Steering committee to direct $25M in Hurricane Sandy relief funds

One year ago, New York was blindsided by Hurricane Sandy. The damage and devastation was unthinkable.

One year later, the recovery is still continuing.

In the year following the storm, wills have been tested, communities have rallied together and lessons have been learned.

The federal, state and city governments have provided assistance, financial and otherwise, to residents and businesses alike, with nonprofits and business organizations supporting as well.

In conjunction with the Staten Island Not-for-Profit Association and a coalition of 50 partners throughout the Island, the Staten Island Jewish Community Center has been running a program called Connect To Recovery, which has resulted in a “robust” list of needs for the community, according to the JCC’s executive director, David Sorkin.

Working alongside Vin Lenza, the executive director of the NFP Association, Connect To Recovery helped to develop a coalition of representatives from some of the strategic asset organizations on Staten Island — including universities, hospitals and social service industries — to prepare for future disaster planning.

Lenza said they’ve been trying to create a collaborative effort around how nonprofits respond to crises.

“We kept hearing from our members that this was a real problem. They were not prepared for the kind of inter-organization work that needed to be done,” Lenza said. “They were not prepared to quickly ramp up to work with other agencies and elected officials.”

Now, Lenza and Sorkin will help lead Staten Island’s version of The New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, a state-run program that will provide $25 million for rebuilding and revitalization assistance, including future disaster planning. Lenza and Sorkin are the co-chairs of the steering committee, which includes 27 of the Island’s most influential business and community leaders.

“I would say, for the most part, we’re not missing one person in our community who does not have significant influence for the steering committee,” Sorkin said.

Over the summer, Gov. Cuomo designated 102 New York Rising Communities that were eligible to receive more than $750 million to “empower communities hit hard by the storms to create and implement locally-created and federally funded strategies for rebuilding and strengthening their communities against future extreme weather,” according to the governor’s office. In each community, steering committees were created to help plan and direct their local money.

At the end of August, some members of Staten Island’s steering committee traveled to Albany, where they heard from Cuomo the importance of developing a process that came from the ground up and not from the top down, with the steering committees at the epicenter of how each community would look at itself for future storm preparedness and asset management.

“This was very empowering to us,” Sorkin said. “We felt very good that we had the ability to look at the storm, its effect on Staten Island, and how we would look at developing assets and infrastructure changes based on what we needed on Staten Island.”

Lenza said the goal of the steering committee is to serve as the preliminary experts for what’s happening in Staten Island’s communities — identifying things that happened during and following the storm and what can be adjusted, and working with the state and their contracted firms.

“The state has really invested quite a bit of assets. The amount of professional assets they’ve provided to these communities is quite impressive,” he said. “It’s really about getting as much input from the community as possible.”

The committee has been meeting since September to identify all the assets in the community. All committee work has been and will be open to the public. Last month, they held public engagement sessions to assess the needs of the community.

The next step is to develop a conceptual plan to see what’s on the table, followed by an analysis of the project to show what’s feasible, what’s not, what they cost and how they interact with what’s already being proposed.

“We need to get as many people as possible into the room to talk about the community,” Lenza said. “To not have that knowledge in the process would not produce a plan that’s most effective.”

“Above and beyond what the expectation is of us, Vin and I feel very strongly that this issue of public engagement is very important to the process,” Sorkin said. “We have tried to engage a group of professionals to try to create some other avenues — whether it be social media, other forums, print media — we’re trying to come up with other ways that the community can be heard.”

Sorkin is excited about the process because, unlike other studies, he said there’s real money at the end of the road. Staten Island is looking at a minimum of $25 million for a project or projects, and Sorkin said his sense is that, in the long run, it could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars when they interface with other projects throughout the Island.

“I read that there’s more to come. The dollars that are sort of implementing this process are over $500 million from disaster recovery funds. I think this is sort of the beginning of the process,” he said. “There’s more Community Block Grant money yet to come, plus there’s other money being spent from other layers of the government that may embellish or work in tandem with these projects.”

The steering committee is in early stages of outreach, and they’re looking at other modes of information collection and dissemination in addition to the community forums. Sorkin said other steering committee members have already reached out to their constituents and members, asking for feedback, input and whether there are other studies out there that would help in the process.

“The reach of the people on the group is unbelievable. These representatives are communicating back to their constituencies in what’s going on,” Sorkin said. “Just that layer itself is so robust that it really stokes the process.”

“What I’d like to see is a process that allows the Staten Island community to benefit from a significant amount of resources, not only the money, but the significant amount of professional experience we have,” Lenza said. “It’s been quite vocal throughout this process that people want us to look at communities throughout the Island and not just at properties in their backyard.”