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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Holds Media Availability with Secretary Castro

October 27, 2015

Video available at: https://youtu.be/rBC34m2Cg7c


Mayor Bill de Blasio: Well, it is an honor to be with you here in Breezy Point. I want to thank everyone for being a part of this today.

It is – I have to say – for all of us a special honor to have HUD Secretary Julian Castro with us. Not only is he a great leader of our federal government, but I have to say, New York City has had a real friend in Secretary Castro. We’ve had a lot of tough work to do these last few years to come back from Sandy, and, Mr. Secretary, you are your team have been exemplary – willing to work with us at every turn, flexible, creative – pushing us to do better, yes, but always offering a helping hand. And I have to say it is a real joy to have you here and to give you an opportunity to see the progress achieved with the resources that you gave us. So, we look forward to hearing from you in a minute, but I just wanted to say, on behalf of everyone in Breezy Point, everyone in New York City, welcome to New York City, and thank you. Let’s give him a round of applause. Welcome, Secretary Castro.

[Applause]

So, the anniversary is coming up in a couple of days. We’ll obviously have a lot more to say on that day. It’s almost been three years now, and we remember what happened – thousands of families fundamentally thrown for a loop, just pushed back on their heels.

It was a tragedy. We lost lives. We lost so many homes and businesses. And if you spent time, as I did, in neighborhoods like this in the days after, it was just unimaginable how much damage that Sandy did, and it was unlike anything we had seen before, Mr. Secretary – literally the worst natural disaster in the history of New York City.

And, at the same time, there was an incredible sense of community that, even in the first hours, in the fast days, was in evidence – it was certainly in evidence here in Breezy Point. Even well before the government arrived with substantial amounts of aid, community leaders, community residents, faith-based organizations – extraordinary things were happening in the immediate aftermath to get people back on their feet and to help people in need.

So, you know, we saw a lot of pain and we saw real devastation in Breezy Point and some other communities, but we also saw some of the very best of what people can do when they’re up against adversity.

Breezy was clearly one of the hardest hit areas in the entire city. When I had the opportunity to walk through that really tragic scene of all the homes that had burned down, it felt like, you know, an area that had been bombed. There’s no other way to say it. It was just total destruction, and yet, people persevered.

I came back on the one-year anniversary – so, two years ago – and saw, already, how much progress had been made. People were absolutely resolute – they were going to rebuild here, they believe in this community, they loved it, they were going to make it work. And even after one year, you saw amazing progress. Coming back now almost two years later, it’s absolutely amazing what people have achieved, and we’re proud to have been a part of it.

And again, first and foremost, it’s been families putting their lives back together, neighbors helping neighbors, the extraordinary local leadership here in this community that’s done so much.

And I said back then, when Sandy hit, and I’ve said it since – you know, we have to be clear – the people, the grassroots did some of the most amazing work. The government, in the beginning, certainly didn’t do all it could’ve, and we learned a lot of powerful lessons. We’ve been learning ever since about the need to do more and do better. And now we’ve seen, I think, the kind of partnership between all levels of government that we needed all along, and it’s happening more and more to help our homeowners – and particularly, the partnership with HUD has been a crucial part of our ability to more consistently and in a faster way help homeowners, and we’ll talk about that in a moment

I want to also thank others who are with us today from our administration – our HPD Commissioner Vicki Been. I want to thank our extraordinary Director of our Housing Recovery Office, Amy Peterson, who really has taken the situation and turned it around, and worked neighborhood by neighborhood – and people on the ground have seen the extraordinary effect of Amy’s work. Dan Zarrilli, our Resiliency Director who has done so much to further our efforts to be ready for the future and make sure our neighbors are safe. And I want to thank Greg Bishop – our Deputy Commissioner for Small Business Service has done a great job with our small businesses, as you see here at Kennedy’s – you know, what we’ve done to help get the small businesses back on their feet is something we’re very proud of.

We’ve have partnership with the City Council, I want to thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, she has been adamant about [inaudible] and speeding our recovery efforts. She’s been there, again, to push us and also to help us get it done. And with her, of course, the chair of the recovering and resiliency committee, Mark Treyger, who’s been a constant voice, getting us to focus on the things that need to be done. Thank you to both of you for your leadership. Thank you to Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder. I was out here with Phil in the days after Sandy, I always give him a lot of credit for standing, you know, with the people of the community through the midst of the storm and you’ve done great work in Albany on the tax relief bill for victims. Phil, thank you for your leadership.

And then, Mr. Secretary, I’m sure you will credit your team but I’d like to credit your team too, because they’ve been absolutely amazing. Marion McFadden, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, has been a great force, helping us to make sure we were doing the right thing and doing it effectively. Holly Leicht, your Regional Administrator – a tireless and great partner in this work. Thank you for that, it’s meant a lot to us.

I want to thank folks who are part of our visit here today, starting with Jimmy Buckley and Gerard Casey, the owners at Kennedy’s. This is an incredible story, to our friends in media, if you haven’t been in to take a look, you really need to, this is a restaurant – it took a hard hit, has come back literally better than ever and we were hearing the amazing response from the community. People are coming to this restaurant and – and filling up this place because they believe in it, because they want to show their commitment to the community and folks here are employing a lot of – you know, Gerard and Jimmy are employing a lot of people. They’re making this another vibrant core to a rebuilt community, so we thank you for that. And then folks who gave us our tour today and have done so much to help bring the community back, Artie Whitehall, General Manager of The Breezy Coop, Denise [inaudible] the assistant general manager was with you guys a few years back and I’ve seen the amazing progress that you’ve achieved and Jerry Romsky – the ever-energetic, Jerry Romsky, of RBBC, who also showed us that we visited a house – after Castro and I visited a house that’s just been elevated, it’s beautiful and Jerry wanted me to see – wanted me to note, in particular, the beautiful kitchen design. Jerry, it’s true, you know your kitchens. So, I want to say a few more words before I bring up the secretary.

Look, the history – again, today we want to focus on what we’ve achieved to date, on Thursday we’ll talk about where we go from here, but the history is pretty simple. The day, I had the honor of taking this office, January 1st 2014, we didn’t have a single construction start under Build It Back, and we did not have a single reimbursement check in any families’ hand, and we knew that was just unacceptable. People have been through so much, they’ve been waiting already at that point, well over a year, we had to do something very, very different. It took a full overhaul of Build It Back and sometimes, you know, in government we talk about changing things, reforming things – this was a total overhaul. It had to be reworked from the beginning to become something that could do the work faster and better, and could make sure that families could actually be served and get back in their homes. So the numbers are really impressive. We now have, since day one – since January 1st of 2014 – 1,877 construction starts from that moment – 1,877 construction starts. Nearly 1,200 of those starts have been completed, and, on top of that, 5,312 families have gotten their reimbursement checks over these last 21 months or so – 5,312 families have gotten their checks. This is against an initial applicant group of 9,300 or so. So now over 60 percent of that original group of folks have gotten either checks or are somewhere in the construction process, including in many cases completion.

I mentioned the family we visited – the Cunningham family, Eamonn and Rosanne – two daughters, will be moving back on Friday into the house we visited – beautiful house – absolutely beautiful, and now elevated and protected. It’s 15 feet off the ground now and it’s beautiful. It’s a extraordinary design and this family that’s life – starting this Friday, their life is going back to normal and they get to be a part of this beautiful community again. It was a joy to give them the keys to that house and experience that moment with them, a joy to see what has been achieved here at Kennedy’s. And it just proves when we say Build It Back, build it better, it actually does happen. Families, even though they’ve gone through such pain, businesses, even have gone through so much dislocation, they can come back better than ever and we’ve seen it with our eyes today. We’ve focused a lot on businesses and we knew also we had to do a lot to fix the approach to businesses since businesses also weren’t being served. When I came into office, only seven of businesses had been awarded any kind of funding. I’m proud to say, today, 350 businesses affected by Cindy – Sandy, excuse me, have gotten funding, 350 businesses – total about $54 million has been dedicated to those businesses. And that included the $126,000 grant here at Kennedy’s that helped them to do this extraordinary work and they got it done ahead of schedule, to their great credit.

So, look it just doesn’t take long to feel the incredible progress that’s been made here in Breezy Point. We have more to do, still homeowners to serve, we’ll talk about that more on Thursday – more to do on resiliency, for sure, even though we’re proud of the real progress that has been made here in Breezy and beyond. That’s going to be an ongoing part of our lives. For years to come, were going to be constantly working on resiliency. But a lot of folks have finally been served and their lives are getting better, and we will not stop until every family is served. Just a brief moment in Español –

[Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

The same in Spanish, as you know.

[Laughter]

[Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

With that, to say a partner would be an understatement – Secretary Castro and everyone at HUD have been everything we could ask for. They have pushed us to do better, they had to go farther, they’ve held us to a high standard, but they have always had an open door, always been flexible and creative, always helped us figure out a way to do things better. We could not have asked for better partners in Washington. Brothers and sisters, I don’t always say those words, but I’m proud to say it this time, we could not ask for better partners in Washington. We could not have asked for a better leader at HUD than Secretary Castro. We welcome you.

[…]

Mayor: As New Yorkers, we love a great comeback story, Mr. Secretary, and that would be called the New York Mets as well.

[Laughter]

So, you could not be more on-message. All right, we're going to take questions on this topic. Feel free, on this topic.

Question: Do you have a date by which you estimate that you will have all of the reimbursement checks out and construction done on every applicant?

Mayor: Today, we are focused on what has been done to date, and then on Thursday, we're going to talk about where we're going from here. So, we're going to explicitly go over the next phase of the plan on Thursday.

Question: So you can't answer any questions –

Mayor: Again, on Thursday, we're going to unveil the next phase of the plan.

Question: Mayor, and for Secretary Castro as well ­– I’m curious, particularly what you, Secretary, make of the challenges that are going to arise for communities like this regarding flood insurance, when we get new flood maps, particularly as HUD secretary, dealing with many urban areas that perhaps aren’t built for the NFIP Program to elevate brownstones that are –

HUD Secretary Julian Castro: Well, obviously I know, as a former mayor as well, and now HUD secretary, how important that is to communities as they plan. It’s also important in terms of insurance and other issues. And I know that Mayor de Blasio and his team are working with FEMA to, you know, I think to come up with a reasonable approach going forward.

Mayor: I also want to note, just a broad point, I mentioned before the approach the Secretary has taken [inaudible] all the work with us. I think it is absolutely informed by him having been a mayor of a major American City, San Antonio – now, number ten, number nine –

Secretary Castro: Seven.

Mayor: Seven – whoa! Whoa!

[Laughter]

I underestimated – number seven largest city in the country. And the work he did as mayor there – I have tremendous respect for him, including what we did to further pre-k in his community. It’s one of the things that inspired us here. But I’m telling you the difference of working someone at the federal level who really understands the needs of a local community because he lived there, because he led a local community, it’s made a world of difference for us. So, I want to thank you. But we are going to – to your question – we are going to continue to work to address any of the issues around the flood plane. We obviously are trying to work with FEMA to address some of the outstanding concerns, and we feel that’s a cooperative process.

Mayor: Mayor, you mentioned that you’re going to need the federal government for a long time on building it back, and also on resiliency measures, and I’m wondering if you feel like your endorsement of Hillary Clinton – was that reflective at all in that –

Mayor: Again, listen, I appreciate the way you phrased your question but we –

[Laughter]

­– That’s a very interesting stretch on the on-topic concept. I have not said – don’t reference to third party reports. When we have something to say on the political front, we’ll say it. I haven’t said anything, and you know, that’ll be something we’ll address in the future. The question here is how do we get things done for this community and many communities like it. And again, what we’ve seen with this secretary has been an extraordinary pattern of progress and consistency, helping us move our agenda, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.

Question: This question is for the secretary. Do you think there’s anything that the city could do better in terms of Sandy recovery? I know that it’s not been perfect, obviously, is there anything right now that the city could do better for people?

Secretary Castro: You know, the mayor and his leadership team have kicked the effort up into gear. And from staffing, to the level of attention and execution, it has improved significantly. And so we’re pleased to have seen that very significant improvement.

Question: So, is that a yes or a no?

Secretary Castro: We’ve seen tremendous improvement, and I’m happy with it.

Question: Obviously with Joaquin, we dodged a bullet. And I think that my readers and people [inaudible] while we certainly recognize that [inaudible] any leadership is going to risk [inaudible], there is such an urgency, especially since we dodged that bullet. How can you as the mayor, communicate to more agencies, [inaudible] Parks and other agencies that are doing work, [inaudible] to communicate that sense of urgency that we feel especially after a major event like that that we dodged?

Mayor: Amen. I feel that urgency deeply, and whenever I see anything going on with a storm in the Caribbean – you know, days and days out – it gets my full attentions. I’m obviously deeply concerned about what it might mean for our communities. And I’ve communicated to our agencies that resiliency work has to happen as quickly as humanly possible. And, in fact, we’ve sped up a lot of the resiliency works in a number of areas. Now, let’s be clear, real resiliency – these are big expensive efforts, and they need to be. Some of them do take years to be completed. Obviously, a lot of them are working with our federal partners and Army Corps of Engineers has been a very good partner in a lot of this work. So, the urgency is there, but I also want to emphasize, it will be an ongoing effort for years and it essentially will always be built upon, because we’re going to have to keep perfecting our efforts at resiliency. So, there will be a combination of urgency, but this mission doesn’t end.

Question: Inclusion in the community – and we’ve seen it in – certainly there’s been examples. Do you think that that can be improved upon as well?

Mayor: When you say inclusion – help me understand.

Question: [inaudible] people who live in the community that deal with these problems every day – maybe asking them on a more regular basis – not you [inaudible] the agencies themselves.

Mayor: Dan – let’s have Dan Zarrilli come up. Look, what we try and do – where is Dan? There you are, okay.

[Laughter]

Stage left – look, what we – I think I learned a long time ago, and I think our agencies now understand more than ever is you’re only are going to get things done talking to people who understand the reality – part of why Amy has been so successful. I think people would say it. A lot of folks who were doubting-Thomas’s for good reason, after their first few meetings with Amy started to see that something was really different. But she, to her credit, really sought that input and asked people what was going to work. So, we continue to do that on resiliency. Now, resiliency – again, these are big long-term projects. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to give people the kind of permanent protection they deserve. So, we need the input, but we also need people to understand it is a lot that has to be done to do it right. Dan, why don’t you give us a bit of an update, including on how we work with communities?

Director Dan Zarrilli, Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re continuing to advance our $20-billion-dollar resiliency program all over the city. One particular one that we’re proud of that we’ve been able to secure funds from the federal government with FEMA and HUD is for costal protections here in Breezy Point. And we’re working very closely with the co-op here on the development of that. There’s going to be some early field work starting next week. It’s been a very cooperative process. And I think that is a great example of the commitment we’re showing to neighborhoods all across the city that we want to continue to think through the challenges, understanding the local concerns, and really build a consensus on where we’re going as we [inaudible] all these projects. So, thank you.

Mayor: Any other questions on-topic? Going – yes?

Question: Initially [inaudible]

Mayor: Don’t try to be like Josh, and do one of those curveball questions.

[Laughter]

Go ahead.

Question: This is – it’s backward-looking, and not forward-looking.

Mayor: Alright.

Question: The report that you guys released last week said that there were initially, I believe, 20,000 applicants to Build It Back, and now it’s been – there’s only 9,000 or so active –

Mayor: Yup, Amy’s going to – Amy’s going to give you an update. And what we’re going to do, again, we’ll talk on Thursday about where we go from here. But it’s very important to note at the outset, there was a lot of outreach to homeowners to let them know about the available options. And, as Amy will explain, some people, having heard all the information, chose not to participate, or some people, you know, didn’t follow through on the things we needed. Obviously, a lot of other people did get into the program and stick with the program, but we’ve been really clear that we are on a very fast pace now, and we’re going to give a lot to people in the process, but they also have things that they have to do to help us get the job done for them.

Director Amy Peterson, Housing Recovery Office: So, the mayor did a good job of talking about what we’ve really tried to do. There were initially 20,000 people who applied to the program, and there’s about 9,300 who are currently working with us. That rate seems to be consistent across the regions and across disasters in terms of people who sign up on that first day. Since I’ve been here, and we’ve really tried to make sure that people who were discouraged by the program came back in and definitely had every opportunity to take advantage of the program. And this spring, in partnership with our local elected officials and community groups, we went door-to-door across the communities, focusing on vulnerable-population seniors to make sure that anybody who wanted to take advantage of this program could. So, we feel comfortable that the people we’re working with are the people who really need our help today.

Mayor: Okay, last call, please.

Question: So, obviously the construction that was done initially is going to be the easiest construction projects – the ones that will happen the fastest – and that’s why there’s been a big push to do those projects. So, I mean, going forward, aren’t you guys concerned that it might slow down? There isn’t going to be enough of a ramp-up for the harder construction projects?

Mayor: When you say enough of a ramp-up, what are you trying to say?

Question: I’m saying, like, how can – obviously you guys got a lot of work done quickly because those are easy construction projects –

Mayor: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. I’m glad I caught that nuance. No, let me – no, look, it’s not an unfair question, but I do want to challenge the assumption. I don’t think anything was easy. What Amy did – what her team did where a lot of folks who came together to make this work – it was, they took very complicated situations and found ways to simplify them and reduce some of the bureaucracy, and overcome some of the barriers. We spent a lot of time – and I was in a number of these meetings – rethinking the approach because it hadn’t worked. So, there was some reverse engineering that was necessary to say, why did this not work? What do we have to do differently? And we tried different designs and figured out what – where are the stumbling blocks, where are the partners we needed, what had to be changed? I don’t think it’s fair to say these were low-hanging fruit. I think a lot of these were very complicated. I think the different now – and Amy can speak to it – is Amy created a different approach. She brought in a whole different level of capacity, and she created a model that could actually do things over and over again effectively, and that’s what we’re going to see through the end.

Director Peterson: Yeah, so the last year we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to build a home in this city and how many contractors and designers we need. And so, we’ve quadrupled our design and construction capacity. We’ve brought on the Department of Design and Construction, hired three borough-based construction management firms to compliment the work that the contractors are already doing. We’ve already seen a huge spike in design and we’ll see a huge spike in construction, and they’re going to deal with exactly the complicated homes in – that are attached in all of the elevation projects. And we’re confident, with the work that we did, that we’ll have the capacity to continue to work at a fast pace.

Mayor: Jillian?

Question: Just to follow up on that, can you give us a little more detail about some of the larger firms that you brought in to help you with those semi-attached or attached homes that are going to be a lot trickier? How’s that going? And what’s the timeline on that?

Director Peterson: Yeah, so, we’ll talk more on Thursday, obviously, about the timeline, moving forward. But we brought in three construction management firms – SLS, on Staten Island; LiRo, in Brooklyn; and Tishman, in Queens. And they each bring something different to the program. Tishman’s a big New York City builder – built the World Trade Center. SLS is out of Texas and has a lot of experience doing home-building, and they’re on Staten Island. And LiRo has brought on a lot of local design teams that have been involved, thinking about the complex situations that exist in Canarsie and Sheepshead Bay, and across that area.

Mayor: Yes, sir.

Question: We talked about before – you mentioned [inaudible] name – about how involved he’s been in the process. And I think that sometimes Jerry doesn’t get the credit for how long he’s been involved –

Mayor: Let’s [inaudible] Jerry step up. Jerry – Jerry? Come get some credit –

[Laughter]

There is no I – Jerry is saying there is no I in team. Well done.

[Applause]

Question: [inaudible] involved in the process before anybody had gotten involved – I think even before Amy had gotten involved – and I think sometimes that gets lost in the [inaudible]. He was there before the money was there, before, you know, when he was just – you know, people needed help – Jerry was there.

Mayor: And I saw it from day one – I agree with you – and I’m going to bring all the themes together. And I say, I want the Mets to eat for breakfast whatever Jerry eats for breakfast –

[Laughter]

­– because he’s got so much energy, that would be the pathway to a World Series victory.

Thank you, everyone. Thanks very much.

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