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Residents say small businesses still floundering, residential towers not prepared for next hurricane

Lower Manhattan Comptroller Scott Stringer held the last of his six town hall-style hearings to discuss post-Sandy recovery progress ? or the lack thereof ? in Manhattan last week.

"The reason we're holding this hearing is that Build it Back was an utter failure," said Stringer. "The city's response [to Hurricane Sandy] was a failure."

Build it Back, announced by the Bloomberg administration in 2013, is a city program designed to steer federal disaster relief funds to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in late-October 2012 and caused billions of dollars of property damage. But since its inception, the program has been plagued by bureaucratic delays and complicated paperwork requirements. Just six homes have been rebuilt under the program, while some 20,000 homeowners languish on a waiting list for aid.

Stringer announced in April his office would be conducting an audit of Build It Back to get to the bottom of why recovery funds are bottlenecked. The recovery hearings were held to get a sense of what people were seeing and experiencing, "on the ground," said Stringer. He previously conducted two hearings in Queens, two in Brooklyn and one in Staten Island. Due to the high rise nature of housing in Lower Manhattan, concerns at this hearing were less about rebuilding issues and more about small businesses who are still struggling and whether Lower Manhattan is prepared should another hurricane strike.

Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1, told Stringer and the three deputy comptrollers he brought along to the hearing that at a height of seven feet, the waterline in Lower Manhattan was one of the most devastating anywhere in the borough, and the effects of Sandy are still being felt some 20 months later.

"While great strides have been made in Lower Manhattan in terms of recovery and relief, there is still much that must be done to rebuild and revitalize what was destroyed, and protecting the area in anticipation of future extreme weather events," said McVay Hughes.

At the top of her list are small businesses that applied for aid but were left in bureaucratic purgatory by the Dept. of Small Business Services' Hurricane Sandy Business Loan and Grant Program. "To our knowledge, not one application has been approved in the Seaport or Lower Manhattan affected areas," said McVay Hughes. "Additionally, the process has been non-transparent and confusing to business owners who have had difficulty following up on the status of their applications."

Stringer said his office is aware of the problems facing small businesses in Lower Manhattan, and is working on finding answers and providing relief.

"It' hard to imagine none of that money has been spent in 18 months, that's why we're holding these hearings," said Stringer.

Equally worrying to McVay Hughes and CB1 is the resiliency of Lower Manhattan, including public transportation infrastructure, Con Edison's steam and gas grids, and the continued susceptibility of the area to flooding.

"Hurricane Irene struck New York City in August of 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in October of 2012," said McVay Hughes. "Last year we got lucky, but we cannot go on hoping that we will be lucky in the years to come."

Aixa Torres, president of the tenants association at the Alfred E. Smith Houses - which has 1,900 units in 12 buildings adjacent to FDR Drive and the East River - said she feels the houses remain ill-prepared for another Sandy-caliber hurricane. "My biggest concerns are my seniors and those with disabilities on the highest floors," said Torres, who has her eye on a hurricane that's been forecasted for late-August/early-September.

McVay Hughes said long-term projects like the Lower Manhattan Multi-Purpose Levee will not effectively protect Lower Manhattan for several decades to come, and that the area is, "in desperate need of immediate resiliency and hardening measures."

Trevor Holland, president of the tenants association at 82 Rutgers Slip, where the hearing was held, said he's not at all convinced Lower Manhattan and its residential buildings ? including the Rutgers buildings and others in the Two Bridges development ? are ready for another Sandy.

"As of this moment, I don't think we're prepared, and I don't know how we're going to get prepared," said Holland. "We're heading into a second storm season and we really haven't seen any short term resiliency projects get done."

Holland said he has no idea where all the money went that was allocated to helping communities like his protect themselves from another major storm, and is frustrated by the lack of short term progress he's seen.

"These are issues that we're looking for and looking at in the audit process, and let me also assure people that part of what we're looking at is, is there an emergency plan in place? What does that look like? Because if there is another big storm, we are woefully behind," said Stringer.

Stringer said his newly formed Sandy Oversight Unit will be auditing Sandy recovery programs. For more information, email or call 212-669-2560.

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