5 YEARS POST SANDY WHERE ARE WE?  Stuck in the past with no eye on the future.  Trump’s Mexican Wall or Storm Surge Protection?

 

It was five years ago this week that New Jersey and the entire region  was battered by Sandy, which left a path of death and massive destruction in its wake.  In the years since we have continued to experience extraordinary weather events that are economically significant enough that they are showing up as a lot more than just bleeps on our radar. As the latest federal spending and debt data reveal, these are double whammies, because they require billions out of the federal treasury to respond to,  but also put a real crimp on the economic productivity of the places that are hit. 

While we get side tracked over litigating whether climate change is real, the actual bills are coming in to clean up the damage done by these mega-events which we continue to see through 1950s eye  glasses as one offs. And worse yet, we maybe significantly underscoring the real damage these storms are doing because we are low balling the cost of recovery and the amount of waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayer (storm victim) that these programs generate. That’s right, the way we do these programs maybe be creating yet another level of trauma for the victims we say we want to help.

While the news has moved on to the extended misery of people  upended by Maria in Puerto Rico,  it’s important for the entire country to check back in with the victims of Sandy because taxpayers from all over the country have a multi-billion dollar investment in the results of the seriously flawed federally funded relief effort.

It’s also instructive because it presages what families in places  like Houston and Puerto Rico can expect, long after their story is off page one and the top of the TV nightly news. Such a review is also critical because we are told by climatologists that these extreme weather events are going to happen with increased frequency.  Right now, officials concede that FEMA’s need to respond to wildfires in California,  hurricanes in Houston, Florida as well as Puerto Rico, simultaneously has seriously taxed the agency.

A federal government that aimed to fight wars on two fronts, is clearly scrambling to cope with four natural disasters. It seems that we are in uncharted territory when even our basic frames of reference and measurement for these events are increasingly inadequate. As the Washington Post recently observed, Houston has seen no less than three ‘500 year’ rainfall and flooding just in the last three years.

Because the news media zeros in on the latest natural disaster its easy enough to lose the narrative thread of the region’s Sandy survivors for whom life has never stopped being a struggle. And their experience, like that of the Katrina survivors before them, needs to be part of our calculus as we tabulate the real  costs  to restore communities that will be devastated by future storms. That costing out exercise should also  drive home the long term consequences of continuing to delay action on climate change and sea level raise that are both already upon us. 

Thanks to a recently released detailed  survey on the experiences of 500 Sandy impacted people by the New Jersey Resource Project,  entitled “The Long Road Home”, we get a sobering picture. Of the families that volunteered to participate, almost a third have fallen so far behind on their mortgage or rent on their Sandy impacted home that they are worried about foreclosure or eviction. Seventy percent report that the subsequent battle with bureaucracy has left them with new physical or mental health problems or worsening medical conditions that pre-date Sandy.

“Those facing delays in rebuilding were often forced to live in unsafe conditions that exposed them to mold or asbestos. Others experienced heart attacks and strokes likely brought on by stress, dehydration, and lack of access to preventative medication and treatments,” according to the New Jersey Resource Project. “Still others began experiencing increased anxiety and stress over the financial burden of repairing their homes.”

The NJRP survey continues. “In a review of Medicare claims before and after Sandy, researchers found that depression screenings doubled in the year after Sandy for the ten counties most impacted by the storm, that both alcohol/ substance abuse and PTSD increased by eight percent, and that anxiety disorders increased by nearly six percent. In another study, researchers found that, two years after the storm, a full 29.5 percent of residents who experienced structural damage to their homes suffered diagnosable PTSD.”

To be sure the economic circumstances for Sandy families also were impacted by a confluence of other events, like the contraction of the  Atlantic City gaming industry, with almost half of the city’s casinos closing and the loss of thousands of good paying union jobs. And the lingering impacts of the Great Recession, where even after it was declared over, family incomes continued to decline as wealth concentration accelerated.

“Forty-three percent of the participating homeowners reported that the value of their homes had decreased since Sandy,” according to the NJRP survey. Forty percent also saw their household income decline. More than two thirds reported that the impacts of Sandy and the tortured recovery had altered their college aged children plans for  attending college. In short, the damage was becoming generational. 

“Forty percent do not have the funds to complete rebuilding their homes. Many of those who have been able to fund repairs took on debt or used their savings to complete the reconstruction of their homes. Almost one in five were not even back in their home yet.

“My spirit and family kept me going, but my body began to give out under the daily pressures of living in grief, new economic hardship, and my displacement from my home,” she told the NJRP report’s authors adding that her Medicare coverage was been an essential lifeline. In the years since Sandy hit her medical costs have average over $100,000 annually. “I would not be here today if it weren’t for my being covered. If anyone faces all that happened to me, it is absolutely necessary that health care need not be a worry,” she said. “I don’t know what the future holds. The system failed me, and today I still live at my father’s home. If another storm hits this region, I foresee the same issues affecting people up and down the shore. Nothing’s changed.”

NJRP documents the nightmare Sandy families found themselves if they were “fortunate” enough to be covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.  What these home owners were given when they did collect on their claim was a fraction of what was required to rebuild.  Many were just flat out denied. As a consequence Sandy families had to retain lawyers. Over and over again families found no connection between the engineering reports being churned out by the contractors handling the insurance claims and the facts on the ground and under water. 

The scale of the fraud only fully surfaced thanks to a federal law suit  brought by a New York Sandy family that alleged their engineering report was altered to deny them their claim. In 2015 a high ranking official with FEMA told CBS’s 60 Minutes that fraud may have been the reason thousands of Sandy families had their claims denied and that the agency had information to that effect as early as 2013.  In August of 2016 New York Attorney General Eric Schnneiderman brought criminal charges against a Long Island engineering firm. 

Incredibly, as the families were in the fight of their life and were being fraudulently stiffed by the insurance companies  the PBS Frontline’s   “Business of Disaster”  documentary found that these companies were clearing $400 million in profit.

And, despite the billions spent post Sandy on a myriad of projects the Sandy families don’t think enough has been done to limit the kind of storm surge damage we saw during that event. While the Jersey shore got most of the media attention, critical infrastructure in and around the Port of New York and New Jersey was decimated with a twelve foot storm surge swamping the coastal lot where 10,000 new cars, including luxury cars were under water. The massive Passaic Valley Sewer Authority was knocked out of service as was the Tosco’s Bayway Refinery requiring the entire region ration gasoline. Residents in urban communities, like Newark, were faced with the toxic legacy of polluted rivers like the Passaic, jumping their banks and inundating their basements.  

This week, to mark the fifth anniversary of Sandy, a new report was published from a consortium of universities in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that predicted that over the next three decades storms that were once classified as ‘500 year’  events could come every five. Incredibly, Congress has cut funding significantly in recent years for updating our flood maps to reflect the facts on the ground and in the water. The Trump Administration wants to shift those costs to the households that buy the flood insurance  as well as cut the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that track the weather.

As we reflect on Sandy and the flawed government response and the long term impact on the families we need to look ahead.  The sad reality is  that five years later, the entire tri-state region remains every bit as vulnerable  to a potential Sandy like storm surge from the Atlantic that knocked out the region’s critical infrastructure and brought life to standstill for days. That’s the consensus of a panel of experts who conducted a two hour boat  tour of the New York City and New Jersey waterfront earlier this month. 

The Sandy cruise was sponsored by the National Institute for Coastal & Harbor Infrastructure, the New York New Jersey Metropolitan Storm Surge Working Group, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

While both transit agencies have committed billions of dollars to repair the damage caused by Sandy, and protect against a repeat, Bill Golden, president of the National Institute for Coastal & Harbor Infrastructure warned that the “missing component”  has been “a storm surge barrier on a regional basis” far enough off shore  to offer a buffer against Sandy like ten foot surges that inundated much of the region’s low lying areas.

Malcolm Bowman, one of the world’s leading oceanographers and a professor at SUNY’s Stony Brook University, predicted a Sandy like event for the region and its catastrophic consequences in a 2005 New York Times op-ed column. He told those on board last week that he has confidence that retractable barriers, strategically placed along the coast, could buffer the entire region from a Sandy like surge. Bowman advocates  a 5-mile retractable storm-surge barrier at the mouth of New York Harbor from the Rockaways to New Jersey’s Sandy Hook. That he reasons, along with a smaller barrier at the western edge of Long Island Sound, could shield about 800 miles of shoreline from Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the Bronx.

“Over the last few years I have traveled extensively around Europe investigating what the Europeans have done to save and protect and keep secure their large cities,” he said. “The Thames River (the Netherlands) barrier opened in 1982. It is used multiple times year and it has a series of wide openings” which permit the free flow of tides, navigation, and marine life when not in use. Mr. Bowman cited similar operational projects in Venice and St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Here in New York, he posited, such a system would offer regional protection when it would be most needed. “The gates are open 99 percent of the time, day and night, summer and winter so that the rivers can discharge and the tides flow freely  to flush the harbor of all of its contaminates…..permitting the fish and other animals to migrate in and out.”

He said that when it came to the recurrence of a Sandy scale storm surge it was not a question of if, but when.  “That is why we are promoting a large and very powerful outer harbor storm surge system to  keep back those   occasional, but ever increasing in danger storm surges associated with hurricanes and winter northeasters.”

“We believe we can save the city from destruction, keep it safe and secure and prosperous for at least 100 years,” Mr. Bowman said in closing. 

Bob Yaro, the former executive director of the regional Plan Association, said that price tag paled in comparison to the cost of the singular Sandy event that cost the “region $71 billion in immediate damage…… but hundreds of billions more in disruptions that went on for weeks, even months after the storm.”

“The MTA eight subway tunnels were flooded. The PATH tunnels flooded. The Amtrak trans Hudson tunnels flooded. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Mid-Town Tunnel,” he said. “We are still paying for the redevelopment of these things. Getting the salt damage out from the interior of these tunnels. The Canarsie, L line is going to be closed for a few years while we pick up the pieces.” 

Mr. Yaro noted that post Sandy  there has been a patchwork of 160 local projects proposed but nothing comprehensive and integrated to protect the entire region. “The Army Corp of Engineers calls these perimeter barrier systems,” he said. “They are built along the shore line to keep the water out” yet  “none of them have been built yet. Some are under construction and many more are not funded yet. The idea as that they would be fast, cheap and effective. Well they are not so fast.”              

For Mr.Golden the region had no other viable option. “We don’t even have a choice because we can’t sustain every twenty five years, or every five or ten years more  Sandys with the same devastation,” he said. “The question is are we going to be victims and just go through cycle after cycle of disaster relief or are we going to use our creativity, our energy and our ability to come together as a civilization and protect ourselves and also create the economic development opportunity and community development opportunity that will come if we invest in our coast line.”

Boosters of the project estimate it would cost between $20 to $25 billion dollars. The Army Corps has studies underway with both the support of Governor Cuomo and Governor Christie. That price tag is roughly the equivalent of President Trump’s  ‘big beautiful’ wall with Mexico.

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