Even though Superstorm Sandy feels like it hit ages ago — Obama was still campaigning for his second term, for crying out loud — it should come as no surprise that as we arrive at the fifth anniversary of the storm on Sunday, recovery efforts remain underway. Officials warned us at the time that it could be one of the most “expensive and extensive” storm recovery efforts in American history. And it has been, at least until the next one hits.
Just this week, researchers from Rutgers University found that New York City could experience Sandy-like storm surges every five years by the middle of the century. The implications would be vast and profound: If Sandy recovery efforts are any indicator, it means we wouldn’t even finish repairs from one storm before another knocked us back down again. Hopefully, the various stakeholders in the Sandy recovery efforts, from federal to state to local actors, have learned a great deal over the last five years, because the only certainty is that, at some point, we will have to do this all over again.
Some projects to repair and upgrade both housing and transportation networks have gone better than expected, like the Montague Tube subway tunnel repairs that shut down the R train between Brooklyn and Manhattan for thirteen months but finished early and under budget. Others have not. Some haven’t even begun yet.
The New York City Housing Authority says some 80,000 residents in more than 400 buildings were “significantly affected” by Sandy. “Many,” the Authority goes on to say in a fact sheet published on October 17, “are still feeling the impact today.”
One big reason for the slow pace of repairs was that it took three years for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award a $3 billion grant for the recovery work. That meant NYCHA couldn’t actually begin to use that money until this year. Work now being done at 33 developments across Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island includes repairs for Sandy damage, replacing temporary boilers installed after the storm with permanent ones, and resiliency work to prevent extensive damage and power outages in future storms. Of the 33 projects, 17 are currently under construction and one is completed. NYCHA expects to begin construction on the remaining projects by the end of the year; you can track their progress on the Authority’s website.
For private housing, in June 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced the Build It Back Program, a city initiative to help homeowners build or renovate their homes because of damage from Sandy or elevate them to help stay above the next storm. The program, although well-intentioned, has been widely criticized for being slow and bureaucratic. On the third anniversary of Sandy, de Blasio promised to complete every construction project in Build It Back by the end of 2016. That didn’t happen. According to a recent ABC News report, “nearly 1,000 families are waiting for construction to be completed,” which is another way of saying their homes have still not been rebuilt from a storm that hit five years ago. De Blasio’s new target is to have all construction finished by the spring.
Much of the MTA’s Sandy recovery work was a triumph. The storm hit on a Monday, and despite unprecedented flooding in every major tube, service on fifteen subway lines resumed that Thursday (albeit without service below 34th Street or between Manhattan and Brooklyn) and on most Metro-North lines the following day. It took only one week to restore full rush hour service across the system.
Still, a massive amount of work remained to actually repair the damage. Most of that work is now completed, but one East River tunnel yet to be fixed will be the biggest pain of all: Repairs on the Canarsie Tube will require the L train to shut down, beginning in April 2019 and lasting for fifteen months of misery for the 225,000 people who commute via the L across the river every weekday.
But the Canarsie Tube is not the next nor the last tunnel that needs repairing thanks to Sandy. Currently, 2 and 3 trains don’t run between Manhattan and Brooklyn on weekends as the MTA repairs the Clark Street Tube, work that started in the spring of this year and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2018. The agency also plans to close the F train’s Rutgers Tube on weekends starting in 2022 for similar repairs. And all that repair work says nothing of the “fortify” bit of the Fix & Fortify plan, which involves installing rapidly deploying covers over 5,600 street openings so stations don’t flood, and on which progress has been painfully slow.
The MTA is also working on a thirty-mile section of the Metro-North Hudson Line, replacing and fortifying power, communication, and signal infrastructure. While service disruptions remain fairly minimal, the work is not expected to be completed until January.
The honor of the final Sandy recovery effort may go to Amtrak. The national rail agency recently announced it is planning to wait eight more freaking years to begin repairs to its East River tunnels, which are heavily used by the Long Island Rail Road. Apparently, the plan is to wait for the East Side Access project to be completed so LIRR trains have another route into Manhattan while the current tunnels are repaired. This is a bit like waiting for the apocalypse (the real one, not of the L train variety), as completion of the East Side Access has been repeatedly delayed: It was initially scheduled to be finished in 2009 — a whole three years before Sandy — but, after a series of pushbacks, is now set for 2023.
All this means that Amtrak doesn’t plan on repairing damage from Sandy until thirteen years after it hit. By then, it probably won’t even be designated Sandy repair work. It’ll be repairs for whatever the next storm is to strike by then.