FEMA is still picking up the pieces from Hurricane Sandy more than a month after the storm hit New York City. Although most of the city has returned to normal, federal disaster employees continue to find distressed people, often the elderly and disabled, trapped in apartments in the farthest corners of the city. Federal and city authorities are now assessing what exactly went wrong. Much of the blame thus far lies with the city Housing Authority, which is charged with managing city-owned housing and preparing for exactly this sort of catastrophe.
A new feature in the New York Times explores just how unprepared and ineffective the Housing Authority was in tackling the largest disaster the city has seen since 9/11:
An examination by The New York Times has found that while the [NYC Housing Authority] moved aggressively before the storm to encourage residents to leave, particularly those who were disabled and the needy, both it and the city government at large were woefully unprepared to help its residents deal with Hurricane Sandy’s lingering aftermath.
The city, which did not enforce its mandatory evacuation order, could not assess the medical needs of residents stuck atop darkened, freezing towers until nearly two weeks after the storm. It relied on ragtag bands of volunteers who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the task of reaching, comforting and caring for trapped residents. And the seemingly simplest things, like towing portable lighting towers into the Red Hook public housing complex, took 11 days, all because the housing authority had not properly prepared for a major disaster.
Again and again, city officials publicly predicted that the crisis in public housing was on the verge of being resolved, contributing to a perception at City Hall that there was no need to mobilize an extensive effort to provide medical care.
The article compiles an overwhelming list of failures: signs of deep incompetence, political game-playing and multilayer bureaucratic failure on the part of the Housing Authority. Faced with a serious crisis, the agency failed miserably in doing its most basic job—not so much because of a lack of money as because of slothful management and an inefficient, ossified bureaucratic culture. The Housing Authority after Sandy did exactly what bureaucracies usually do: it covered its rear, staged heartwarming photos for the press, and shamefully neglected the poor and the helpless it was supposed to serve. In other words, it behaved much like a failing public school, or any other blue model institution out of its depth and focused mostly on preserving its routine as the real world crumbles around it.
But no worries. New York’s mayor is going to keep us from ordering jumbo sized soft drinks so at least the city has its priorities right.