After Hurricane Katrina demolished so much of New Orleans, the federal government promised to step up and build better, stronger levees to protect the city against future storms. And it followed through, spending $14 billion on the project, which now has the Big Easy resting easier than ever before when it comes to storm preparedness.
After Hurricane Sandy damaged much of South Queens, other parts of the city and the region, similar promises of financial support and rebuilding were made. The mayor announced a $20 billion “resiliency” plan to repair bulkheads on Jamaica Bay, replenish lost sand in the Rockaways and do other projects around the city to protect it from whatever Mother Nature might throw at us. The projects’ short-term goals are being met, he says.
But where are the moveable floodgates that some European cities have? What happened to the idea of burying power lines? How about the proposals to require gas stations to have backup generators? Repairing bulkheads, building beaches and restoring marshland are all worthwhile, and would certainly help a lot if another Sandy hit, but they’re not enough. And you can’t blame the city; only the federal government could make the kinds of investments New York needs.
But we’re worried that it won’t happen, and that as the storm recedes further into the past, more and more people who aren’t still living with the repercussions will lose any sense of urgency to improve things that they had in the immediate aftermath.
It’s happened before. Remember the great blackout that decimated the Northeast in 2003? Afterward we were going to completely overhaul the aging electrical grid at a cost of about $50 billion to avoid the kind of cascading outages that left millions in the dark. Never happened. How about the Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 that killed 13 people? We were going to make a collective effort to ensure all our bridges were structurally sound so it would never happen again. Instead they’re repaired or replaced here and there whenever someone finds one that’s gotten truly dangerous and the relevant government finds the funds to fix it.
We worry that the urgency felt immediately after Hurricane Sandy will disappear the same way.
There is some good news for those who live in the areas the storm hit. Congress appears to have reached a deal that will delay huge hikes in flood insurance premiums for several years, though they’re already starting to take effect right now. Many Queens residents would see their annual premiums go from $400 to $12,000 otherwise. And no, we didn’t leave out or add any zeros there. We’re talking about a 30-fold increase for some people.
It’s good to see that Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree on something, though we won’t be completely convinced until the president signs a bill.
That must be done, just as the federal government must expedite the aid it promised the city. And whatever red tape is blocking the rebuilding must be removed. In Breezy Point, the fairly well-off neighborhood where 135 homes burned to the ground during the storm, only about 30 are going up anew so far. Only one has been completed. This in a neighborhood with a healthy share of power brokers who know their way around the system.
Clearly the city, state and federal governments need to speed things up, so the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy will look very different than the first.