Should We Be Following Hurricane Sandy Relief Money Online?


Two weeks ago, the federal government gave New York City’s Hurricane Sandy recovery plan the green light. With some $1.77 billion of federal funds, the city would spend more than a third on housing, invest in small businesses in areas destroyed by the storm, and rebuild infrastructure. One teensy foreseeable problem: Disaster relief funds have a tendency to go rogue.

That’s why City Councilman Donovan Richards, who represents the Rockaways, and Councilman Brad Lander, representing part of Brooklyn’s waterfront, have introduced legislation to track how these funds are allocated. The Sandy Tracking Bill, which has gained the support of 30 councilmembers, would post city, state, and federal funding pathways for anyone to search in a public database online, and would include employment numbers on rebuilding projects.

The bill would also see to it that unionized and fair-wage jobs are prioritized over cheap labor.

“The Sandy Tracking Bill is a way to provide the type of transparency that not only New Yorkers ask for, but what elected officials always promise,” Richards said.

Following Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 the U.S. Attorney General established a Katrina fraud task force to evaluate where the money was going. By 2007, that task force had charged 525 people in 35 different judicial districts with crimes related to disaster relief funding–fraud, identity theft, theft of federal funds, and public corruption. (For comparison, legislators drafting the 2007 Emergency and Disaster Assistance Fraud Penalty Enhancement Act pointed out that only 25 individuals had been charged with fraud involving the billions of dollars spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars–which seems off.)

In April, however, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie controversially vetoed a bill that would have tracked Sandy relief funds online. “This bill would produce unnecessary redundancies and waste government resources,” the governor said in a statement.

Richards, on the other hand, said it was “critical that we ensure that federal, state, and city funds that are coming down the pipeline are being utilized and stretched to the maximum in order to create good jobs, affordable housing, and rid our homes of mold.”

Don’t underestimate that mold. Earlier this year, 12 New York congressmen sent a letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, calling the insidious mold swallowing up destroyed and damaged homes an “emerging crisis.” According to a Times report in February, at least one relief organization put the number of mold-infested homes in New York City at 30,000.