Wrong way to handle Sandy aid
- Last Updated: 11:13 PM, November 29, 2012
- Posted: 10:26 PM, November 29, 2012
On Monday, Gov. Cuomo huddled with Mayor Bloomberg and New York’s congressional delegation to show solidarity on wringing billions out of the feds for Superstorm Sandy. “We need help today,” the governor said. Sure — but Congress could help best by putting good sense above speed.
Cuomo’s “extensive list and itemization of what it’s going to take to rebuild New York” totals $41.9 billion. The figure includes $32.8 billion he says the state (including the city) needs just to fix what got flooded or blown down.
The other $9.1 billion is for “prevention and mitigation” — that is, protecting against future Sandys.
Cuomo’s argument for the big payday, above and beyond what FEMA would normally give us for disaster aid? That everyone else got theirs.
The governor ticked off a list of storms over the past 20 years that won special aid, “all of which were less devastating and less impactful than Hurricane Sandy.”
(One sign of how twisted the cash-grab game is: Cuomo calls Sandy a hurricane for getting-money-from-Congress purposes — but he won’t let insurers call it a hurricane, because that would let them pay out less to homeowners.)
In a distasteful comparison he hasn’t repeated, he even compared Sandy to Hurricane Katrina, which emptied out nearly all of New Orleans for months in 2005.
There is really no comparison; that’s why the Gulf Coast got $130 billion in aid (in today’s dollars) post-Katrina, far more than what Cuomo is even asking for.
Anyway, the fact that Congress has fallen into a habit of writing big disaster checks isn’t the solution. It’s the problem.
Yes, New York merits special aid after storms (as do other places). But the way we’re going about it is all wrong.
Politics as usual pushes states to worry more about putting out a big number right away than about what to do with the money. Just look at Cuomo’s numbers: They’re not really serious estimates, just placeholders.
Consider one discrepancy: On Monday morning, Bloomberg put out his own detailed estimate, saying that the city would need $9.8 billion from the feds. That afternoon, Cuomo put the figure for the city at $15 billion.
Hours later, they agreed on the higher number (naturally). But how can anyone possibly believe that they know?
Then there’s Cuomo’s separate $9.1 billion for “prevention and mitigation.”
This number makes no sense at all. Consider: Also on Monday, the MTA put out its own list of prevention-and-mitigation measures to be “investigated” and “prioritized.” The list included everything from “bladders” to stop up tunnel entrances to buying more pump trains.
How can the state possibly know how much of this stuff to include in its $9.1 billion, when the MTA hasn’t even figured it out itself?
Then there’s the issue of floodwalls and levees: To build them or not? There are strong arguments for and against. But Dutch flood-mitigation expert Jeroen Aerts figures that a robust system for the city would cost $15 billion to $17 billion (and potentially increase risks for Long Island and New Jersey).
We haven’t remotely decided whether, or where, we’ll spring for such protection. One of Cuomo’s all-star commissions will probably make a recommendation — but until it does, how can Cuomo know whether to include at least some of this big number in his “prevention and mitigation” list? If the state does go for it, this cost would dwarf the rest of the list.
There’s also a real question of priorities within his $41.9 billion. The governor is asking for $9.7 billion to repair or replace housing — the biggest single item on his list, far above making the subway system safer and above hypothetical floodwalls.
Is it smart for Albany to help people rebuild coastal homes that will remain vulnerable to flooding — especially when the money could instead go to infrastructure to protect everyone ?
The risk of flooding should be accounted for in a cheaper home price, not paid for by the government.
On Thursday, Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie promised not to compete against each other for disaster aid, with Christie saying, “We’re going to work together.”
They should, of course. But they should also say neither state will officially ask for funds until they’re good and ready — and until they’ve thought a bit more on how they’ll spend the cash. And Congress should reward such deliberation.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
Twitter: @nicolegelinasFollow @NYPostOpinion