ben Chou posted about as well).

Here’s the deal: An important requirement of the federal funding, unlike previous disaster appropriations, is to invest heavily in making New York more resilient to future storms and floods.  With this money and other federal funds, New York is in a position to set a national example for resiliency and climate preparedness and also how to prepare for a future where flooding, sea level rise and extreme weather will be more common. Core to that will be factoring in climate change and its myriad impacts.

The HUD funds in question here will come from the agency’s Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG). HUD has already allocated $1.7 billion to New York and if this plan is approved, it would bring the total to just over $3.8 billion in CDBG funds.

A notice in the Federal Register lays out how the money should be spent and accounted for.

New York has gotten billions of dollars in federal storm relief funds from a letter soup of federal agencies, EPA, HUD, and FEMA to name a few. Some of these funds appear to be overlapping as they are targeted--for example—at fixing/strengthening drinking water and waste water systems.

As a result, we’d like to see a unified report and accounting of how all of these dollars are being spent. The Governor should direct all state agencies to work with the Office of Storm Recovery to develop a unified report. Such a report would provide a valuable tool for the public, other state agencies, and the legislature about to track how the various funds are being used in coordination to improve New York’s resiliency. It would also provide much needed transparency to a very complex process.

The Federal Stimulus Bill of 2009 had such an accounting.

We’d also like to see the Amendment Plan ‘Risk Analysis’ more clearly articulated, and open to public comment.

In addition, the HUD CDBG grants and the entire Sandy recovery process represent an opportunity for New York to fundamentally change the way it analyzes, selects and completes infrastructure and housing projects. The Federal Register notice makes clear that New York is “required to identify and implement resilience performance standards that can be applied to each infrastructure project.” It makes equally clear that green infrastructure should be considered in evaluating project design and selection, and that funded projects are selected based on their place in comprehensive, inter-connected regional planning. But New York’s proposed Plan Amendment falls short on all three of these counts.

NRDC is also urging the state to clarify how this round of funding will be used for ‘Economic Development’. The current language is confusing. And while we support efforts to revitalize the local economy of communities that are recovering from disasters, there needs to be careful evaluation of economic development projects to ensure that they are consistent with the CDBG program’s resilience and recovery goals.        

In addition, green building standards are required by HUD for all rebuilding efforts. Enforcing them through the implementation and inspection processes will be essential.

Governor Cuomo should be commended for launching the New York Rising Buyout Program, and for his leadership in reminding all New Yorkers that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns,” as he put it in his State-of-the-State address in January 2013.  The allocation of $521 million in the Amendment Plan is appropriate in view of the scope of the problem, and this allocation will indeed save taxpayer funds over the long-term. 

But concerns exist over spending transparency as well as the ability of citizens and communities to get the property buyout information they need. The Amendment Plan also displays a lack of coordination in implementing property buyouts in New York City, Long Island and upstate flood zones. And there is ambiguity in program commitments to “buyouts” vs. “acquisitions” as well as in criteria for how parcels will be placed into each of these categories.

New York has the opportunity to make ‘Buyout Program’ and the entire package of storm recovery measures into a national model.

As the Governor has said, “We're not just going to build what was, we're going to build to a level that never was before.”