Winter looming, New York rushes to repair homes hit by superstorm Sandy
Hiring private contractors to repair homes quickly, New York responds to disaster relief in its own entrepreneurial way. Will the city be able to get people back in their homes before year's end?
In Pictures Sandy: Chronicle of an unrelenting storm
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The title of the chapter: Let business do it.
For the short term, the city's largest effort involves putting together, at the federal government's expense, private-sector teams of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters who will repair homes while city inspectors monitor the work.
IN PICTURES: Sandy – chronicle of an unrelenting storm
New York is also trying smaller efforts to get people housed, such as recruiting real estate management companies to find empty apartments. And the city has embraced online services such as Airbnb, which is connecting warmhearted New Yorkers who have a spare room with those in need of a warm bed.
All this is being done in a New York minute.
Unlike New Orleans, when it was trying to recover from hurricane Katrina, New York has cold, snowy weather bearing down on it. So it's trying to move fast, with a goal of getting as many people as possible back in their homes by the end of the year.
"We are breaking new ground here. It has never been done this way before," says Corinne Packard, an expert on postcatastrophe reconstruction and an assistant professor at the New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate. "And true to Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg's philosophy, it is private-sector-driven."
In 2005 after Katrina, New Orleans endured months of bickering over who was at fault and whether to rebuild. "In New Orleans there were many missteps," says Wellington Reiter, an architect who at the time was at Tulane University in the city.
Back then, urban planners and advisory groups of architects met with neighborhood community groups in planning sessions, Ms. Packard recalls. "In New York, I haven't seen a plan," she says. "But maybe this is the right way to do this quickly."
New York officials quickly decided that they did not want to set up "Katrina trailers" or other forms of temporary housing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had brought in 145,000 small white mobile homes after Katrina, which were controversial.
In New York, "the way we look at it is that the best temporary housing is permanent housing," says Cas Holloway, the city's deputy mayor for operations.
City officials also realized that they needed to find a more efficient way to get licensed electricians, plumbers, and carpenters to people.
"If everyone picked up the phone and dialed for an electrician or a plumber, you will have an immediate market failure," Mr. Holloway says. Instead, the city decided to hire six very large private contractors that would be divided among the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.
"With that kind of efficiency, you will get it done cheaper and faster than if everyone has to do it on their own," the deputy mayor says. As of late November, there were 7,500 requests for so-called Rapid Repairs teams.
The city estimates it will have 500 to 600 teams operating by early December. It takes each team about a day to get heat, hot water, and electricity to a house or apartment. "Our goal is to get as many done this calendar year as possible," Holloway says.
The city's efforts can't come soon enough for Virginia Fernandez and her family, who were living in the Rockaway section of Queens.
Just before Thanksgiving, her home still had seawater in the electric-meter equipment. Ms. Fernandez, her 6-year-old son, her mother, and her husband were keeping warm by running the apartment's gas oven. When the city turned off the gas, most of the family moved temporarily to Harrisburg, Pa., to live with friends. In December Fernandez and her son moved to Manhattan to live with another friend. As of Dec. 2, she says her house in the Rockaways remained without heat and electricity.
How many people are affected?
As many as 25,000 people in New York City may be without heat and electricity, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in late November. However, he quickly added, "No one really knows because people may have left their houses to stay with neighbors or family members or taken a room in a hotel."
The number of homes that have been damaged or destroyed in the city has also been hard to pin down. Mr. Bloomberg initially estimated 40,000, but that number was reduced to 10,000. In late November, workers were going door to door to get a better idea of where people were living.
New Jersey says it lost 30,000 homes and businesses, New York State said it had 305,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and Connecticut had 3,000 homes damaged. By comparison, hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed 255,700 homes, according to the Commerce Department.