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Suffolk Sandy task force holds first public hearing

Meeting is first of four in the next few weeks designed to gather the latest information on recovering efforts more than 5 years after superstorm

A Suffolk County task force is looking at what went right and what went wrong after superstorm Sandy to better prepare for storms to come.

The Suffolk County Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force held its first public hearing Wednesday night at Stony Brook University with three more set for Lindenhurst, Medford and Southampton.

“This is looking at, did people get the help they needed and why, five years later, are people still trying to rebuild and get back in their homes?” said Joshua Slaughter, an aide to the Suffolk legislature’s presiding officer, DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), who created the task force along with Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket). Its four working groups, on emergency response, resiliency, recovery and infrastructure, will develop recommendations for a report by December.

At the hearing, Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) said the new state budget approved a $250,000 allocation for a storm-preparedness study along the South Shore inlets.

Requested by Assemb. Christine Pelligrino (D-West Islip), the study would be led by Professor Malcolm Bowman, a task force member who leads the Stony Brook Storm Surge research group.

Bowman said the study will focus on the feasability of seagates for the seven inlets into the back bays along the South Shore.

“We’re trying to protect the back bays from ocean surges that come through the inlets and threaten all the South Shore communities.”

By the time the storm hit on Oct. 29, 2012, Long Islanders had been warned of “a once-in-a-lifetime storm” hurtling toward the Northeast. The resulting damage proved the predictions right. The storm destroyed or damaged 100,000 homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties, with 2,000 of them deemed uninhabitable.

The financial costs were unprecedented, reaching billions in damages to buildings and homes, roads and bridges statewide, according to the National Hurricane Center, with half a billion dollars worth of damage to Long Island alone.

Empire State Development, the state’s primary business-aid agency, calculated shortly after the superstorm that the millions of workers affected by Sandy together lost an estimated $8.2 billion in wages and other personal income.

After a bitter fight in Congress, more than $50 billion was earmarked for recovery for New York, New Jersey and other states, with $4.5 billion going to New York.

Bowman warned that with the acceleration of sea rise, storms would not have to be as severe as Sandy to do just as much damage, adding, “Climate change is real, believe me.”

The panel of task force members said it would look at issues like contractor fraud and how to better protect homeowners, as well as pinpointing federal rules that clogged the flow of funding and slowed recovery.

Local communities met in the months after Sandy to propose projects that would improve emergency preparedness and residency. This task force would differ in that it would look at how well the recovery efforts performed and what needed to be changed to improve them, Slaughter said.

“There are success stories we can learn from,” he said. “We have to see why it worked for them and not for others. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

Dorian Dale, sustainability director at Suffolk’s department of economic development and planning, said he thought the focus should be on ”what we can do, what’s doable, what factors in cost and what we can get people to agree to do.”

The hearings will help the task force refine their focus and list of issues to examine. Its members include representatives from the governor’s office of storm recovery, planning boards, environmental groups and academics, government officials, elected officials, community members, law enforcement and others.

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