Criminal incompetence: Part 2, the City of New York’s failures

December 18, 2012 | Bloomberg, Community networks, Disaster response, Disaster risk mitigation, High-rise, HUD, Incentives, Liability, Mold, New York City, NYCHA, Public housing, Rental

By:David A. Smith


[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]


Ten days after superstorm Sandy, as we saw in yesterday’s post, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was claiming, as reported in this exhaustive New York Times (December 10, 2012) chronicle, that all of NYCHA’s public housing properties would have power within a few days:


On November 5, as the subway system returned to service and schools in New York City reopened, Mr. Bloomberg was feeling confident that the Housing Authority had a handle on the situation in its buildings. “We may be able to surprise everybody over the next two, three, four days and get everybody, or almost everybody, back,” Mr. Bloomberg said at City Hall.


Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg’s unqualified public housing authority chairman remained effectively invisible, doing nothing for the thousands of NYCHA residents living without power or heat:


Many public housing complexes, including this one in Brooklyn, were without power and heat for weeks after the storm.


For many, the situation was becoming increasingly dire as residents fell ill from carbon-monoxide-spewing stoves, waited for a knock on the door from a volunteer bearing rations of food and water, or groped down darkened stairs.


Steven Dent, who lives in the Red Hook houses, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning after he and his family used the oven to heat their apartment.


“We only had one flashlight,” said Rachel Gonzalez, 57, who fell while going down the pitch-black stairs of her Coney Island building with her husband a week after the storm on a fruitless expedition to Pathmark: it had run out of bottled water and batteries.


Where is NYCHA’s response?  Where is anyone’s outrage that such negligence is tolerable?


It was only after volunteers raised alarms that the city began a military-scale response to address the increasingly apparent needs, and while just one death was reported in those buildings in the weeks after the storm — a man who fell down a wet stairwell — city officials said they expected the health effects from the prolonged recovery to linger for several months.


Naomi Dent, 19, Steven’s sister, also showed symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning and went to the hospital.


If a private landlord had failed its residents one one-hundredth as fully as NYCHA failed the poorest of the poor, that landlord would be in housing court within a week, facing huge fines and civil money penalties, and possibly jail time.  So far, NYCHA has got off scot free.


The Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, echoing comments by many other officials, said that city workers, emergency personnel and contractors deserved praise for their tireless efforts to help those in need.


Don’t criticize your fellow elected officials too harshly, Mr. Markowitz


But it is also clear to him that the housing authority could have, and should have, done better.


“Nycha was underprepared,” Mr. Markowitz said. “Senior citizens and the disabled were especially impacted by the lack of essential services available in Sandy’s aftermath, as they were effectively held hostage on the upper floors of their apartment buildings.”


NYCHA staff pathetic.  Lazy, uncaring.


John B. Rhea, a former Wall Street investment banker who took over as the housing authority chairman in 2009, said he regretted the real hardship many public housing residents suffered through — but he said his tenants received more care and attention than those who lived in private buildings, many of which also have large populations of older and infirm residents.


Vote for a candidate who keeps his promises


I call bullshit.  Mr. Rhea has not a sliver of evidence in support of his deflecting slander.  Until recently, I thought Mr. Rhea a good man in a difficult situation.  Now it is obvious that either he was rotten and worthless when he came to NYCHA, or he became rotten and worthless in his tenure there.


Others at City Hall took a far different tack, saying that it was the public housing residents, in many cases, who brought the suffering upon themselves.


“We called for mandatory evacuation,” Howard Wolfson, another deputy mayor [For government affairs and communications – Ed.], said.  “We did not do that assuming that the flood would reach someone on the 10th floor of a building — we did that because of some concern that there could well be outages of power, heat and water. Our hope, expectation and goal is people would leave these buildings.”


Me?  Inspect 16 apartments myself?  My job is to communicate!


What asininity, to blame the victims.  They are public housing residents.  Many of them are very old, or infirm, or with limited mobility. 


Besides, NYCHA knew better, and had had years to improve its disaster readiness – and did nothing.


A 2009 report by the city drafted in response to Hurricane Katrina recommended that the authority elevate certain critical pieces of equipment stored in its basements, renovations that were never done.


The agency also did not set up “standby contracts” that would allow the city to quickly secure pumps, generators or other supplies and equipment in an emergency. Such contracts are common in federal disaster planning protocols, although they often come at a price as companies charge a fee to reserve generators or other gear.


In short, NYCHA didn’t do a damned thing, and now Chairman Rhea, Mayor Bloomberg, and their respective hierarchies want to be excused from a government failure worse than New Orleans’ after hurricane Katrina.


We didn’t think the water would flood downhill: NYCHA, Red Hook


But the need for such equipment became painfully apparent the day after Hurricane Sandy hit. Around the city, 26 of the housing authority’s basement boiler rooms had flooded, destroying the equipment there, and leaving 34,565 apartments without heat and hot water. The electrical systems of many buildings, already in marginal shape because of delayed maintenance, were also devastated by flooding. Having power restored would not be enough: in about 95 buildings, temporary generators and boilers would be needed until the electrical systems could be rebuilt.


Who knew that water would short out the electricals?  NYCHA, Red Hook


Obsolescence caught up with the building.  Incompetence caught up with the authority.


Water stopped flowing in many high-rise buildings above the sixth floor. Stairwells and hallways were pitch black. But because there was no up-to-date survey of electrical needs –


That’s management failure, pure and simple.  You may not be able to deflect a hurricane, you may be so hesitant that you delay ordering an evacuation until it’s almost impossible for people to get out, but any fool would know to have plans and specifications for its buildings.


– the Army Corps of Engineers, called in to help install generators five days after the storm, first had to visit 100 authority buildings simply to determine what kind of generator each needed.


This is a comprehensive failure by NYCHA.


NYCHA should be Ware


The Kentucky-based company Ware Inc, which provides temporary boiler rentals, was asked for help on Nov. 2 — four days after the storm, said Steve Taylor, an executive. The company searched nationwide for available boilers, and it took another week before all the boilers were delivered, some from as far as Texas.


And then the city couldn’t get them hooked up


Even after the boilers arrived in the city, installing them took more time than it should have. Mr. Taylor, who flew to New York to help, said city officials repeatedly attempted to reuse motors damaged in the flood, something he knew was not going to work.


“Two or three days passed, and we were burning up a lot of motors that they thought would run,” Mr. Taylor said. “We were chasing each other around.”


In short, the city officials were incompetent.


City officials said there was no way around the slow start-up: simply drying out the basements had taken nearly six days, in spots like the Red Hook housing complex, where the ground was so saturated that the basement had to be repeatedly pumped out.


They had no strategy, they had no knowledge, and they had no ability to make good decisions.


As much of a struggle as it was to restore services, the city’s effort to get food and medical help to those trapped — and even grasp just how many people were in peril — was even more fraught.


But the city had no standing agreement with the groups to conduct such a door-to-door effort, or explicit protocols for how it should take place, and many of the teams were sent out without escort by the National Guard, which meant they were unable to gain access to many buildings, said Linda I. Gibbs, another deputy mayor [For health and human services – Ed.].


Deputy mayor Gibbs


How many deputy mayors does it take to do nothing?


“Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over $200,000 a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost $110 million last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents! The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated.”


Mr. Rhea said the authority was considering moving its flood-prone boiler rooms and electrical systems above ground — an expensive project that would require federal assistance.


That should have been done years ago, and NYCHA should have been doing it, with the $500 million that Mr. Rhea’s administration did not pursue because it was too much trouble:


At a breakfast meeting last week [The last week in September, 2012, a month before Sandy – Ed.], city Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea announced he was pursuing $500 million in federal funds for “desperately needed” roof and brickwork repairs .


He didn’t mention that two years ago, he decided against going after the same pot of money because he didn’t have qualified staff to spend it wisely, the Daily News has learned. During the two-year delay, the backlog of repair requests by NYCHA tenants grew to 338,000. About 10,000 of those repairs aren’t even scheduled until 2014.


Nor did Chairman Rhea deploy the $1 billion in Federal money that your administration had and did not spend.


Is there no alternative to an incompetent authority that can do nothing but beg at the public trough?


Oh, I hope not


[Concluded tomorrow in Part 3.]