What can New York do to prepare for its next big hurricane?

Kate Boicourt from the Environmental Defense Fund talks about what the state needs to prepare for future disasters and how to make those efforts equitable.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a press conference in Queens addressing the impact of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a press conference in Queens addressing the impact of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2. Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Just two weeks ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on New York and killed at least 43 people within the tri-state area. 

The storm’s heavy rainfall caused significant damage to numerous homes and neighborhoods, as well as the New York City’s subway system. Many of the city’s residents took to social media to share shocking photos and videos of streets and subway stations flooded with water. Now, in the wake of the deadly hurricane, environmental advocates, climate change experts and politicians, among others, are pushing the state to create greater resiliency plans and prepare for future natural disasters.

Kate Boicourt, director of NY-NJ climate resilient coasts and watersheds at the Environmental Defense Fund, which is one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, spoke to NYN Media about what the state can do to try to prevent future disasters from making as big of an impact on its population and making sure those solutions are equitable.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Climate change is making the occurrence of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Ida, increasingly more common. How can New York brace itself and prepare for future disasters?

I think the number one thing is that there's no good funding source for investing in the exposures that we already have. We already have a lot of risk in the way that we've built our systems and our houses and the way that we've zoned (in New York), so I think we need to do two overarching things: one is invest in and figure out ways to do so as cheaply as we can, to address the risks that are already out there. The second is to plan and zone, and build better, and maybe not build in the same places that we did before. 

There's a real opportunity at the state level, through the passage, potentially, of the Environmental Bond Act ballot measure in 2022, which would authorize about $3 billion for environmental investments. A lot of those would be for resilience, focused on flooding. There's also a lot of federal funds that need that kind of matching. The more matches we can make at the state level, the more opportunities for federal programs and match funding we can get. There's actually several new or expanded opportunities for that at the federal level, one of which is something called the Storm Act that was just passed (and signed into law). It authorizes millions to be invested at the state level for a revolving resilience loan fund but that requires a state match. There are a lot of these things (policies) that we need every level of government to be stepping up and investing in. 

Those who died due to the flash flooding in New York City were primarily low-income residents, how can we make sure that the aid being provided is equitable?

Well, that’s a big job to do because it's not. That's something that EDS is working on nationally with Army Corps policies. This is sort of a separate issue but related to flooding. The way that we do cost benefit analyses through FEMA and the Army Corps aren't – and the federal government knows this – the most equitable. The way that we assess the value of the property doesn’t really favor low income families in terms of resources invested. 

More broadly, housing and the right to affordable housing in this city is non-existent and that's going to be key. The current crisis of housing inequity that we have is really only going to be exacerbated by climate change. Figuring out a way to build affordable housing faster, and more deeply affordable housing, I think is a crucial piece of this, in making sure that any investment whether it's green infrastructure or other, really are prioritized neighborhoods that are most impacted.

What organizations are currently aiding individuals who suffered immense damages during the hurricane? What kind of support do these organizations need from the state or federal government to continue to do the work they’ve been doing and will presumably continue to do?

After Hurricane Sandy, it became very clear that after the major disaster declaration – which allows not only the state and city to get funding but individuals through FEMA’s individual assistance program – that most people didn't know that was an option. People built really quickly after (the hurricane) or did their repairs and didn't document it and that prevented them from getting assistance. Part of the reason for that was the information about the programs was not clear to many people and in many neighborhoods there was insufficient outreach. Those neighborhoods were often those that had language barriers or a historic erosion of trust with the government and that meant that people didn't get counted. And actually, there was a false perspective of who was impacted by that storm initially. 

Thanks to some of my colleagues at NHS Brooklyn and the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, there was a lot of work being done to try to do outreach after the fact. I know that they've learned from that and are trying to do outreach in neighborhoods about these programs and about the fact that they’re not easy (to access). The Office of Emergency Management is the entity that's doing most of the coordinating but New York Cares is working on getting some information out there (about disaster relief) and the New York City volunteer organization Active in Disaster has a lot of members. 

They need funding before the disaster to be able to communicate about disasters and preparedness because they really are meeting all the time, even when disaster is not happening in order to prepare.

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