6 Months After Sandy, Rebuilding but Not Necessarily Better

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The city of Long Beach broke ground this weekend on its new boardwalk: 2.2 miles long, it will feature special braces that will tie the planks to the supports and a concrete wall that will hang down from in front of the boardwalk like a skirt, to break the waves the next time the Atlantic rises up against it.

Eventually, Long Beach plans to have the Army Corps build a $150 million dollar dune running the length of the beach, between the boardwalk and the ocean. It won’t be high enough to block anyone’s view, but will be about as high as Sandy’s surge was. That’s quite a reversal—seven years ago, the Long Beach City Council had rejected the dune for various reasons.

“I think people now see the reality of the threats that we face,” City Manager Jack Schnirman said. “We don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on why past folks failed to protect the city. We just are moving forward.”

But Long Beach is one of the few places one can see in the region where, six months after Sandy, projects are underway not just to rebuild, but to rebuild better, as elected officials had promised after the storm devastated the coast.

Other places are coming back in a much more haphazard way. Private property owners especially, say they cannot afford the cost of building back better, or they cannot afford to wait for federal grants, or they are not aware that there will be any money available for them.

Long Beach expects the dune will be paid for entirely by money from the federal Sandy aid. Much of the cost of the boardwalk’s construction is also expected to be covered by that money, though it may require a local contribution, according to spokesman Gordon Tepper.

All in all, about 16 percent of the $48 billion federal Sandy aid bill has been approved so far for particular projects. That includes money that’s been targeted to specific projects but not distributed to the end user: the actual amount disbursed is much smaller. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that $7.1 billion has been paid out to flood insurance policy holders.

The biggest chunks of money to have gone out so far were for storm response: $403 million to clean up debris, or $705 million for emergency measures during or immediately after the storm

On Friday, the federal government approved New York State’s application for $1.7 billion in community development block grants. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan calls for $838 million for housing, a portion of which will be used to pay for homeowners to elevate their homes above the expected flood level. New York City and New Jersey are also applying to use some of their block grant allocation this way. These funds, once they get out the door, are likely to provide the most significant help in making individual properties more resilient against future flooding.

But New York City’s plan for this money states that the block grants “are far from adequate to support mitigation” of most homes, and that as a result it will give priority to homes that were "substantially" damaged—a standard that is met by just about 15 percent of the roughly 17,000 one- and two-family homes impacted by Sandy.

As property owners wait for more details about federal aid, some are patching together what they have and improvising a resiliency plan.

Jeremy’s Ale House is located right on a canal in Freeport, Long Island, about six miles east of Long Beach, It was flooded, but re-opened quickly with a few quick repairs. General Manager Justin Kargman said the owners of the bar and grill are not planning to elevate or make any long-term changes. They fear doing so would force them to raise their prices and scare off the neighborhood clientele they have developed.

Instead, he said, the plan is that next time a hurricane barrels up the coast, employees will empty out the entire place, even more so than they did before Sandy.

“Instead of taking out some of our equipment out, we would take all of our equipment out. Absolutely everything. Fridge, fryers, grills, steam tables,” he said. “Our liquor, we left on the shelves and we lost our bottom row of liquor. Next time, all of our liquor will be out of here.”