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Special Report: Are The City's Most Storm-Vulnerable Communities Being Heard?

by Sarah Crean, Oct 21, 2013
 

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On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, residents worry about how to prevent the elderly and disabled from being trapped in their apartments during the next hurricane — the city, meanwhile, is proposing a large-scale housing and commercial development along the East River.

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In the Rockaways, residents say that the danger of flooding from future storm surges on the peninsula’s Jamaica Bay side needs immediate attention — the city, though, is focused on oceanside beach reconstruction.

Along the Brooklyn waterfront, small businesses that spent weeks digging out from mud and debris left behind by Sandy say they need assistance with storm-proofing their facilities — not loans, as the city suggests.

Nearly a year after Superstorm Sandy, are City Hall and the city’s neighborhoods on the same page when it comes to planning for climate change and the possibility of another catastrophic storm?

Toward a Resilient City

This story was written by Sarah Crean, with reporting by Carla Astudillo, Emily Keller, Amy Kraft and Linda Thrasybule, research by Jessica Scanlon, Roxanne Scott and EJ Stewart and mapping by Cesar Bustamante and Carla Astudillo. It will be published in three parts. Part one was published on Monday. Part two on Wednesday.

A two-month investigation revealed striking disconnects in communication between the city and some community boards — the frontline of local government — as New Yorkers face the colossal task of remaking the metropolis to be more resilient to extreme weather caused by climate change.

While the city has proposed ambitious, even groundbreaking, plans to address the challenges, there is a clear gap between what some communities and the current administration perceive to be needs and priorities.

In response to our findings, current and former city officials involved with long-term planning said that while the input of the public had been sought after Sandy, and community boards in particular engaged on the local level, the process had been far from perfect. “The city has been invited by community boards in impacted areas to brief them on the resiliency progress and we will continue to do so at every available opportunity,” said Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s resilience director.

Seth Pinsky, who oversaw an initiative that sought to find ways to make the city more resilient in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, suggested that the dissatisfaction on the part of some of the community boards was unsurprising. “You’re not going to get 100 percent satisfaction from 100 percent of the people in 100 percent of the neighborhoods,” he said.

As part of the investigation, a team of reporters for Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, a digital news platform for the debate around adapting to climate change, surveyed and conducted lengthy interviews with representatives from 11 of the 18 community districts found in five areas identified by the city as having been hardest hit by last October’s superstorm.

The investigation by Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY also found:

A high level of frustration with the city on the part of some boards. Only five of those 11 boards said they were communicating well with the city on climate change resiliency issues despite the city’s intense focus on the topic and the level of damage suffered in the areas.

And more than half of the boards surveyed said their community’s voice was either not being heard well, or not heard at all, by the city on the question of climate resilience.

An even higher proportion — two-thirds or six out of nine boards surveyed — said the city and their community were not working together well towards local climate resilience needs. And only about half of the boards surveyed said they’d had frequent meetings or other kinds of communications with the city about this pressing problem.

The frustration was clear from one response by Queens Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways. “[The] city [is] doing what THEY want regardless of what the local community feels,” Chair Dolores Orr said.

Faulty communication between some of the boards and the city has led to a sense that steps are not being taken fast enough to rebuild in anticipation of more extreme weather.

“The mayor’s office is talking. The governor’s office is talking. Army Corps is talking. But no one’s lifted a hand. Nothing’s been done yet that I can think of. Nothing,” complained Theresa Scavo, chair of Brooklyn Community Board 15, which covers waterfront areas like Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach.

Community Board 6 on Manhattan’s East Side, which is in the three flood zones most likely to be affected in the next Sandy-like storm, said in its response to the survey: “There are serious issues that need to be addressed immediately before the next storm season."

At the same time, other community boards in some of the city’s most vulnerable areas seem unwilling to take on the issue of climate change planning altogether.

As District Manager Robert Perris said, “The environment committee of [Brooklyn] Community Board 2 gives almost no thought to the environment. I am sure few of them have even read media reports about the mayor’s resilience strategies.”

Clearly, communication between the city and residents in vulnerable areas has occurred on multiple pathways since Sandy. The City Council, community groups, and other institutions played an important role in bringing the feedback of local residents back to City Hall.

But New York City’s community boards, all-volunteer bodies of local government systematically located throughout the five boroughs, could — in theory, at least — provide an important way to look at city-community dialogue, and decision-making, related to climate change. Community boards are the city’s most localized form of representative government, and some have environmental committees (although others do not).

Community Boards: An Explainer

While the boards are an integral part of certain city processes, for instance with land-use and zoning review, overall they are relatively powerless advisory entities with non-binding votes (See sidebar backgrounder on community boards).

Yet the city does not seem to envision a direct planning role for the community boards in developing its climate change and resiliency strategies. Zarrilli said that the boards, along with local elected officials, should take a “leading role in providing feedback on community priorities and impacts of the plans ... especially as it pertains to the public review process surrounding specific projects.”

The city said that it also established two task forces with representation from community board members and has ongoing conversations with them through the Community Affairs Unit.

A Plan To Protect the City

Last winter, less than two months after Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the storm as “the worst natural disaster ever to hit New York City,” and called for the city to undertake an expansive and expensive effort to examine ways to adapt to possible climate change impacts such as storm surges, inland flooding, high winds and other extreme weather-related issues.

The Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, or SIRR, was charged “with producing a plan to provide additional protection for New York’s infrastructure, buildings, and communities from the impacts of climate change.”

The result, in June, was outlined in a 400-plus-page report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” which extensively documented the physical damage wrought by Sandy and provided a “roadmap” for rebuilding.

The SIRR report includes summaries of the “priorities” indicated by residents of five target areas: Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, southern Brooklyn (which includes Coney Island), southern Queens (essentially the Rockaways and communities along Jamaica Bay), and the eastern and southern shores of Staten Island.

Those five areas, the city said, “ultimately suffered the greatest lingering physical damage” from Sandy. Home to 683,000 residents and nearly 42,000 businesses, they are all essentially waterfront communities, sitting along New York Harbor, the Atlantic coastline and Jamaica Bay, or inland bodies, such as Newtown and Coney Island creeks, and the Gowanus Canal.

The city’s scientists say that these areas and others will steadily become more and more vulnerable to future storms and sea level rise.

Projections released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change earlier this year state that by the 2050s, sea level rise is projected to rise 11 to 24 inches (middle range) and 31 inches (high estimate). The panel noted that, if using its high estimate for sea level rise, “today’s 1-in-100 year flood may occur approximately 5 times more often by the 2050’s.” The panel also projects that the number of “intense” hurricanes in the North Atlantic Basin will also likely increase.

Pinsky, who served as the head of the city’s Economic Development Corp. before departing for the private sector in July, was charged with overseeing SIRR, and said that “public input was a very important part of our process.”

The city’s community engagement effort included meeting with “interest groups,” such as faith-based organizations and labor unions, as well as affected neighborhoods. Public workshops were attended by more than 1,000 New Yorkers, including a number of community board members, Pinsky said.

He said the SIRR team met with principles and staff of over 65 elected offices and over 20 community boards on a regular basis.

Explained Pinsky: “We were not only able to achieve the goals that we set out of frequent detailed conversations with elected officials and the public. But the quality of the [city’s rebuilding and climate resiliency] plan was significantly enhanced by the feedback we received.” He added that feedback was incorporated when it was “consistent with our principles, realistic and achievable.”

He pointed to public opinion polls that show community satisfaction with the SIRR plan, including a June 27 Quinnipiac poll finding that 74 percent of New Yorkers and 82 percent of Staten Islanders support it. He said there was a positive response from the environmental community but conceded that there will be people who dislike certain elements.

The View From The City’s Neighborhoods

But, as the extensive SIRR report was released, reaction to the city’s feedback mechanism and workshops was mixed.

On the one hand, there were glowing remarks. “The information just flowed from the city ... there was truly an open ear and they wanted to hear the impact,” said Marnee Elias-Pavia, district manager of Brooklyn Board 11, which includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend.

But District Manager Robert Perris of Brooklyn Board 2 had a different view. “We were invited to public forums where we can weigh in on the SIRR report. … I attended a few sessions but I felt like they just presented their ideas to us, but didn't really seem open to our comments,” he said.

“A lot of what was discussed was technical and difficult to follow,” added Tamara Greenfield, who attended the city’s SIRR report meetings with other members of Manhattan Community Board 3.

While the main damage sustained by Brooklyn Board 11 was the flooding of the Belt Parkway, both Brooklyn Board 2 and Manhattan Board 3 experienced major flooding directly in their communities because of the East River storm surge during Sandy. The surge flooded sections of Manhattan Board 3, which covers the Lower East Side, causing building damage and power outages. This led to the entrapment of elderly and other homebound residents, especially in high-rise buildings, said board members. Sections of Brooklyn Board 2, like DUMBO and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, also experienced five-feet of flooding and power outages.

Some have suggested that greater community involvement in climate change planning should have been more a part of the SIRR mix. An analysis of the SIRR report by the Sandy Regional Assembly, which was convened by 200 community, labor and civic groups from the city’s most heavily impacted areas, argued that more neighborhood-led policy development should have been a SIRR recommendation.

“The SIRR’s analysis of community capacity should not have been limited to “outreach” activities. Instead, it should have included community-based planning and research capacity,” the assembly wrote in July.

In a number of cases, the local community boards did report that they felt the city has been listening.

An example of positive feedback on city–community board interactions came from the tip of Lower Manhattan. Catherine Hughes, chairwoman for Manhattan Community Board 1, said she believes that the voice of her community is being heard in city government, and that the city and community board are working together to adapt to climate change.

According to Hughes, CB1 had several meetings with city officials prior to the release of the mayor’s SIRR report and said that some of its recommendations have been implemented.

Despite that, Hughes remains concerned about flooding in the tunnels, the major arteries that connect lower Manhattan to the outer boroughs.

“I would like to know what are they doing to protect those major underpasses,” she said. Hughes added, “We’re in the middle of the hurricane season and we want to know what is in place for now.”

CLARIFICATION: Gotham Gazette reported that the city is proposing a "large-scale luxury housing development along the East River." However, it remains undetermined how much of the housing will be high-end or "affordable", and there will also be commercial opportunities.

Coming this Wednesday in part two of our three-part series: A closer look at community boards in the city’s most vulnerable areas, and how well the citywide climate resilience process has worked for them.


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Last Updated (Oct 25, 2013)