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Sandy Victims’ Fear, Anger Delay Key Planning Decisions

New Dorp, Staten Island
Two houses in New Dorp, Staten island. Residents of neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy fear that homeowners with heavily damaged properties will leave or accept buyouts, leaving a neighborhood pocked by vacant lots. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

I found myself recently in the ballroom of a Catholic Youth Organization building on Staten Island. There was a lot of anger in the air.

I had volunteered to help with a workshop New York City organized to collect information from people affected by Hurricane Sandy so that city officials could usefully guide rebuilding.

The city wants a plan that will protect low-lying neighborhoods from rising seas and violent storms and that will be effective at least until 2050.

The distant year irked some of the Sandy victims at my table and reflected a deep divide between planners who must design and build for future disasters and victims still coping with discomfort, deprivation and red tape.

“You need to walk in my shoes now,” one participant told me.

One man rendered homeless continues to live in a hotel months after the disaster. The federal Small Business Administration has turned him down for a loan to rebuild his business.

A woman who was back in her home worried that neighbors weren’t returning and that speculators would swoop in, rebuild expensively and price her out of the neighborhood.

People said insurance companies kept insisting on new paperwork before they would pay up. Some people still must line up at food pantries.

Different Language

Many Sandy victims want to rebuild what they had where they were. But if data still being collected show that houses cannot be raised high enough or that neighborhoods can’t be realistically protected, then it would be folly to allow or help people to rebuild.

“You’re not speaking my language,” another told me as I tried to explain this point.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment of $400 million to buy out owners in risky locations at full pre-storm value is exceedingly generous. Yet it presents dilemmas of its own and adds further uncertainty.

Some people in the ballroom worried that if they didn’t sell, they would end up on largely desolate blocks. Others found it hard to trust any officials because it was city bureaucrats who had looked the other way for decades as builders threw up houses in flood-prone swamps.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued new maps that predict future flood paths largely on the basis of data from Sandy’s unprecedented 12-foot flood surges. Evolving research suggests much higher waves are probable.

Raising Houses

In theory, people now know how high to raise their houses (sometimes very high). But the maps are advisory, and the city’s planning process is supposed to help determine whether additional protections -- in the form of high dunes, water-storing marshes and high rock walls -- will work.

To me one thing was clear. Planning for the future must begin now -- not after the city collects data. Too many people are stuck in rebuilding limbo, and many will lose otherwise recoverable assets if they can’t make decisions quickly, with greater certainty.

When is the worst time to plan for the future? After a disaster. When is planning ahead absolutely essential so that you avoid repeating past mistakes? After a disaster. How hard is it to do? Really hard.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera, Daniel Akst on books.

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