Lessons Learned From a Superstorm
Homeowners in Breezy Point, Queens, face major decisions in coming months as the federal government prepares to issue new flood elevation maps and state and local governments begin to disburse Sandy relief funds. Located on the western side of the Rockaway Beach peninsula, Breezy Point was pummeled by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29 last year. Some 350 homes were lost in the storm, 125 of them from a fire that swept through part of the community that night and the remainder in the 4- to 5-ft-high floodwaters that rose as the Atlantic Ocean on the south side met the Rockaway Inlet to the north on parts of the peninsula.
"It was mind-boggling," says Arthur Lighthall, general manager of the Breezy Point Cooperative (BPC), which owns the land in the area that homeowners built on. Lighthall toured the region as best he could during and immediately after the storm. "Homes were lifted up from their foundations and put anywhere [Sandy] wanted them to go .... Some were lifted several hundred feet from where they were."
Like their neighbors on the rest of the peninsula and in other ocean-facing regions in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, Breezy Point homeowners still live in the shadow of the storm. While they have managed to clear away most of Sandy's muck and debris, many are struggling with the difficult decision of whether to repair and/or rebuild their homes, participate in a government buyout program or leave the region altogether.
"Like limbo," is how Denise Lopresti-Neibel, BPC assistant general manager, describes the situation. "No one knows how to go about rebuilding when no one knows the flood zone they will be in after the new flood maps from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) are released," she says. Insurance rates will skyrocket for those who do not elevate their homes in accordance with the maps, she adds.
For contractors, the storm stirred up a host of concerns as well, including several regarding NYC Rapid Repairs, a program designed to make storm-ravaged homes quickly habitable by restoring power, heat and hot water. Under the free program, launched in partnership with FEMA and hailed as the first of its kind, the city chose 10 general contractors and assigned each of them to hard-hit geographic regions. The GCs managed teams of subcontractors in those regions. Under the program, which began last November and ran through March, contractors restored services to more than 11,700 buildings and more than 20,200 residential units.
Despite the program's success, however, the city received some complaints about faulty work and long wait times for service.
The Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery says that all work was completed to current city building code standards "by some of the most experienced professional tradespeople in the area." Peter Spencer, a city spokesman, says that the scope of the work was limited to emergency restoration of power, heat and hot water and other repairs that would make homes safe and habitable.
"Homeowners were informed that in many cases they would have to hire professionals to complete the [remaining] work," Spencer says. As Rapid Repairs neared completion, the city launched an after-care program that included a dedicated customer service team to resolve lingering issues, Spencer says.
William T. DeCamp III, vice president and New York City district manager at Gilbane Building Co., one of the 10 GCs, says that the criticisms that appeared in the media "were disturbing to me because we were working seven days a week, 14 to 16 hours a day. We had two days off [Christmas and New Years] and were doing everything we could," he says. "What I read in the media was not consistent with what I was experiencing in The Rockaways," one of Gilbane's regions. Indeed, it was common for homeowners to thank the crews, bringing them soup and hot drinks, he adds.
Some industry executives attribute the complaints to confusion over Rapid Repairs' mission. "The work was very limited in scope, so there may have been expectations that more work would be done," says Louis Coletti, president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers' Association (BTEA). Also, while the GCs mobilized in an extremely short amount of time—some within 48 hours of being chosen for the job—it must have seemed like an eternity to those in distress, he adds.
"This was a big job if you look at how fast it was done. It had a lot of detail to it," says Rich Cavallaro, president and chief executive officer of Skanska USA Civil Inc., which as one of the 10 GCs repaired 3,000 homes in southern Brooklyn, averaging about 250 trade workers a day. Major contractors "generally have months and months of planning before we go to work. Going in we had less than a week," he says.
Having enough boilers on hand was one of the problems encountered early on, as demand was so high, Cavallaro says. "Things got sorted out pretty quickly, but it made the first wave of houses a little slower. But once we had [a good supply] we could move faster and faster. We got efficient in the process of getting homes completed."
It also took time to talk with homeowners about the repair process and when crews would be in their homes. "We'd be in and out of the house probably six times before we actually got at it," Cavallaro says. At that point, the crew would remove Sheetrock to the water line to get to impacted systems. Then "we dried the place out. Sprayed for mold. Got the electrical system 'safed off.' We installed some basic Sheetrock, but this was not by any stretch of the imagination a finished job," he says. "The plan was to get people in their homes with hot water, heat and electricity so they could live in the homes until they could ultimately deal with their insurance cost and get it rebuilt in a finished state."
Given the mission and what was achieved, "this was a tremendous public and private sector victory, and it actually saved lives—no exaggeration, because we were in a race against the weather," DeCamp says. In the dead of winter, Gilbane restored services to 1,543 properties, or about 3,064 families. "We're very proud of the work we did, and the majority of people were very, very grateful," he adds.
BPC resident Lighthall took advantage of the Rapid Repairs program. "There were a number of problems and bugs at the onset, but when all was said and done, it was successful," Lighthall says. "You always have the issues of people being dissatisfied .... But when you consider the sheer number of homes citywide that had to be worked on, I don't see any other way it could have been done."
Like many of his neighbors in hard-hit regions, Lighthall was still waiting to return to his residence last month. "Personally, I found [the Rapid Repairs] work to be fine," Lighthall says. "I was clearly realistic: I knew that whatever work they did, I would still have work to do. The whole idea of the program was the only possible way to deal with this."
That is not to say that there is no room for improvement, starting with establishing a fast-track payment process, contractors say. As of mid-May, some GCs were still waiting to be paid in full for their work.
The city should also have an immediate mobilization payment process in place to help ease cash flow needs for such massive operations, contractors say.
"The flow of payments was very slow, so we essentially financed the whole job," Cavallaro says. "It's not good business, but it was the right thing to do."
Industry firms also say that the city needs to have a standard disaster recovery contract in place to be bid out annually and that it should indemnify contractors against lawsuits.
The lack of an indemnification contract clause kept some major GCs from participating in the Rapid Repairs program, and those that did "took a leap of faith," Coletti says.
That was a major reason why Turner Construction Co. opted out of participation, says Charles Murphy, Turner senior vice president and general manager. The company worked at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Turner, like other WTC contractors at the time, was unable to obtain indemnification protection and wound up being sued. "We all went down there to help the city in its time of need and ended up with over 10,000 lawsuits," Murphy says.
"If the firms involved in Sandy are faced with the same insurance issues as those in 9/11, you can be assured that they will not respond to the next one," Coletti says. The potential cost of a suit "can bankrupt you," he adds.
That has led the New York Building Congress (NYBC) to craft New York state emergency response legislation that would give A/E/C professionals immunity from liability for providing advice, services, labor and materials during disasters. The bill has no sponsors yet, but NYBC is working on that, says Richard T. Anderson, NYBC president.
A separate New York bill that provides Good Samaritan coverage has sponsors, however, and is gaining support, says Jill Lerner, president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter, which worked on the bill. Engineers, architects, landscape architects and land surveyors would be covered for voluntary service under this bill. It does not include construction firms, however.
The bill will enable the state to have a professional group that, "like a volunteer army in an emergency," is already prepared, says Lerner, who is also a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.
Anderson says he supports the AIA bill but would have liked it to be broadened to include contractors. "That's the big problem with it. But it's been pursued by the architects for years and makes a lot of sense."
Meanwhile, in Breezy Point, homeowners in the "fire zone," where the 125 homes were lost, are banding together to consider cost-effective rebuilding, Lopresti-Neibel says. BPC has hired a consultant to develop prototypes of homes and to seek ways to aggregate resources for buying both materials and services in bulk where possible, Lopresti-Neibel says.
Working with the consultant's rebuilding program is one of four options for Breezy Point homeowners who choose to stay, she says. Some are also considering modular home replacements, while others are eyeing independently hiring contractors, she says.
Others are expected to take advantage of the NYC Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program, which includes funding for building new homes and for the government to acquire property through buyouts. The first round of funds was disbursed last month and will soon be made available for those who meet eligibility requirements, the city says.