A novel endeavor to make flooded homes habitable after Superstorm Sandy is wrapping up after repairs to more than 20,000 houses and apartments, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last Friday, March 22.
As officials faced the challenge of housing thousands of displaced people in a densely built and expensive city, they decided to experiment and spend about $500 million sending workers to install boilers, replace electrical panels and make other basic fixes for free so residents could return.
While some homeowners and advocates have complained the “Rapid Repairs” program got off to a slow start and some repairs proved problematic, Bloomberg and residents of a Sandy-ravaged island heralded it as a first-time initiative that helped about 54,000 people get back home.
“There were skeptics. There were a lot of people that said, `Oh, you’re taking too long,”‘ the mayor said, but he called the results “a remarkable achievement” and a model of “resourceful and effective response to an unprecedented natural disaster.”
Usually, the Federal Emergency Management Agency assesses storm damage and insurance and gives homeowners a check, leaving them to arrange the work. But after Sandy, FEMA and city officials reasoned they could get homes fixed faster if the city hired contractors, coordinated repair requests, dispatched the workers and paid for it all directly. The free repairs were on top of the $31,900-per-family cap for FEMA aid.
Work began three weeks after the Oct. 29 storm. At the program’s peak, some 2,300 tradespeople a day were involved, finishing work on 200 homes a day. They didn’t fix everything but did what was needed for homes to get power, heat and hot water.
Robert Keith slept in his car and showered at a volunteer fire department headquarters for a while after Sandy’s surge pushed 6 feet of water into his home in Broad Channel, an island near the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. He signed up for Rapid Repairs on its first day.
He said he didn’t wait long before the program dispatched a squad of plumbers, electricians and other workers to his house. They were done in a day.
“They did an outstanding job,” he said.
But some homeowners have said the program was neither rapid, at least in the early going, nor effective.
They complained about missed appointments, redundant visits to assess the work needed, inadequate boilers and other problems. An initial system of paying contractors for their time and materials spurred questions about whether the work was being done as efficiently as possible. By late December, a group of churches and homeowners had gathered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition urging the city to speed up the work.
“People who were at one of the most critical stages in their lives were left sitting, literally, and figuratively, in the dark,” said City Councilman James Oddo, whose Staten Island district took a hit in Sandy. He said Rapid Repairs was creative and ultimately helped people, but officials shouldn’t “diminish the very real pain my constituents endured in the first few months of this program.”
In December, the city began paying contractors per home, not by time and materials, which officials said they’d done to get the program going. A follow-up initiative was launched last month to help residents whose repairs had hitches, though officials say it was started because the program was nearing an end, not because of any complaints.
As Rapid Repairs ends, Bloomberg announced a $10 million commitment of private money, raised by the city, to do some work Rapid Repairs didn’t cover in 600 or more homes.
Rapid Repairs was ultimately financed with federal money. The service — averaging $25,000 per home — was provided on top of FEMA’s customary assistance for Sandy victims, which included hotel stays for some and payments that could be used toward repairs and toward rent on temporary dwellings.
Bloomberg said Rapid Repairs got people back home, where they wanted to be, faster than they would have if thousands of homeowners hunted for repair workers on their own.
Moreover, alternatives were tricky: Trailers, often used after other disasters, weren’t workable for New York City, officials said. Trailers also have sometimes proven costly: In one example, the federal General Accounting Office estimated FEMA would end up spending $229,000 per trailer in an installation in Bay St. Louis, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina.
New York Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway said Rapid Repairs should prove to be “a good deal.”
Meanwhile, officials aim to move Sandy victims out of city-paid hotel rooms and into more permanent quarters by the end of April, Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond said on March 22.
Some 743 households are currently in such rooms, at an average of $250 per night. The city is working to make sure all can go home, move in with relatives or move to apartments, including some public housing apartments made available for Sandy victims, Diamond said.
The Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, said it feared some people would end up in already packed homeless shelters. But Diamond said officials “don’t think we’re going to be in that position.”
Other families remain in FEMA-provided hotel rooms. They can stay though at least April 14.