Ideas For Re-building Southern Brooklyn After Sandy

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a proud native New Yorker. I love love love NY. In fact, when traveling abroad, when people ask me who I am, I don’t even say I’m a doctor. I proudly say that I’m a New Yorker.

I grew up in Southern Brooklyn and I love it there. I used to walk down Oriental Boulevard in Manhattan Beach and look at all the beautiful houses on my walk over to the beach. I’ve always loved how the streets were in alphabetical order. I used to visit the the fisherman’s boats out on Sheepshead Bay in the summer and head over to Roll n Roaster for their famous roast beef sandwiches, iced tea and lemonade. I used to go to Brighton Beach and to this day, still travel out 3 hours to get a taste of Little Odessa -stuffing my face with Russian, Ughuyr, Turkish food. I love walking the boardwalk as ocean breezes carry the heat of summer away on my walks to Coney Island, and have gone there for the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, the Mermaid Parade, Brooklyn concerts (i.e. John Legend) and the Aquarium. I also have taken the train out to Bay Ridge for pizza and delicious Italian pastries and driven over to the Rockaways -that one strip of road that makes you feel like you are in a movie, with water on either side is just gorgeous. I’ve also been to Staten Island, riding the ferry over and even did my OB/GYN and part of my Internal Medicine rotation at Staten Island University Hospital, riding the bus over the Verrazzano Bridge at 5 am with hardworking people starting their jobs or coming home from overnight ones. I love the nostalgia, I love the food (I don’t care what people say, we have the best pizza), I love the people and the sense of community, I love the idyllic life affirming simplicity of being in Southern Brooklyn.

Last week, I attended a Town Hall Sandy Oversight meeting held by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Councilman Chaim Deutsch, Councilman Mark Treygar, Councilman Alan Maisel and other senior NYC government officials held at Coney Island Hospital, a place I know very well, having grown up in the 11235 zip code and having done a medical rotation at the hospital, as well as having written a community health assessment on the area in college.

I attended the meeting because my family was directly affected when Super Storm Sandy hit 18 months ago. I helped evacuate my family from the area and I was there to see the destruction when we came back: a five foot water mark, mere remnants of our life in that house, mold, and the stench of mud, dirt, and human waste greeted me. But we were lucky because at least the four walls that make up our residence still stood. For others, it was as if a nuclear bomb, a water wall, had leveled their homes and to a certain extent their lives.

We were hit hard by Sandy. It was way worse than Irene, which only came up to about a foot high. My parents have lived with my sister and I since the day the storm hit because of the damage caused by the storm and the after effects.The house is currently inhabitable due to mold and a roof that is pretty much shot and we have been robbed twice. The first time was a minor break-in. The second time, the house was trashed and ransacked -they even took rice cookers, pots, pans, and all of the presents/tchotchkes people have given my mom (and what she has cherished for the past 30 years), carrying it away in our pillowcases to boot, to add insult to injury.

Like many people affected by the storm, we signed up for the Build it Back program and I knew that many people had signed up for it and that people were literally left homeless. I thought that things were taking so long because we were likely third tier just based on how the program was structured and so we were patiently waiting our turn (because there was a stipulation prior to the current changes that you needed to wait for your assessment before starting work on the re-build). I was really shocked to read in the paper that 18 months later, despite the millions of dollars of funding, very little aid has reached people affected by the storm. I was even more shocked to have learned that 18 months later, only 4 of the 6400 people in Coney Island who applied for aid have received it.

Going to the Coney Island meeting was an eye-opening experience for me. I was able to hear first-hand accounts of people’s experiences after the storm and the fact that the meeting even came to be and that there was a strong willingness to listen on the part of our civic leaders has made me hopeful. Government works when it takes the time to listen to the people it represents and acts to fulfill its promise to serve and protect the people.

Comptroller Stringer opened the meeting by talking about what has happened (or what has not happened since the storm). Other city officials also spoke. I thought it was great though, that 90% of the meeting was community leaders and individuals affected by the storm giving their testimony. About 300+ people were in attendance.

Many of the stories were heartbreaking. One woman who spoke was a retired police officer who runs a youth group. She took in and housed 50 teens because her nonprofit has received very little aid. A woman with Stage 4 lung cancer and a partially resected lung took the floor, her breathing labored by her condition, and gave testimony about her ordeal navigating the aid process. Another woman stood up and talked about how she had to dig into her most of her life savings and her 401K to re-build her home and was now being told she might have to tear it down because the foundation wasn’t high enough for flood protection. (She doesn’t have the funds to do that.) Another woman stood up and she too has Stage 4 cancer, with mets to her spine (which are incredibly painful) and she is sleeping on a friend’s couch because she is unable to return to her home. The lead representative from the Sea Gate community stood up and spoke about the need for a rebuild and repair of the Coney Island sewer system -every time it rains, the community is flooded with raw sewage. A representative of various mom and pop stores in Brighton Beach stood up and spoke up about how many businesses hadn’t received aid because they had been turned down for small business loans because for some reason they didn’t qualify. Another man spoke about how applying for a small business loan invalidated his eligibility for other assistance. A woman stood up and talked about how some people in charge of aid refused to go to her basement because there was raw sewage in it, even though it is something she has to deal with on a daily basis. One after another, more and more people stood up to speak about their struggles and grievances. In speaking to the civic leaders, they said, “We need you to be our superheroes”. To which, the Comptroller replied, “Anyone who gives us their information…if you don’t get a call back tomorrow, someone in the Comptroller’s Office is getting fired”.

Ideas For the Re-build:

So much time has past and so much money has been spent. It’s time for action and accountability. It’s time to do what needs to be done. It’s time to re-build the places we call home.

1. De-centralize the distribution process for funding (top-down ->to grassroots/hyperlocal)

I think that taking a grassroots->up approach to funding will be very helpful moving forward. A lot of local non-profits in the affected areas really stepped up during the storm and its aftermath and even became mini case and disaster management agencies. Many houses of worship also stepped up. They know the areas they serve very well and many nonprofits already run on really tight budgets -making dollars out of pennies, so there is a natural tendency and skill towards a lean model and streamlined process. I think that allocating aid through and to community organizations and boards will help get aid to those who need it most. It also will hopefully cut down on the number of layers that people will have to interact with in order to get things done, in addition to being able to handle the nuances and special circumstances surrounding specific cases. Think mini-Navy Seal teams.

I also think that giving local Build it Back centers more authority when it comes to making decisions will be helpful especially when they are made in the context of participatory budgeting and in conjunction with the community and its members.

2. Cut waste wherever possible and allocate the savings to areas that need it.

One of the things that was pointed out during the meeting was the amount of booklets and papers used. I think that’s a fair point. Perhaps it would be better if we had people opt-in for an all digital version of what they need and how they get their information. This would save paper and $$$. For those folks who prefer paper, they would just state their preference and get paper versions.

A second point that was made at the meeting was the use of “overpriced consultants”. I think that having community experts with special skills weigh in might be the way to go. I also see universities potentially lending their expertise. What if someone’s project on say, storm prevention design was put into a real world, real time practical application? I’ve also heard of a program in Chicago where corporations have lent out their consultants to the government/city at no charge to help tackle city issues.

3. Crowdsource ideas from the community and share.

Empower people to step up and be heard. Have a platform that allows them the opportunity to do that. People who live and work in a community are invested in it. They know what’s going on and they know what the issues are. They know which traffic lights are broken and which streets have the most potholes. They also have ideas as to what they want their neighborhood to be. Why not crowdsource ideas and ask people what the issues are, what needs to be done, and how they would solve a problem? I really liked the Talking Transitions event http://talkingtransitionnyc.com/ Perhaps we could do something similar but maybe at a more local level.

4. Set up a service core and pool resources for synergy.

In looking at the web sites for disaster recovery and following what’s been happening on Twitter, I’ve seen several small volunteer groups in Staten Island, in the Rockaways, Canarsie, etc band together and help re-build people’s homes. There are also some groups on the NYC Service Corps web site. What if we had a Habitat for Humanity-like group here in Southern Brooklyn? Or what if we asked corporations that host volunteer days to dedicate some of those corporate volunteer days to Hurricane Sandy re-build projects? What if Lowes or Home Depot, who already offer free classes on home repairs set up special classes for volunteers who help in the rebuild? What if Scripps Network (who owns DIY and HGTV etc) had a show dedicated to re-building Sandy homes?

5. Have a timeline -track progress of communities online.

I like how the city has put individual application status reports online. I also like how resource and funding applications are being put online. I would love to see community timelines, so there is a pace that is set when it comes to getting things done. What are the most urgent things we need to address?

This is about transparency and accountability. I would like to see monthly meetings, just like the town hall, that go over what progress is being made, what issues have arisen, and what still needs to be done. I think it’s important to pool resources wherever we can and also be able to talk to and share with other communities what has worked for them and what they have learned in the re-build process. For example, at the Talking Transitions event, I learned about the Red Hook Wifi Initiative and how a MeSh was put together to get people access so they could communicate during the storm. Sharing what doesn’t work also helps. Saves people time and money.

6. Look into measures that leverage existing infrastructure.

How can we maximize what we do have? We don’t necessarily have to re-build everything. Can we re-inforce existing structures? For example, the city had a campaign to “Re-invent the Payphone” and right now there are test areas where payphones will be turned into Wifi hot spots. I like libraries, community centers, schools etc as places where people can get together and make things happen.

7. Focus on the A’s -Access, Accountability, Affordable housing, Action, Audits.

It’s important that people be able to get access to help and know what is available to them. A point that was made at the meeting was to think about the people who were not in attendance. People who were afraid to speak or who had to work and couldn’t make it. People who may not speak English.

Affordable housing is a critical issue. People want to re-build and return to their homes.

Accountability is huge. The storm was bad enough, the re-build process should not be an ordeal and people should be held accountable for their actions or in-actions. At the same time, it shouldn’t be all about pointing fingers. I would like to focus on what can be done better from this point forward and what creative and cost-effective solutions we can come up with and act upon those ideas.

8. Ask for help.

We live in an amazing place, with amazingly talented people, with good ideas and big hearts. I’m a techie, and during the storm, NY tech meetup members as well as other New Yorkers really stepped up by developing ways to help people communicate, create disaster relief tools (http://nytm.org/blog/entry/12-30-2012/rallying-tech-volunteers-to-help-post-hurricane-sandy), and by physically handing out food and supplies to people who needed it.

There is CodeforAmerica and BetaNYC (http://betanyc.us), who help make city data more accessible. They help build tools for civic engagement. They have even petitioned for livestreaming of civic meetings so people can conveniently access and find out information about what is happening in the city.

There is the NYC Big Apps (http://nycbigapps.com/) which is currently running and is about ideas for NY. Would love to see some solutions targeted towards disaster relief and the rebuild.

9. Build for all New Yorkers.

We really do live in the best city in the world and it’s because of the people who live here. People bring color and life to an area. They are the core of the community and a sense of neighborhood. Southern Brooklyn is an amazing place because of the different kinds of people who live there. People speak all kinds of languages and come from all different kinds of places. I think it’s important to preserve the culture and the nostalgia. (Jane Jacobs would be proud).

10. Build with the future in mind.

The lead representative from Sea Gate spoke about the need for a codified plan & determining who and which organizations will be activated when the next storm happens (and it will). I agree, I think that being prepared is incredibly important as we move forward.

I have read all 140+ pages of the NY Rising Coney Island plan and I like that it hits all aspects, from transportation, to education initiatives. In particular I like that there were plans related to sustainability, preserving natural resources and providing education. I really like what GreenForceNY and programs like it are doing.

I would love to see something like what Take the Helm did for lower Manhattan. How do we encourage businesses to stay, come back, or build themselves in Southern Brooklyn? One of my ideas is to have a Bay Ridge, Coney Island, Staten Island, Rockaways ferry system during the summer. If you look at a map of NYC it is surrounded by water, and ferries are a lovely way to see the city. They also don’t require a huge capital investment compared to having to build out other modes of transportation.

What will the future of Southern Brooklyn look like? Will we become another tech triangle in the city? Will we be known for our solar panels or ocean powered energy sources? Will we be known for marine aquaponic farming?

I think that the possibilities of what we could be are endless, but right now it’s about addressing the issue of housing (one of the most basic needs), infrastructure, and streamlining resource allocation cost-effectively. I also would like to see this happen: town hall on issues ->action ->assessment and pivot (rinse and repeat), as opposed to meetings to set up other meetings.

As an educated, English-speaking, able bodied person, and as a citizen of the community it’s important for me to listen, to speak out (especially for people who cannot speak or are afraid to do so) and to use any skills and ideas I have to offer to help out. This is about purpose.This is about service.This is about giving people their homes back, and more importantly, this is about giving people (my people, my fellow New Yorkers) their lives and their hope (for the future) back.

Going forward we need good ideas and good people to step up and take action because honestly, it is sorely needed and long overdue. Join me, join us, in helping to re-build Southern Brooklyn back, and better than ever. I want to hear from you.

In writing this, I have followed up on the meeting, as promised, and hope our representatives step up and follow up with me. I left my email & phone # at the event and I am on Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter. Please feel free to add your ideas in the comments section below. Please RT and share.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s