As city plans for future storms, Brooklyn reps see trouble ahead
“It just takes a full moon and high tide..."
Jainey Bavishi, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, says disaster preparedness has dramatically improved in the city since Superstorm Sandy — but some elected officials say the picture looks different from the Brooklyn side of the river.
“Sandy was a pivotal moment,” Bavishi said during a panel discussion on disaster management on Wednesday in lower Manhattan. The discussion was one of several that brought security experts together at the Protecting New York Summit, sponsored by City & State. The panel was moderated by technology and policy reporter Annie McDonough.
Seven years and $19 billion later, “We’re absolutely safer. We have improved emergency response, hardened structures, implemented coastal protections and upgraded buildings,” Bavishi told the crowd.
She also said that the city’s building code has been amended to take the latest flood risk maps into account. “We’re working with FEMA to incorporate future flood risks as well,” she said — pending its legal viability. “It’s never been done before.”
Panelist and City Council member Justin Brannan, chairperson of the council’s Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, said that many people living outside of Manhattan see it differently. Brannan represents Bay Ridge.
“When you talk to folks in the outer boroughs, they’re hard pressed to identify the tangible progress that has been made,” he said. “It’s not only messaging. In Breezy Point, folks are still in recovery mode and are bracing for the next Sandy or Irene.
“There are five boroughs and four islands,” he emphasized. “Seven years later, you still need to address disaster preparation in a meaningful way.”
The city’s pace is also not fast enough for Brooklyn Assemblymember Jaime Williams. Williams is the chairperson of the Subcommittee on Emergency Response/Disaster Preparedness.
“Sea level has already risen in some areas of my district — Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach,” she said. “It just takes a full moon and high tide, and water gets to the parkway.”
Heading off the next storm
Brannan is pushing to obtain Federal Emergency Management Agency funds before the next major incident — instead of waiting until after the disaster has struck.
The federal government “needs to recognize that New York City is one of the economic engines of the entire country,” he said. “We need FEMA funds before the tragedy; we need them now to mitigate the effects of the coming storm. The main challenge is to get people to invest now in prevention, not while we’re working on recovery.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he added. “We spend so much time being reactive, and we need to be proactive.”
Bavishi agreed with Brannan on the necessity of getting pre-incident funding. “We need reform at the federal level to access dollars ahead of time,” she said — but insisted that the city was taking a citywide approach to disaster preparedness.
She described a $615 million levee project in Staten Island, noting that the mayor has “speeded up” coastal protection projects in the Rockaways, Breezy Point and Red Hook.
“There are citywide initiatives as well to prepare for extreme heat, update building codes and zoning codes. The city is mainstreaming resilience,” she said.
Collaboration and the other Cs
Collaboration is a key term, said Todd Metro, senior manager for safety and security for the New York Road Runners, which sponsors the New York City Marathon. While security professionals focus on the “Three Cs” — command, control and communication — they also have to focus on the three partners: state, federal and local, he said.
“It’s our relationship with state, federal and local partners that allows us to get the job done,” he said.
Brannan agreed. “It’s a matter of recognizing our shared responsibility. Climate change is going to affect everybody … We all have skin in the game.”
Bavishi said the city brings important partners together in an emergency.
“We work with regional transit, Con-Ed, Verizon, critical service providers,” she said.
An underlying takeaway: It can’t all be done by the city.
Bavishi spoke of the city’s outreach to schools, clergy councils, senior centers and other groups to urge them to prepare for emergencies. The city’s volunteer Community Emergency Response Teams also play a role, she said.
“Last week during the blackout, CERT teams went to the affected neighborhoods [in Brooklyn] to assess and help,” she said. “That’s another part of partnering. We need a lot of this moving forward.”
Williams said her district even involved children in disaster planning.
“My district is the ‘Jewel of Brooklyn,’ the Jamaica Bay waterway,” she pointed out. The New York Harbor School’s Billion Oyster Project “is essential,” she said. “Oysters filter the waterways, and grass grows on the shoreline. When a storm comes, that’s important. Most of the grass died after Sandy and Irene. We take the kids to plant back the grass.”
Brannan agreed on the importance of volunteers during an emergency.
Without local volunteers helping out during Sandy, “we could not have recovered,” he said. “I went to the Rockaways with volunteers. People were so happy to see us. They asked, “Are you from OEM or the Red Cross?’
“We said, ‘No, we’re from Bay Ridge.’”
While his neighborhood had less flooding, “Everywhere around us was devastated. We had to go out there and help our neighbors in Red Hook, in Coney Island. We could not have done it without regular people stepping up,” he said.
When asked if New York City would be prepared if “Sandy II” hits tomorrow, Brannan said, “My fear is if Sandy II hits tomorrow, we would see almost the same effect we saw seven years ago. That’s what I’m most concerned with, and a lot of my constituents feel that way as well.”
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