Guest op-ed: Build it Back, the story behind the frustration

When Superstorm Sandy hit more than two years ago, 48 New Yorkers died, thousands of homes were devastated and damages totaled more than $20 billion.

The continuing damage from the storm can be seen today in many communities in Brooklyn. Many neighborhoods have not been fully rebuilt and individual homeowners are still desperately seeking assistance.

Recently, my office released an audit of Build it Back, the city’s program designed to help victims repair or rebuild their homes after the storm. We looked at the data to try to determine why so few people had received the help they desperately needed from this program.

Scott Stringer
Scott Stringer

The problem had its roots in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when the city’s Housing Recovery Office (HRO) hired contractors to manage the relief effort. We found HRO paid $6.8 million to inexperienced consultants who were paid in full, despite processing more than 5,000 applications that had to be returned for additional information. The faulty application process increased delays in distributing benefits, wasted money and created frustration for those seeking help.

Our audit also found that HRO authorized more than $245,000 for double billing of work and paid $1.2 million for consultant hours submitted without records and more than $74,000 for travel expenses that couldn’t be documented.

If the recovery was a field day for consultants, it was a nightmare for victims. Many were routinely shuffled from one staff person at Build it Back to the next, most of whom were not familiar with their cases. A survey found that nearly half could not provide basic information about the program and many employees were not qualified to do the job they had.

The audit was enhanced by what we’d heard last year when we hosted public hearings in communities hardest hit by the storm, including at Coney Island Hospital. Hundreds of victims told us heartbreaking stories about a recovery effort that ignored them, failed to provide basic information and delivered little or no aid.

The good news is that Mayor de Blasio’s administration has improved the program and progress has been made. By March of this year, some 29 percent of the people who applied for aid had at least selected the kind of relief for which they’re applying.

But problems remain. One of our most distressing findings is that several contractors who failed to help victims are still on the job, operating without formal contracts, largely unaccountable to taxpayers.

Our audit’s key recommendation is that the city must take the lead in disaster recovery. Contracting out our most crucial tasks means that profit can be put before people, which is exactly what happened after Sandy. That was unacceptable, and the message this audit sends is that it must never happen again.

Scott Stringer is New York City comptroller.

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