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A Year After Sandy, Climate Change Nearly Absent From NYC Mayoral Race

Neither candidate has said how they plan to rebuild Sandy-stricken communities and make New York more resilient to extreme weather events if elected.

By Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci

Oct 29, 2013
Mayoral candidates Joseph Lhota, a Republican, and Democrat Bill de Blasio

The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy a year ago today thrust the issue of climate change into the center of the presidential campaign and to the top of the national political agenda.

And yet in the mayoral race for New York City, one of the epicenters of the tragedy, talk of climate is practically nowhere to be heard. 

In nearly all of the mayoral debates and forums held this year, the issues of global warming and Superstorm Sandy have not come up. That is despite New York's struggles to recover from the storm, the city's vulnerability to future climate disasters and its reputation as a global warming leader under Michael Bloomberg.

In campaign settings when the issues have surfaced, leading candidates Joe Lhota, a Republican, and Democrat Bill de Blasio have agreed that man-made climate change is happening and that New York, as a coastal city, is especially at risk. Neither has said exactly how they plan to rebuild Sandy-stricken communities and cope with the reality of climate change if elected on Nov. 5.

"The candidates have forgotten about the issue, they've forgotten about us," said Donna Crockett, a resident of Howard Beach in Queens whose house was flooded during the storm. "But this isn't a problem that's just going to go away. We need protection. I used to love the ocean, but now I see the wickedness of it."

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Superstorm Sandy One Year Later: 'We're Still Living Through It'

On Oct. 29, 2012, Sandy's 14-foot storm surge devoured entire New York neighborhoods, tearing houses from their foundations and shattering lives. Forty-four New Yorkers were killed. The destruction created a picture that looked eerily similar to predictions made six years ago of future warming.

The storm revealed the inadequacy of the city's—and the nation's—ability to handle climate-related weather extremes. Days after it hit, Bloomberg endorsed Obama for president, citing the president's leadership on climate change. In June, the mayor unveiled an ambitious, highly touted $19.5 billion plan to rebuild New York and protect it from future Superstorm Sandys and other climate threats.

The administration wants to see 59 of the plan's 250 initiatives implemented before Bloomberg leaves office on Jan. 1. Those measures include strengthening the city's electrical infrastructure and approving new construction codes that lower the risk of flooding and wind damage to buildings. 

That leaves more than 190 initiatives that would fall to the next mayor, and it's still uncertain whether and how Bloomberg's successor will implement the plan.

"We've all been trying to make it an issue," said Matt Ryan, the executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor coalition involved in post-Sandy rebuilding efforts. "But climate, resiliency and the environment have not been at the top of their lists."

Jessica Proud, a spokeswoman for Lhota, said the mayoral hopeful "strongly supports the plan that the mayor put out" and he "wants to begin to implement it." She said Lhota has talked about climate change "quite a bit," especially the "need to take steps to protect the city's assets—that it's not a question of if there will be another storm, but when."

De Blasio's office did not respond to requests for comment.

The websites of both campaigns acknowledge climate change and Sandy recovery. Among the 19 topics listed in de Blasio's "issues" section, climate resiliency is last. Sustainability is 11th on the list.

In Lhota's 22-page online "policy book," the environment appears on page 18 and is grouped under "quality of life" issues with topics such as crime and public safety, support for senior citizens and affordable housing.

Why No Specifics?

Since the beginning of the mayoral race, climate change has taken a back seat to traditional hot-button issues such as education, affordable housing and Bloomberg's controversial "stop and frisk" police policy.

There have been a few exceptions, however.

During an Earth Day forum hosted by The League of Conservation Voters, nine mayoral candidates, including Lhota and de Blasio, talked broadly about continuing Bloomberg's sustainability agenda and rebuilding post-Sandy with climate change in mind—but no one offered specifics. In June, de Blasio appeared at a Brooklyn forum on Sandy recovery efforts where he endorsed Bloomberg's recovery and resiliency plan. He offered vague details on what he plans to do with it.

Most recently, a moderator raised a question about Sandy in the second of three debates between de Blasio and Lhota. Both talked about the need to prepare for future climate disasters. Lhota criticized the $19.5 billion price tag for Bloomberg's initiatives. De Blasio called it a "great blueprint for the future of this city ... It's the affordable approach."

The lack of hard specifics has irked environmentalists and community leaders. In interviews, several said that part of the reason climate and Sandy issues are not top priorities is that voters are not demanding that candidates present a coherent post-Bloomberg strategy.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers said they believed the storm was linked to global warming, according to a poll by Siena College. For weeks following the disaster, Sandy was front and center in the public conversation. Discussion was about rebuilding New York and about the future risks of rising seas and other climate impacts.

"Climate change isn't at the forefront of people's minds anymore," according to Ryan of the Alliance for a Greater New York. "After the first few months and the initial recovery effort, life got back to normal for most people. But that isn't the case everywhere. People are still feeling the impacts."

'We're All Sick'

Damage from Sandy is especially acute in low-income and blue-collar waterfront neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. Residents there say they often feel excluded from the city's larger policy debates.

Many houses in those areas continue to sit damp with rotting, sagging foundations and mold growing deep in the walls and floors. Roads and beaches remain torn up and in shambles. Families are still fighting to receive the insurance money and federal aid they need to rebuild—if they haven't abandoned their homes altogether, as many have.

"I don't know that most New Yorkers realize the state that the recovery is in," said Jamie Kemmerer, a member of the Brooklyn Long-Term Recovery Group, a community organization that helps residents tap into relief programs. "There are still people in temporary housing, in hotels, and scrambling to find a place to live. In some communities, the recovery really hasn’t begun yet."

In Howard Beach, Donna Crockett, her husband and their three teenage children are still living in their waterlogged home 12 months after the storm. The air inside is heavy, thick and damp from the mold. Crockett, a nurse and retired New York City police officer, and her husband, an active NYPD highway patrol officer, have applied numerous times for rebuilding funds, but have yet to receive the money they need to fix their house.

"We're all sick, and I know what it is," Crockett said sitting in her living room in August. "But we can't afford to leave."

The Bloomberg administration maintains that the city is making brisk progress on the Sandy recovery. It is busy disbursing $1.8 billion in federal aid and $60 million in relief funds to repair damaged houses and apartments and help storm-struck businesses to open up shop. The city has bolstered many of its emergency operations plans to keep the city running during a storm.

Of the 59 long-term resiliency measures it hopes to complete by the year's end, 20 are already done. For instance, the city has dumped 1.2 million cubic yards of sand to replenish and reinforce miles of beaches—enough to fill the Empire State Building.

"Is the city prepared for another storm? The short answer is yes," Cas Holloway, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for operations, said at a press conference in City Hall last week. 

Still, Holloway acknowledged that many areas remain highly vulnerable to flooding in the event of another superstorm. "It simply is not possible within the eleven-and-a-half months since Sandy to make some of the longer-term investments that would protect or prevent," he said.

Bloomberg's office did not respond to requests for comment on the mayoral campaigns.

'Show Us Your Plan'

Frustrated and dismayed, local civic and environmental groups are making a last-ditch effort to spur serious discussion of Sandy and climate change in the mayoral contest, with just one week to go before election day.

On Oct. 27, the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a coalition of community, faith-based, environmental organizations and labor groups, assembled on the steps of City Hall for a press event. The activists hoisted blue cardboard waves over their heads as they urged the mayoral candidates to "turn the tide" on the issues of Sandy recovery and climate resiliency.

The New York League of Conservation Voters recently launched a $150,000 effort called "Show Us the Plan" that aims to pressure the mayoral candidates into presenting a comprehensive climate strategy. The group has published newspaper and online ads and distributed flyers to residents in flood-prone areas. The materials show a black-and-white satellite image of Superstorm Sandy with a text that reads, "You want to be MAYOR? Show us your plan." So far, petitioners have gathered 11,000 signatures in support of the campaign.

"This is just too important not to come up with a plan here and it's too important not to communicate that with public," said Dan Hendrick, the league's vice president for external affairs.

Activists were hopeful that Lhota and de Blasio would use their third and final debate, which was scheduled for Tuesday, the anniversary of Sandy, to offer a clear-cut vision on post-Sandy rebuilding and global warming action.

On Monday, however, the candidates issued a rare joint statement agreeing to postpone the debate until Oct. 30 out of respect for storm victims. "This day should be marked with solemn reflection and remembrance," they said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that under Bloomberg's Sandy recovery plan, the city dumped 1.2 billion cubic yards of sand to replenish and reinforce beaches. The city used 1.2 million cubic yards of sand.

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