Op-Ed: $101 billion and our future on the line

‘Lives are at stake’: Comptroller blasts city’s slow safety spending
Office of the New York City Comptroller

With more than 520 miles of coastline, New York City sits on the frontlines of climate change.

More than six years ago, our shores were slammed by Superstorm Sandy, causing 17 percent of our city to be flooded, costing an estimated $14 billion in damages. Homes were destroyed, businesses were washed away, futures were upended, and 54 New Yorkers lost their lives as a result of the unprecedented devastation the storm caused across all five boroughs — particularly along the Brooklyn shorefront.

Sandy was a one-in-260-year storm. But as sea levels rise and climate change accelerates, our city could see more ferocious storms as often as every five years. It’s happening all across the country, including in Houston, Texas, which just experienced three 500-year floods within a three-year stretch.

Considering the latest climatic trends, scientists now estimate that Sandy-like flooding could be a one-in-five-year event by mid-century in our city. Climate change is an emergency — and time is running out.

The bottom line is that we need to act faster because, make no mistake, that taking action is both a moral obligation and a financial imperative to get ahead of tomorrow’s storms. Any politician who talks about 20-, 30-, or 50-year plans to tackle this crisis isn’t matching the urgency of the moment.

That’s why my office sounded the alarm with a new report, revealing that our communities are still dangerously exposed to future storms. We found that of the $14.7 billion New York City received in federal funds to help Sandy survivors rebuild and to invest in resiliency — the city had spent just 54 percent as of March 2019.

Specifically, we have managed to spend only 20 percent of the FEMA dollars earmarked for city hospitals, just 41 percent of the money to protect NYCHA, and a meager 14 percent of the $470 million intended for coastal resiliency projects.

It’s understandable that city projects take time and federal red tape only makes it more difficult to navigate the myriad layers of bureaucracy, but too much is at stake to continue with our current approach. We cannot afford to kick this can down the road, and we certainly can’t leave this to another generation to solve. The time for action is now, because our shorefront communities are a critical piece of our overall economy.

My office ran the numbers and found that a staggering $101.5 billion in property value is located in the most flood-vulnerable areas of our city. That figure represents growth of more than 73 percent since 2010. And it’s New Yorkers’ homes, businesses, and entire life savings that are on the line. Here in Brooklyn, property values along the floodplain are projected to have increased nearly 40 percent in the past decade alone.

If we don’t move fast to protect our coast — and that means all 520 miles of our coast — then New Yorkers will be at the mercy of the next wave of disasters. Because there’s no question that another Sandy will come — and we can’t be putting shovels in the ground as the next storm barrels toward us.

That’s why we need the city to expedite resiliency projects and create a comprehensive citywide coastal resiliency plan that doesn’t just plan for 2050 or 2030, but for right now.

There should be resiliency retrofit loans made available for coastal communities and opportunities for residents to relocate. Substantive resources and energy should be devoted to optional neighborhood-based buyout programs for areas of our city that aren’t just vulnerable to superstorms but are getting hit by flooding events on a monthly basis such as Canarsie, Coney Island, and Gowanus. And we should strengthen the Build It Back framework so that we have recovery programs that are well prepared for the next superstorm.

Every day I feel the urgency of this battle when I look at my two little boys, Max and Miles, and think about what kind of world they will grow up in. They deserve a habitable planet and an all-hands-on-deck approach. Every child does, and so does every senior who built up our city and saw their life’s work washed away.

We need to create a more resilient New York for generations to come. Let’s take on this crisis for them and for our future with all of our might.

Scott M. Stringer is the New York City Comptroller.