When ‘it’s just government’ isn’t an excuse


It’s a new year. A time of renewal. A time when we look ahead to brighter days.
Many people, however, woke up a couple of days before Christmas to heavy rain and wind that once again brought a frightening amount of flooding to residential streets and primary roadways.
The early-winter storm evoked memories of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which was considered a once-in-a-century weather event. One South Shore resident even said that the storm was “giving me Sandy vibes.”
As early-morning motorists maneuvered through small rivers of water, it wasn’t surprising that some thought, “No, not again.” But they may have scratched their heads at the next thought: “Where are all those Sandy flood-mitigation projects we were promised?”
Less than a year after Sandy, New York state — under the direction of then Gov. Andrew Cuomo — established the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery to centralize the rebuilding and recovery efforts. One of its programs, New York Rising Community Reconstruction, empowered local communities to provide input into resiliency projects. Sandy was one of three storms — along with Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 — that were under the storm recovery office’s umbrella.
Roughly $4.4 billion was made available to the state through federal funding for an assortment of resiliency projects as well as for residential home rebuilding. For the NYRCR program, communities assembled committees of civic leaders. There were public meetings. Engineers were consulted. Ideas were exchanged. Public comment was collected.
From the list of NYRCR projects provided by the storm recovery office, 45 have been completed in Nassau County, while 30 others are in progress. These projects total nearly $334 million. GOSR has done a heck of a job.
However, getting to this point is one thing, but finishing is something else. What started as a well-run program looks as if it’s going to be a tough haul to complete.
Local officials tasked with cooperating with their state counterparts have found the process, which continues today, annoyingly slow and frustrating. There have been too many meetings, too much talk, and a lack of coordination — to the point where it felt like projects were constantly stopping and starting.
One of the problems appears to have been self-inflicted. As local officials pushed to move the projects forward, not only were there too many personnel changes in the state storm-recovery office, but the incoming officials, based in New York City, were unfamiliar with Long Island. Some projects went through nearly 10 iterations. It seemed that the process had to start from scratch any time there was a change in GOSR leadership.
Storm recovery representatives were also constantly interpreting federal language differently, creating more bumps in the road. The large volume of paperwork that moved back and forth between municipalities — requirements put in place by federal agencies as a response to the rampant fraud, waste and abuse of funds after Hurricane Katrina — slowed projects down.
Then, in 2020, the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Projects that were in the works were given extensions because of unforeseen conditions that created supply-chain issues. That was understandable.
But don’t misunderstand: Much has been accomplished. There is a pump station in Cedarhurst, for example, that surely could help reduce flooding on Peninsula Boulevard.
Cuomo’s idea of having one central entity to oversee the projects was a good one. And the grass-roots NYRCR program won numerous national awards. But as more projects move forward, the state’s execution needs to be better. Now that there is a record of what was done — good and bad — there should be an audit, and what is learned from it should be applied as soon as possible.
The state’s newly created — and much more permanent — Office of Resilient Homes and Communities will now take over the storm recovery office portfolio. We hope that a permanent department will mean less staff shuffling and a streamlining of the bureaucracy. Importantly, state officials need to be more familiar with the communities they are supposed to be helping.
At one of many public meetings held several years ago, one resident was heard to say, “It’s just government,” in response to proposed plans that neighbors did not completely agree with.
That’s not an excuse our government should hide behind. To start the new year off right, the state should move the remaining projects to completion as soon as possible — before the next storm strikes.