Superstorm Sandy Recovery Shows U.S. Still Unprepared for Major Disasters

Wall Street Journal

By Mara Gay

July 19, 2017

Holly Leicht, official who oversaw federal funding behind NYC’s Sandy recovery efforts, is speaking for the first time about what went wrong

The for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who helped over­see the fund­ing be­hind New York City’s su­per­storm Sandy re­cov­ery pro­gram says the U.S. in many ways re­mains un­pre­pared for ma­jor dis­as­ters and the re­cov­ery that fol­lows.

Holly Le­icht, who served as re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor for the U.S. De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, is speak­ing out for the first time about what went wrong in the wake of Sandy, and how fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments can im­prove their ap­proach to han­dling nat­ural dis­as­ters in a re­port ob­tained by The Wall Street Jour­nal. The re­port comes more than a decade af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and nearly five years af­ter su­per­storm Sandy.

“We need to go be­yond the very in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments that have been made dis­as­ter-to-dis­as­ter,” Ms. Le­icht said in a phone in­ter­view re­cently. “These are pol­icy de­ci­sions that need to be made when you’re not in the throes of dis­as­ter.”

The re­port, which was com­mis­sioned by the Com­mu­nity Preser­va­tion Cor­po­ra­tion, Inc., a non­profit, and the of­fice of the Staten Is­land Bor­ough Pres­i­dent, is ex­pected to be pre­sented at a dis­as­ter re­cov­ery sym­po­sium in Man­hat­tan on Wednes­day.

It lays out a se­ries of 41 rec­om­men­da­tions for fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments deal­ing with nat­ural dis­as­ters.

It also tells the story of the com­plex patch­work of dis­as­ter re­cov­ery ini­tia­tives set up to help Amer­i­cans re­cover in New Jer­sey, New York state and New York City, where the Oc­to­ber 2012 su­per­storm killed more than 80 peo­ple and caused bil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages.

Ms. Le­icht over­saw more than $15 bil­lion in fed­eral dis­as­ter re­cov­ery funds. She said gov­ern­ment agen­cies like HUD, the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency and the Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion should con­sol­i­date their ef­forts to make it eas­ier for vic­tims to get help by ac­cept­ing re­quests for aid through a sin­gle ap­pli­ca­tion. She also said agen­cies like HUD should be more hands-on with lo­cal re­cov­ery pro­grams to help states and cities find the best ap­proach to re­build.

In New York City, where Ms. Le­icht helped over­see more than $4.2 bil­lion in fed­eral dol­lars to­ward Sandy re­cov­ery, much of the fund­ing went to Build it Back, the city’s pro­gram to re­build and el­e­vate homes dam­aged by Sandy. The ini­tia­tive be­gan un­der for­mer Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has con­tin­ued un­der Mayor Bill de Bla­sio. It is be­hind sched­ule and at least $500 mil­lion over bud­get, de­spite serv­ing less than half of the home­own­ers it was de­signed to.

Ms. Le­icht said the city had ded­i­cated im­pres­sive re­sources to storm pro­tec­tion projects. But she said it should change its ap­proach to re­build­ing hous­ing in fu­ture dis­as­ters.

She said it should con­sider adopt­ing an in­come cap for re­cov­ery pro­grams, and that the de­ci­sion to help all home­own­ers re­gard­less of in­come had left less money to serve those most in need. She also said it had lim­ited the city’s abil­ity to fund storm pro­tec­tion projects or af­ford­able hous­ing.

Ms. Le­icht also said that city of­fi­cials didn’t fol­low the ad­vice of HUD of­fi­cials who had re­peat­edly en­cour­aged them to cen­tral­ize the man­age­ment of its re­cov­ery pro­grams, which are run by at least five dif­fer­ent agen­cies and two deputy may­ors.

A spokes­woman for Mayor de Bla­sio said the city’s ap­proach, “pro­moted high-level ac­count­abil­ity while also cap­tur­ing crit­i­cal agency know-how.”

“We brought the full weight of City re­sources to bear on a $20 bil­lion re­cov­ery ef­fort, one that spans busi­ness and hous­ing re­cov­ery, in­frastructure im­prove­ments and coastal de­fenses,” said Melissa Grace, the spokes­woman.

Ms. Le­icht said there were lessons at every level of gov­ern­ment.

“We were all learn­ing as we went,” she said. “Still, I’d wa­ger none of us would do things ex­actly the same if we had it to do over again.”