The weeks since Hurricane Sandy’s landfall provided an object lesson in Murphy’s Law. Not only were homes flooded, some moved off their foundations or scrubbed clean off the map. Felled trees used homes to soften their landings. Power outages progressed from a mere nuisance to a life-threatening detachment from society. Much of Breezy Point, even with Sandy’s surge waters still high, managed to burn to the ground.
Every raw figure, distressed resident and upset elected official pointed to a greater failure. Yes, Sandy packed a historic wallop, but some believe a city that survived Sept. 11, a blackout, a tornado, a transit strike and Hurricane Irene should have been better prepared. What went wrong?
Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) on Tuesday announced the municipal legislature will hold hearings in the hopes of learning lessons and mapping out a better plan of action for future “superstorms.”
“In the coming months there will be necessary debate over the city’s response,” Quinn said. “It’s why I am announcing … that the Council will be holding a series of hearings in the weeks and months ahead, on everything from public safety to healthcare — and yes, on Con Ed’s handling of the storm.”
The speaker did not specify which committees will host the hearings or when.
Quinn’s remarks answered the call of several Queens legislators demanding explanations from decision-makers at the city, state and federal levels.
“What has been done can’t be undone,” said Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens). “God forbid if this happens again, we need to be prepared.”
The council members’ concerns, though, depend on their peronsal experience of the hurricane. Unsurprisingly, the perceived flaws in the response change as more miles separate a council member’s district from the borough’s southern shore.
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) acknowledged as much, taking a jaunt on his Harley to Rockaway on Tuesday to see the destruction firsthand ahead of any committee hearings.
“You really can’t understand the extent of the damage unless you see it on your own,” Vallone said. “It’s going to take months and months for things to get back to normal.”
Still, his list of grievances did not match those of councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), who represents the Peninsula.
Vallone noted the lack of presence from the federal government, specifically in the form of heavy construction equipment needed to clear roads and clean up the remains of houses.
“I didn’t see enough federal government down there,” he said. “They need bulldozers; they need massive equipment. I did not see the giant equipment they need.”
Sanders’ conclusions are grimmer.
“It would have been better if I understood that there was no government,” he said of the weeks following the storm. “I wasted time thinking that FEMA, or OEM, or someone would lead the relief of the district.”
Help didn’t come in those critical early days, he said. When it finally did arrive, it was misused, according to Sanders. The National Guard was manning feeding sites instead of helping officers patrol the streets. Community Emergency Response Teams, trained specifically for these sorts of calamities, were wasted helping off-the-street volunteers at homeless shelters. Worst of all, according to Sanders, was a lack of coordination.
“Never once did any part of this government come to my office and say there was any plan or anything for that matter,” he said.
City agencies are required to send representatives of some stature to testify before council committees when asked. Federal-level officials have the right to decline any invitation.
Vallone, as the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, will get to ask pointed questions of whichever city agencies he brings before the committee, which the councilman feels will likely host a hearing.
Sanders’ concerns will likely be addressed, despite his not sitting on Vallone’s committee, which oversees the Office of Emergency Management. The committee chairman, Vallone, and committee member Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) echoed Sanders’ dismay about CERT team misuse.
Vallone said he was pilloried for twice holding hearings with OEM to discuss the city’s preparedness for a hurricane, but is glad he did.
“The CERT teams were not used to evacuate people in Zone A. I’d love to know why they changed their minds,” he said. “The preparations, in my mind, were very good. The follow-up with the state and federal governments was poor at best.”
Vallone has made a much-ballyhooed push to find out why problems at gas stations were not alleviated by the federal government.
Halloran’s concerns mirror his colleagues’ but he also contends the 911 and 311 systems were rendered useless as the worst of the storm hit.
“We need to look at the money we expended … and the contracts that were given out,” he said. “Part of the problem has always been that our city’s 911 system, once it reaches a certain point, is just going to tank again.”
The biggest bogeymen among most council members interviewed remained the two-headed beast of Con Ed and the Long Island Power Authority, which have faced a battering ram of criticism over the post-Sandy power restoration to communities outside of Manhattan.
“Con Ed’s communication with the community was awful,” Weprin said.
Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee said the power company did its best given the circumstances.
“When you don’t have storm damage and knowing how long that takes; having to remove huge amounts of debris; having to work through road closures through the districts; having to do it expeditiously and ensure the safety of our workers and our guest workers — the job our folks did, working under extenuating circumstances, was a remarkable job,” he said.
McGee added Con Ed will cooperate fully with any council hearings.
Sanders has gone so far as to call for LIPA’s chief executive, Michael Hervey, to resign. Yesterday, he did.
The power companies will endure further, more intense scrutiny from the state, after Gov. Cuomo signed an executive order creating a commission with full subpoena power to investigate continuing issues with power restoration.
“From Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, to Hurricane Sandy, over the past two years New York has experienced some of the worst natural disasters in our state’s history,” Cuomo said in a statement. “As we adjust to the reality of more frequent major weather incidents, we must study and learn from these past experiences to prepare for the future.”
But before any committee hearings, recovery and rebuilding efforts must continue. The mayor announced on Monday an additional $500 million directed at city agencies tackling Sandy’s contributions to their already-sizeable to-do list.
Council members promised the hearings will be more educational and ideas-based than the witch hunts and public lashings often administered by angry legislators.
“There are a lot of questions people have,” Weprin said. “But we’re not here to point fingers. We want to make the city safer when it comes to storms.”
Yet the politicking remains. In an oddly timed press release, the mayor’s office sent out a laundry list of services and work being done at the city level to aid recovery efforts, all ahead of a planned visit to the area by President Obama today.
The sight of a city government busily restoring normalcy may soothe some, but other tempers are hard to cool.
“We will never know the amount of rapes and robberies that took place in this time period,” Sanders said.
It may be a question no committee can answer.