Cuomo praised by Biden for disaster preparedness
Updated 2:30 p.m.
ALBANY Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden , Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out a $16.7 billion plan to overhaul the state's infrastructure and bolster disaster preparedness in the wake of the devastating storms that have hit the state in recent years.
Cuomo outlined a host of initiatives aimed at protecting crucial infrastructure from the hurricanes and tropical storms that have become increasingly common in the state. He pledged to create an advanced weather detection system to provide real-time warnings of extreme weather conditions, found a new State University of New York campus with a focus on emergency preparedness and replace 104 bridges across the state now deemed to be at risk due to recent flood patterns.
"The new reality in New York is we are getting hit by 100-year storms every couple of years," Cuomo told a small gathering of dignitaries and media in the Capitol's Red Room on Tuesday morning. "We have to wake up to that new reality by completely reimagining our state to be ready for any future disaster."
Cuomo's plan creates a strategic fuel reserve for the state and a network of gas stations with backup generators along critical evacuation routes. He also spoke of creating 10 "microgrids" -- independent, community-based electric distributions systems -- that will help prevent the widespread outages parts of the state experienced during Superstorm Sandy.
In addition, Cuomo is expanding the $650 million NY Rising community reconstruction program to allow 124 municipalities across the state to create individualized storm plans. He's also creating a civilian training program with the National Guard so roughly 100,000 New Yorkers will be more apt to deal with the type of emergencies brought by storms like Sandy in 2012 and the two tropical storms that battered upstate in 2011.
"What we went through was horrendous," Cuomo said, "but at least we want to learn from it and make sure when and if something like it happens again, we're prepared for it."
The plan's funding comes from a blend of state and federal disaster aid and does not require any action from the state Legislature. Some of the aid comes from the $60 billion appropriated by Congress last summer for parts of the state devastated by Sandy.
Cuomo's strategy announced Tuesday was a prelude to his State of the State address this afternoon. He is expected to tie the improvements into others he has envisioned for New York.
Biden , who was visiting the Capital Region for the second time since he took office, praised Cuomo's initiative and forward thinking after hearing points of his plan. He said blindly rebuilding after natural disasters without planning for future events is both a waste of scarce resources and offers false hope to devastated communities.
"That's not the standard of the 21st century," he said. "That cannot be the standard. We have to rebuild in a way that we will not be victimized by similar storms again, because if we don't, we're just wasting money."
Biden alluded to New York's tradition of building modern infrastructure and how those investments led to the state's economic prosperity. From the Erie Canal system upstate to the massive bridges and superhighways built around New York City, he said New York's past investment in infrastructure has paid incalculable dividends -- something that can happen again with the wise dispersal of disaster aid.
Biden said the Obama administration has already pumped $48 billion nationwide into infrastructure projects through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. He said those projects represented the largest public works investment since the Eisenhower administration constructed the nation's interstate highway system more than 50 years ago.
"And for those critics who say it cannot be done -- government cannot be trusted with that kind of money to do the job -- every independent organization including the [U.S. Government Accountability Office] pointed out that less than one-half of one percent resulted in waste or fraud," he said. "This can be done, and it must be done, because otherwise we're going to be left behind."
U.S Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, lauded Cuomo's strategy and praised the funding pledged to flood-wary communities in his congressional district, many of which are still working to recover from the 2011 floods. He said the strategy is a welcome departure from the status quo and a wise regional approach aimed at preventing the type of destruction that has become all too common in the Schoharie Creek and Mohawk River basins.
"I think that's important after Irene and Lee," said Tonko, who accompanied Biden back to Washington aboard Air Force Two after the event. "There's this propensity to go back to the status quo when we need to learn lessons from mother nature."
In the Capital Region, Cuomo's strategy will bring a total of $9 million in funding to three towns along the Schoharie Creek that were ravaged by flooding from tropical storms Irene and Lee. The towns of Schoharie, Fulton and Middleburgh are among 124 communities that will get funding through NY Rising to develop individualized storm resiliency plans and share in roughly $570 million in federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funding to put them in action.
The funding brings welcome assistance to areas still struggling to recover from the floods of 2011, said Sarah Goodrich, co-chairwoman of the local NY Rising committee and director of SALT, the Schoharie-based flood recovery organization formed after the storms. She said the municipalities in the flood-prone areas are trying to form a plan that helps mitigate the impact of severe storms, bolsters communication service in the Schoharie Valley and helps stimulate economic development.
"In many ways, all three are tied together," she said.
Other local projects include reinforcing parts of the eroding Dove Creek wall near St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam, creation of an $8.5 million flood mitigation warning system along the state's canal network that will provide advanced flood warning for 27 flood-prone counties, and a $1 million flood monitoring system in Schoharie to provide advanced meteorological data on a real-time basis. The governor also listed 21 bridges in the greater Capital Region -- including two over the Kayaderosseras Creek in Saratoga County -- that will be replaced with funding through his strategy.
The plan allocates $1.6 billion toward upgrading the state's 610 municipal wastewater treatment plants, 1,060 sewage collection systems and 22,000 miles of sewers. Among this infrastructure is the North Ferry pump station in Schenectady, which serves the city and parts of three surrounding municipalities.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said the 2011 storms shut the pump down, essentially backing up sewer service. Funding from the initiative will help protect this pump from future storms.
"[This funding] sends the message that we haven't been forgotten on the federal or state level, and, in fact, what is being planned is a well-thought-out undertaking to better handle these catastrophic weather events," said McCarthy, who attended Biden 's visit.