Five years after Sandy, Borough President James Oddo is still fighting the status quo
In January 2013, a few months after Superstorm Sandy decimated parts of Staten Island, Borough President Jimmy Oddo took a trip to New Orleans to learn from officials there who had to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
He returned with the idea of acquisition for redevelopment, a voluntary program to buy people out of their homes and give them a “right of return” once a more consistent rebuilding and resiliency effort was completed. But the program never took off in New York, and he said his constituents – some of whom are only now returning to their homes – have suffered for it.
Now, with Texas and Florida reeling from unprecedented destruction wreaked by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Oddo said government officials still haven’t learned from the mistakes made in New York.
Oddo joined the New York Slant podcast to discuss the long journey to recovery, the problem of permanent government and whether or not he’d ever run for mayor. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to it in full, here.
C&S: We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. Are you satisfied with the pace and progress of the recovery effort? Are there a lot of homeowners still struggling to regain their footing?
JO: There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and we should have everybody home by the end of this calendar year. We’re in the dozens of homes that have to be rebuilt at this point.
Saddest, I know, there’s no victory lap, there’s nothing about this experience that was satisfactory. We made mistakes early – I’m talking within weeks of the storm. We repeated those mistakes, we compounded those mistakes, and by the time we really, as a city, got the recovery program fully in gear, we were so far down the rabbit hole, there were these cascading negative implications.
I try to be real candid, not because I want to pick a fight with an ex-billionaire mayor – I did plenty of that when he was the mayor – but I don’t like that people put this at the foot of Amy Peterson, the head of Build It Back, or even at the feet of Bill de Blasio. Amy’s accountable, the mayor’s accountable, but if we start the clock during the last administration, we will forget the mistakes we made early on. And I think the biggest mistake we made, from Staten Island’s point of view is – and then-councilman Vinny Ignizio, my partner in the City Council, convinced me, and he was right, I was wrong, I didn’t want to go – that there was value to going to New Orleans, to talking to city and state officials who had experienced Katrina. Everything about that trip, everything they said, was prophetic, and one of the concepts we brought back was the Louisiana land trust: the idea for the city to buy this property, not eminent domain, not force anyone out, buy it, and then once we collected as much property as possible, develop it in a smart way.
The community that I represented in the City Council didn’t really have a lot of infrastructure, didn’t have storm sewers, they were two and three and four feet below sea level. You needed to acquire as much property as possible, put in the infrastructure and be open to build new housing typology. And for all the lip service, and that’s what it was, the Bloomberg administration was never really interested in doing it. The de Blasio administration came in and never made it the prime focus of Sandy recovery. What that would’ve done was give people a chance to end this nightmare early, give them a chance to build anew somewhere else.
One of the simple changes we need to make next time is time. We’ve got to be honest with people and let them know, “This is difficult and this is gonna take time.” Had we told Staten Islanders and New Yorkers, this is gonna be two years, three years, a four-year recovery, they would have made different choices. We need to streamline the whole process on the federal level.
C&S: It’s got to be in the back of folks’ minds that this could happen again, right? So what’s being done on the mitigation side of things? Are there enough people looking beyond the next election cycle?
JO: Picture me in a boxing ring, and I’m fighting a status quo in the permanent government, and their all agencies. I have a great relationship with his honor, I have a very good relationship with the mayor’s office. When I have a better relationship, and a more productive relationship, and a more responsive relationship with the mayor of the city of New York and his innermost team, than I have with the agencies that work for him, there is a problem. And I put this on him, because he’s the leader, he’s the boss.
C&S: Have you had this conversation …?
JO: Oh, I absolutely have, over dinner. Oh yeah, he knows. And I’ll mention three letters that are the poster child for this, and that’s DDC, the Department of Design and Construction. DDC needs to be completely dismantled, reconfigured (with) new leadership and then you have to go agency by agency and address the construction process.
Every day, we work – I have a great staff – we come up with good ideas, or we’re trying to advance an idea, and I run into a brick wall that is the permanent government. I see change between Bloomberg and the guy who ran the most virulent anti-Bloomberg campaign, but I’m still dealing with the same guy I dealt with 10 years ago. Too many of them, not all of them, too many of them are stale, they’re tired. I’m on a clock. I have a certain amount of days I sit in this office. But they will outlive me, they will outlive Bill de Blasio, and there’s no sense of urgency. That is my biggest frustration. So to get to long-term planning, you’ve got to go through them. And that’s running into that wall, every day, and you hope you move the wall by the end of the week an inch.
You have to have leaders lead on every level, but there has to be accountability up and down the chain of command. The mayor’s got to be hands-on. He’s got to have very aggressive deputy mayors, the commissioners accountable to those deputy mayors, and all up and down that agency. There’s got to be a chain of command and accountability. That’s the only way that you push back against the bureaucracy. That’s the only way you push back against the status quo.
C&S: And de Blasio’s not doing that?
JO: Well, on the things he cares about, I think you see that administrationwide approach on universal pre-K, on 3-K, on affordable housing. On a lot of the other stuff that’s important to my constituents, it’s not happening because if it was happening, then I wouldn’t have to call his honor as often as I do to break a logjam in his own agencies.
C&S: Once he finds out, does he move on it?
JO: Listen, let me say the good things about the administration. He always gives me an audience, and he always listens to me. And when I say listens to me, he hears my argument, and then he’ll put his team in touch. And then we will have a conversation. I don’t always get what I want, but I’m happy with the level of access.
C&S: Jimmy, you’ve been in this game for so long, why didn’t you run for mayor?
JO: I don’t want the job. I don’t want the job. A – my wife would divorce me within six months. B – who would want this job in this climate? This is not the same climate when I started. This is not the same climate in terms of the media; it’s not the same climate in terms of the public. Who would want this job? I don’t. I wouldn’t want the job. I like to be in government to change government. Pile up the work, let me scream and curse in this room – just don’t have me have to cut any ribbons or meet people I don’t want to meet.