Covid Killed New York’s Coastal Resilience Bill. People of Color Could Bear Much of the Cost

The proposal would have provided $3 billion in funding to reduce flood risk linked to climate change

Aug 16, 2020
A firefighter stands among the remains of homes burned down in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens during Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012

A firefighter stands among the remains of homes burned down in the Rockaway neighborhood of Queens during Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Arlene Phipps' string of bad luck started the night Hurricane Sandy crashed into New York's coast.

Fierce winds pelted Phipps' two-story home on New York City's Rockaway Peninsula that day in 2012, and sea water flooded the first floor, where she ran her daycare center. The damage was so extensive, the city condemned the building, forcing Phipps and her family to live in a hotel for several years. Then in 2017, Phipps' husband died unexpectedly, leaving her with a more than $200,000 mortgage that drained her savings as she struggled to reestablish her livelihood.

"I don't know what I'm going to do—I'm 66 years old, I have a heart condition," Phipps said. "I've had one thing after another."

Sandy killed 44 people and ultimately cost the city an estimated $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity, officials reported, with over 69,000 residences damaged and thousands of New Yorkers like Phipps forced to find new homes.

 

As climate change fuels stronger and more frequent storms, environmental advocates have pointed to the devastation left in Sandy's wake as a prime example of why fortifying America's coastal cities against natural disasters and sea level rise is more important now than ever. It's also why activists are now criticizing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced late last month that the state was withdrawing a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters in November, would have provided vital funding for efforts meant to prevent the kind of damage Sandy inflicted.

The Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, which was approved by lawmakers in the state budget earlier this year, would have issued $3 billion in state bonds to help fund projects specifically geared toward reducing New York's flood risk, including building artificial reefs in the Long Island Sound. But because of the pandemic, the state now faces a $30 billion budget deficit over the next two years. And in a press briefing in June, Cuomo said it wouldn't be "financially prudent" to pursue the bond act until next year.

The bill was widely supported by legislators and advocacy groups alike, many of whom expressed shock and disappointment at the postponement. The wait, they argued, could ultimately cost New York more money in the long run, as storms get worse, and delaying climate action could further harm the state's communities of color, with broader consequences across the nation.

Already, federal forecasters are predicting an extremely active hurricane season with up to 25 named storms, compared to 12 in an average year. And several reports have marked Northeastern states as some of the most vulnerable to coastal storms and rising seas in the coming decades.

Under the current projections for warming, New York's coast is likely to experience 2 feet of sea level rise by 2045, according to a 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report also noted that for every dollar the United States invests in mitigation, $6 could be saved in future disaster costs. And a major study released last month found that the world is facing a potential 20 percent loss in overall GDP by 2100 as a result of sea level rise, if governments don't invest more in flood defense.

"When the coronavirus lets up, the climate crisis will still be here," Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, wrote in a statement, responding to Cuomo's decision. "Government can't continue treating the environment as a luxury—it is a critical asset."

Delays Harm Low-Income Communities of Color Most

While one year may not seem like a long wait, it could mean the difference between losing a home or a source of income. To Phipps, who lives in an area of Queens that is predominately Black and Hispanic, it only took one storm to take away both.

When a city program rebuilt her house in 2017, and a court dismissed the bank's attempt to foreclose the property, she thought she might have finally caught a break. But in March, she was again served foreclosure papers. It's not lost on her that projects funded by the bond measure could have helped prevent the kind of flooding that toppled her life in the first place, she said.

"You've got a lot of homeowners out here facing foreclosures," said Phipps, who is Black, adding that Cuomo "shouldn't play around with this—New York City is surrounded by water."

Police give residents emergency information in the Rockaway section of Queens after Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012.

Police give residents emergency information in the Rockaway section of Queens after Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Advocacy groups say stories like Phipps' are common, and that any delay in climate adaptation funding will only further harm the state's low-income communities of color who already bear a disproportionate burden from global warming and simply don't have time to wait.

A major federal report in 2018 found that low-income communities had higher rates of myriad health conditions, were more exposed to environmental hazards and took longer to bounce back from natural disasters. The report, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, also showed that more affluent neighborhoods were far better equipped to handle floods compared to poorer ones. For example, the report found no homes in Manhattan—the city's most wealthy borough—that were at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.  In contrast, Queens, a far less affluent borough with a greater number of people of color, could have thousands of homes at risk of chronic inundation in that same timeframe.

"Low-income communities have less economic and political power to deal with disasters, so it's much harder to bounce back," said Pete Sikora, an organizer with the racial justice advocacy group New York Communities for Change, which has been pushing the Cuomo administration and other lawmakers to adopt a state Green New Deal.

While Sikora doesn't believe the $3 billion in the Act is enough to address all the flooding-related challenges the state faces, "it would have provided the funding to help prepare low-income communities of color for sea level rise and storm surge," he said.

Decisions Made in a Major Election Year Could Reverberate Nationwide

Some groups also worry that delaying the bond act this year could have broader, country-wide consequences, as voters gear up for an especially charged presidential election.

"States learn from one another and all eyes were sort of on New York" and its plan to put up a $3 billion bond to deal with climate change, said Mark Rupp, director of state and federal policy and affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. But seeing New York back down from that commitment may discourage other states from making similar investments or result in their using coronavirus as a reason to whittle down or cancel their own climate commitments, he said.

Rupp said that the state will also miss an opportunity to put the measure before voters in what's expected to be a presidential election with a record-high turnout, and that the measure might not see the same kind of support next year as it is likely to this year.

A spokesman for Cuomo said that considering how popular the bill was this year, the administration doesn't expect the Act to fare any worse in 2021, and that New York's ability to pursue climate initiatives like this one depends on how much federal support the state can get in the coming years. Last week, Cuomo sent a letter to Congress asking for $30 billion over the next two years to help the state keep the budget commitments it made this year, but recent negotiations over further pandemic-related stimulus packages have failed to make any serious progress in Congress.

But Rupp said the bond measure could have helped the Cuomo administration in terms of federal funding, too. Should Biden win, he said, his administration would probably be far more receptive to providing federal aid to New York for climate adaptation projects if the state already was putting up money for those efforts.

"The $3 billion could really leverage the sorts of federal resources that would no doubt be included in any stimulus package," he said.

 

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