The hardest test of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision and competence might end up being something quite different from expanding prekindergarten or affordable housing. It might just be his ability to restore normality to the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers in the Hurricane Sandy zone, from the Rockaways to Staten Island, whose homes and businesses were washed away or ruined a year and a half ago. And, once that job is done, preparing the city to weather the inevitable and potentially disastrous storms to come.
Mold and dry rot wait for no one. Houses don’t rebuild themselves. While de Blasio has been adjusting to City Hall, fighting big battles and winning a few, nearly 20,000 people in the city’s sluggish and mismanaged Sandy recovery program, inaptly called "Build It Back," have been waiting for the building to start.
De Blasio gave a welcome, if overdue, update on the state of the program Thursday, promising to attack the neglected crisis with greater speed, closer attention and more money.
Those things were lacking when he took office. Not a single reimbursement check had been sent to families who had rebuilt their homes, and the number of new homes under construction was zero. De Blasio himself has little to show for his first four months. He didn’t appoint a team to manage the program until late last month, just before a City Council hearing at which survivors gave wrenching testimony of dislocation and bureaucratic failure. Of the $1.45 billion in federal funds that has been allocated for post-Sandy rebuilding, only $380 million has been spent and nine construction projects begun.
But de Blasio has plans to spend and build a lot more. He has pledged to rebuild every destroyed home and, Thursday, gave himself a deadline of Labor Day to have 500 reimbursement checks sent to homeowners and 500 houses under construction. He has also promised to find another $1 billion in federal financing for additional repairs. He says he will speed things up by increasing staff at the Housing Recovery Office and eliminating restrictions based on income that have left some middle-class families waiting.
This is a long list of promises, but it’s just a start. The second part of de Blasio’s challenge involves a much longer time horizon and bigger ambitions — strengthening buildings, bolstering the shoreline, protecting mass transit and utilities, moving people out of vulnerable areas and elevating the homes that remain. These goals may seem less pressing than the immediate urgency of rebuilding and repairing existing damage, but there will be future storms and floods. The mayor’s obligation to prepare for them is no less important than cleaning up the current mess.
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