In Sandy Turnaround Test, NYC Says It’ll Meet Goal

NEW YORK (AP) -

A city home-repair program has been sprinting to meet a self-imposed deadline to signal a turnaround in Superstorm Sandy recovery, and officials say they’re positioned to pass their test of rebuilding both houses and confidence.

The milestone for the Build It Back initiative — 500 construction projects started and 500 reimbursement checks sent by Labor Day — represents a fraction of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homes eligible for fixing or reimbursements, and concerns about the program’s pace linger among some New Yorkers still dealing with damage.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio has portrayed the benchmarks as jump-starting a stalled program that hadn’t fixed a single house or dispatched any checks when he took office in January.

“I think it’s working, and we’re going to keep making it work better,” he said.

The city readily surpassed its goal for issuing checks. But the construction component, which sends city-paid contractors to do needed work, has been more challenging: It counted 411 construction starts as of last Tuesday. Officials have said many other projects were on the verge of starting, and said Friday they were confident they would hit 500.

Two summers after Sandy, the toll is still visible at Teresa Surillo’s home in the Rockaways. The retired nurse and her husband did what repairs they could afford, but half their ground-floor walls are still torn out, she said.

They applied to Build It Back early on, navigating repeated requests for more information and long stretches of silence. Momentum picked up after de Blasio rebooted the program this spring, and the Surillos now may have their home completely rebuilt above flood level, an option that requires additional reviews. They said they’ve waited about a month to hear when they can meet program staffers.

“We just hope something can be done,” Teresa Surillo said, but “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg created Build It Back in June 2013, after a program called Rapid Repairs did basic work to make homes habitable. But as of Jan. 1, no households had complete plans for the work, and the program had developed a red-tape reputation.

De Blasio announced the 500-homes goals in April. He eliminated priorities based on income and assigned city buildings inspectors exclusively to the initiative.

While Monday’s benchmark may be modest, “it’s a huge number compared to zero,” said Sandy recovery chief Amy Peterson.