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Build it Back Was a 'Categorical Failure,' Its Creator Says

By Nicholas Rizzi | July 12, 2016 3:28pm
 Brad Gair, the creator of the city's Build it Back Sandy recovery program, called his creating a
Brad Gair, the creator of the city's Build it Back Sandy recovery program, called his creating a "categorical" failure at getting homeowners back during a Congressional field hearing.
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Dnainfo/Heather Holland

STATEN ISLAND — The creator of the Build it Back Hurricane Sandy recovery program called it a "categorical failure" Monday.

Brad Gair, the former head of the mayor's Housing Recovery Operations, said it and similar recovery schemes failed at their prime mission — getting residents back in their homes quickly.

"From the 'Road Home' program in post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana to Build it Back in post-Hurricane Sandy New York City, [Housing and Urban Development Community Development and Block Grant Disaster Recovery] programs have generally been categorical failures in supporting timely and effective housing recovery," Gair said at congressional field hearing in Staten Island.

Gair said that the process for the programs to get their approved federal funds is overlong and the government should look at creating "off-the-shelf" programs for recovery rather than "patchwork" ones made after disasters.

"It would be very easy to simply blame bumbling bureaucrats and greedy contractors — and no doubt we must all do better," Gair said. 

"But the root of the problem is that no local or state government, regardless of its capability, can successfully create and setup in a few months what amounts to a multi-billion dollar corporation with hundreds of employees and contractors, numerous storefront locations, a broad based marketing campaign and integrated customer service operations while tens of thousands of desperate customers must wait anxiously for help as hope dwindles."

Gair's testimony was given at the hearing held by Rep. Dan Donovan at Staten Island University Hospital North Monday morning to see if the city is better suited to withstand a future storm and how to improve post-disaster recovery efforts.

"It’s a missed opportunity to repair and rebuild after Sandy without making our communities better able to withstand future storms," Donovan said in a statement.

"Today’s hearing was about protecting lives and property. After the multi-billion dollar rebuilding process ends, neighborhoods will see a hodgepodge of housing types: elevations, demolitions, in-kind repairs — is that the best outcome? Have the billions invested in infrastructure projects to reduce flood risk made our coastlines safer?"

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said that he overhauled the program as soon as he stepped into office and 80 percent of the 5,319 approved applicants have either gotten a check or started work.

"When Mayor de Blasio took office, not one homeowner had received a check or seen construction," spokesman Raul Contreras said in a statement.

"That is why this administration immediately overhauled the program and took over direct management — resulting in 80 percent of homeowners served to date. Further, $120 million in reimbursement checks have been issued to residents. We are continuing to elevate and rebuild homes across the City and Staten Island to complete the program — as the Mayor committed — by the end of this year."

In his testimony, Gair, who currently serves as vice-president for emergency management at NYU Langone Medical Center, said different government agencies need to better coordinate with post-disaster recovery and the country needs to develop a nationwide resiliency strategy.

"FEMA’s mantra is 'We're not here to make you whole,'" Gair said.

"Does that represent the collective wisdom of our federal agencies and our nation's lawmakers or is it simply a rationale for inadequate programs that have filled the vacuum created by a lack of consensus, unclear guidance and muddled authorities?"

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city developed the Build it Back program after Sandy wreaked havoc neighborhoods around the boroughs.

It aimed to give federal dollars to single and multi-family homeowners to make repairs or give them reimbursements. It also provided funding for public housing and resiliency projects.

However, the program was plagued with delays, strongly criticized by struggling homeowners, it paid contractors $6.8 million for work later deemed "flawed or incomplete" and the city was double billed by hundreds of thousands of dollars by firms carrying out the work, according to an audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

De Blasio said it had "a profound problem" distributing aid to homeowners and, in October, he vowed the single-family program — for homeowners in one to four-family units — would be finished by the end of 2016.

"The sad fact is when I came into office there wasn't real progress," de Blasio said in October. "Our mission is to get families back into their homes."