Bloomberg indicates he’ll consider government-aided waterfront retreat

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Bloomberg on Thursday. (Kristen Artz via NYC.gov)
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday made his strongest statement yet in recognition of an effort by some Hurricane Sandy victims to get government help to move away from, rather than rebuild in, the flood-prone precincts of the city they've long called home.

"I'll have to take a look at it," he said, when I asked him about a group of people on Staten Island who want to take advantage of a FEMA program that enables states to buy out flood-prone properties as a form of environmental mitigation.

"The state has talked about it," continued Bloomberg. "The federal government has talked about it. We'll do anything we can to help people, and if they want to sell and the government's willing to buy ..."

Prior to Governor Andrew Cuomo's announcement on Monday, via the New York Times, that he was planning to spend up to $400 million buying out flood-vulnerable shorefront homes, relying on federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, Staten Island homeowners and elected officials were working under the assumption that any such buyouts would use FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding. That program would require both Cuomo's support and also that of the mayor. Thus far, the Bloomberg administration has issued only noncommittal statements about the prospect of helping homeowners get buyouts.

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Asked this morning whether Cuomo's new funding mechanism would require the support of the local municipality where the homeowner resides, the governor's office had no immediate comment.

Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg, emailed that the administration wasn't sure yet either.

"The city obviously doesn't have money to do that," Bloomberg said on Thursday.

The FEMA program covers only 75 percent of buyout costs, and it falls to the local municipality and the state, between them, to cover the rest.

Some climate change experts, like Columbia University's Klaus Jacob, argue that the most effective way for New York City to protect itself from the threat of climate change and rising sea levels is to abandon those neighborhoods most susceptible to flooding.

Bloomberg seems philosophically indisposed to that kind of thing: he believes in rebuilding and dismisses the idea that the city should consider sea walls to protect itself.

To bolster his argument that living by the seashore carries risks, has for time immemorial, and there's little we can do about it, he frequently invokes King Canute, the Danish king, who, as legend would have it, had his throne carried to the seaside so he could order the tides to retreat, and thereby demonstrate man's powerlessness before nature.

He said as much, again, on Thursday.

"Our strategy is to get people back into their houses as quickly as possible," he said. "The people that want to sell, I think generally, probably a few exceptions, their houses were really destroyed and for them to rebuild from scratch is a very big deal and something maybe they can't afford it, or maybe they just think they don't want to live on the shore anymore, where unfortunately, floods occur. And they're not generally anywheres near as big as this one.

"But I was talking to somebody a couple weeks ago, she and her family have a house in Breezy Point since the '30s. They've been flooded out seven times, and they've rebuilt every time, and they're gonna rebuild again."