Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs the first package of legislation aimed at improving the city's response to weather emergencies. Credit: Edward Reed/Office of the Mayor
After the debris was cleared, the power restored and many New Yorkers returned home following Superstorm Sandy, the city began focusing on what could be done to better prepare for the next storm.
"The short answer is yes, we are prepared," said Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations. "In fact, we are better prepared than we were for Sandy."
Since July, the City Council passed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed 15 bills aimed at improving emergency response on all levels and making the city more resilient to weather events caused by climate change.
"It's about the buildings and being prepared, but it's also about making sure we do a better job responding to the human impact if this ever happens again," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said when one of the two legislation packages passed last month.
The first nine bills, signed by Bloomberg in August, resulted from 12 post-storm oversight hearing and address everything from improving water and food access — which proved inefficient during Superstorm Sandy — to traffic management during emergencies.
Holloway and Linda Gibbs, deputy for health and human services, conducted a comprehensive after-action review of the city's response to Sandy, making 60 recommendations.
Most have been implemented, including updating the city's evacuation zones and improving communication with the 1.4 million New Yorkers who live in them.
"While you can never have every single thing covered, a lot of these recommendations have been put in place," Holloway said, admitting later, "There's much more to do."
Part of this includes continuing to help New Yorkers rebuild after the storm. Of $1.8 billion in federal Community Block Development Grants given to the city from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — just the first allocation of billions in Sandy aid passed by Congress in January — $648 million will be used for Build it Back, which will help fix homes damaged by Sandy or reimburse for repairs that have already been made.
Another $294 million will go toward grants for businesses struggling after the storm and $654 million will be used on resiliency measures and improving infrastructure. (The next allocation, $1.34 billion, will be similarly divided, officials announced Monday.)
The second package of council legislation, six bills signed by Bloomberg this month, intends to address resiliency, utilizing recommendations from the Building Resiliency Task Force, convened by Quinn and the mayor in January.
More than 200 industry experts spent nearly six months coming up with 33 recommendations on how the city can best rebuild for future storms after Sandy — but it wasn't easy.
"There were some physiological shifts that needed to happen," said Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, which managed the task force. "We needed to shift our thinking about safety from preparing for 'the next Sandy' to preparing for any weather emergency."
In the end, many of the task force's recommendations made it into council bills, Russell said.
One of the six enacted bills requires the Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability to develop plans to make the city more resilient to all natural disasters. Another updates the building code to make sure automatic faucets and toilets can operate during a power outage.
"We really needed to focus on people's homes, those high-rise buildings," Unger said, noting many high-rise toilets couldn't flush without power.
The Bloomberg administration has also proposed 257 projects, costing some $19.5 billion, to bolster infrastructure and resiliency in a 350-page policy book released in June. The most ambitious proposal is a new neighborhood on top of landfill or platform extension in the East River called Seaport City, which is currently undergoing a feasibility study.
Holloway said New Yorkers may have to wait years to see progress on most of the proposals.
While officials are generally pleased with their recovery and resiliency progress, Holloway said the city is "far from done."
"There are many challenges ahead," he said.
What's been done, by the numbers (approximate through Oct. 21):
Buildings repaired through Rapid Repairs: 11,000
Residential units repaired through Rapid Repairs: 20,000
New Yorkers served through Rapid Repairs: 54,000
Build It Back applicants: 24,000
New Yorkers consoled by Project HOPE: 175,000
Public schools still undergoing repair: 45
Feet of Interim shoreline protection installed: 26,000
Boardwalk repaired: 2.5 miles
Federal Community Block Development Grant funds allocated to the city so far: $3.1 billion