It’s been more than five years since Superstorm Sandy grazed the East End en route to pummeling western Long Island and New Jersey, and while those of us who weren’t affected by the storm have long since moved on, the pattern of ineptitude in storm recovery bureaucracy is still a bitter saga for many Long Islanders.
Environmentalists also wonder if we learned the lessons of the necessity of coastal retreat that they’d hoped we’d have learned from the storm.
Suffolk County’s Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force made the rounds of communities hit by the storm in April. Their one East End stop was at Southampton Town Hall on April 18.
“Our goal is to be better prepared as a region, from an infrastructure and environmental perspective, to deal with disaster when it happens, and to help homeowners and business owners recover,” said Task Force Chairman Dave Calone at the Southampton meeting. “We want to look ahead with the benefit of informed hindsight.”
In the aftermath of the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded a state program, New York Rising, which was charged with administering Sandy recovery aid applications.
But, everywhere they go, Task Force members said they’d heard stories from members of the public about the years they spent trying to navigate New York Rising’s thick bureaucracy — stories of constant changes in caseworkers, missing paperwork, changing grant requirements and money given out and then taken back.
Southampton Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, who joined the board in 2016 and runs a commercial fishing business with her husband, brought one of three banker boxes filled with paperwork she’d filled out for applications for a grant to replace nets and fishing gear destroyed by the storm.
She only applied for the program because she was told she’d be eligible, she told the Task Force, and after years of providing reams of documentation to the program, she received a $10,000 grant, which she was later told she had been ineligible for and is now repaying.
“I can’t even tell you how many forms and information we submitted over the past six years,” she said. “We were asked to submit and resubmit documentation over and over again. In 2014, I was getting nervous. My business was not going to survive, and there was nothing in my future telling me I was going to get any help. We were told we should go to the Family Service League. They offered me mattresses, refrigerators and backpacks, which is great if you lost your home, but not if you lost your fishing business.”
“Those of us who were affected by Hurricane Sandy were victimized twice, first by the storm and then by New York Rising,” said Ms. Lofstad. “I’m only asking for reimbursement for losses that are documented and we were told we were eligible for. And many homeowners I know, so many of them are still suffering.”
Myron Holtz, who lives on Towd Point between the Peconic Bay and North Sea Harbor in Southampton, is retired after working for FEMA in mitigation for 22 years. His wife, Barbara Fair, also worked for FEMA.
“I would love to see some government non-political agency audit New York Rising, the office of storm recovery, and look at soft costs, consultants, and all the people who were on the payroll for a few weeks and left. It is incompetence to the highest degree,” he said. “I would love to see how much money was given out in grants to individuals versus staff and consultants…. and, based on what I’ve heard, it’s still going on.”
“It will not surprise you to hear we’ve heard time and time again about the failures of New York Rising,” said Mr. Calone. “It’s striking how many different flavors of failure there’ve been.”
New Suffolk resident George Maul (The Beacon’s Creative Director), whose house flooded in Sandy, said it would be helpful if property owners near the water would keep their debris from damaging their neighbors’ properties, and if gawkers could be kept away from damaged areas just after storms.
He told the Task Force that FEMA representatives had encouraged him after the storm to apply for funding to have his house raised out of the flood plain. After more than four years of submitting and resubmitting paperwork and paying engineers for plans, he was nearly ready to give up when he heard about a fast-track program in which New York Rising would act as the general contractor and raise the house for you.
Until that time, he said, he’d been told by New York Rising that they’d only cover about $60,000 worth of the cost of raising the house, when the estimates he’d received had all been over $100,000.
After moving out of his house and staying with friends so that work could be done, he said the house sat empty for months as subcontractors coming from western Long Island and New Jersey spent sometimes just a couple hours a day working on the project, damaging the house in the process.
When the job was finished, he said, the builders refused to fix numerous things on the punch list. He took the case to small claims court, where he said the builder told the judge New York Rising had already paid him $277,000 for the job and it had been closed out.
“The biggest problem I’m seeing are contractors coming and taking advantage of homeowners,” said Task Force member Beth Walters, a West Islip homeowner whose house was damaged by the storm.
Mr. Holtz recommended that, while evacuees are in recovery centers during the storm, the centers should have access to videos about how evacuees should clean up their houses to prevent an eruption of mold when they return home, and on how to move their utilities to a higher floor when they rebuild, so they can get their power and heat running sooner after future storms.
“You can’t just go in and take a mop and clean up,” he said. “You have a captive audience. You can have a video on how to properly clean up, mix bleach and water, and talk to them about what they can do to get back in their homes quickly. Build this into a mitigation plan, and distribute it to the Red Cross, or whoever is running your shelters.”
“You have to be very careful about contractors,” he said, adding that there are many storm profiteers who put magnetic business signs on the doors of their vehicles and go to scope out areas that were damaged.
“Local government has to vet people, see who is helping and who is certified to help you clean up,” he said.
“We strategically need to look at zoning codes and how we rebuild,” said said Glorian Berk, Co-Chair of the Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee. “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again. With sea level rise and global warming, we need to think about where we should live.”
Mr. Holtz pointed out that the town does have some control over zoning codes that would make it safer in the aftermath of the storm. In his Towd Point neighborhood, he said he saw numerous propane tanks that had been lifted by the tide on their sides after Sandy went through. While the town code requires propane tanks to be strapped down, that provision isn’t enforced.
“The code should say no propane company can refill an unstrapped tank in a flood zone,” he said. “These things are bombs.”
Krae Van Sickle of the East Hampton Energy Sustainability Committee said he believes our energy infrastructure should be built to encourage microgrids — essentially localized power generation sources, such as rooftop solar or small-scale wind power, which can be connected to the grid but can also disconnect from the grid, in what is called “island mode,” to ensure power stays on when the grid is down.
Microgrids, he said, could cut down on new transmission lines, and could also be useful for emergency services, medical services and institutional facilities where people could shelter in a storm.
He pointed out that a battery storage facility was recently approved at LIPA’s Montauk substation, which is in a floodplain near Fort Pond, when it could have easily been installed about a mile up the road, where the Montauk Firehouse and the Montauk Playhouse community center sit on a hill above the floodplain.
“We could have had a very robust emergency services hub,” he said. “Montauk, in particular, is the end of the line. They’re the last people to get power back when the big one hits.”
Mr. Van Sickle added that he’s been studying Google Project Sunroof, which uses Google Earth data to determine the solar electricity generation potential of rooftops throughout the world.
“Montauk has a tremendous amount of solar potential,” he said. “The rest of the South Fork, not so much, because it’s wooded in the morainal areas.”
Barbara Fair, a former FEMA employee and Mr. Holtz’s wife, said Southampton could have been eligible for hazard mitigation money if the town had submitted a Hazard Mitigation Grant Plan to FEMA.
“It would require East Enders to develop a series of projects that, if enacted, will make us more resilient and harden our resources against damage,” she said.
Ms. Fair added that the town could also participate in the FEMA Community Rating System, which would make the whole community eligible for lower flood insurance rates. East Hampton Town began work to participate in that program in 2014.
Kevin McAllister, a coastal zone management scientist and president of Defend H2O, said he “initially thought Sandy would be a wakeup call.”
“The most concerning part has been the propensity to rebuild and fortify,” he said. “This comes in a number of forms — vertical seawalls, rock revetments, stone barriers, geotextile containers.”
“Consider sea level rise,” he said, “There’s going to be an 11 to 30 inch rise in the next 40 years. It’s really going to ramp up. Over the long term, we will lose shorelines.”
Mr. McAllister said he doesn’t believe in investing in infrastructure or homes on Dune Road.
“We need to start strategizing about withdrawal from that area,” he said. “Think about access, but not permanency.”
“Homeowners near the water, it’s ultimately their responsibility whether they should stay or go,” said Dieter von Lehsten, Co-Chair of Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee. “We cannot pay for that ad infinitum. In the Outer Banks, the government has paid hundreds of millions to rebuild, and they finally stopped that.”
Mr. von Lehsten added that a recent $9 million Army Corps of Engineers project to shore up downtown Montauk with geotextile tubes filled and covered with sand has proved quite costly.
“Three years later, it was gone,” he said. “We had five nor’easters in March, another $700,000 spent, and another $1 million is coming. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing there. It is eroding.”
“Moving Montauk is a plan for right now,” he added. “Not for the future. We’ve gotta do something now.”
“We are on the front lines, perhaps more than any other place in this country, with the impact of severe storms,” said Mr. Calone. “We know what the world was like on Oct. 28, 2012, and we want to make sure next time we are better prepared.”
The Task Force plans to make its recommendations to the county in late November of this year.