Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Rochester Monday morning to drum up support for his new Lake Ontario Resiliency & Economic Development Initiative, or REDI.
“We have a major challenge ahead of us,” Cuomo said to a standing-room-only crowd that included elected officials and business and community leaders at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center.
That challenge is repeated flooding along the shores of Lake Ontario, which the state threw $100 million at in 2017 as a defensive move. This year, Cuomo has promised up to $300 million through the REDI program as a pre-emptive strike against the devastation that occurs following record rainfall and melting snow.
“I don’t believe in living in a state of denial. If you deny the problem then you don’t have to solve it,” Cuomo said. “We could say this is a one in 100-year flood. Except it happens about 10 times in a year. We could say this is not our problem. But that’s not who we are. And that’s not what New York is all about.”
In a June 8 letter to the chairs of the International Joint Commission—a board that is responsible for helping to prevent and resolve disputes about the use and quality of boundary waters of Canada and the U.S.—Cuomo called out the commission for failing to do enough to mitigate flooding this year.
“The IJC was put on notice in 2017 when the lake set high-water level records and should have been aware of the present danger from the massive snowpack and likelihood of continued rains into the spring of this year,” Cuomo wrote. “Yet, rather than acting, the IJC continued the status quo, resulting in more flooding and more property damage in New York.
“We demand that the IJC make New York whole for its millions in unreimbursed expenditures and that the IJC modify its water management and planning to reduce the flooding and damage being done to New York’s shoreline communities,” he continued.
Cuomo’s letter noted that on June 4 this year, Lake Ontario remained at 249.02 feet, extending the new historic lake level record first reached two days prior.
“It is expected that the water level of Lake Ontario will continue rising gradually over the next several days,” he wrote.
Cuomo on Monday said the question is not if the historical flooding will happen again, but when it will happen again.
“I don’t want to be on the defense; I don’t want to just wait for the emergency to happen and then we respond to the emergency,” he added. “Let’s figure out a proactive strategy to get ahead of it and actually improve upon it.”
To that end, Monday’s REDI conference was designed to bring together key stakeholders to develop a plan to protect and adapt infrastructure along the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River waterfronts, while strengthening the region’s local economies.
“I would rather invest more and build it back better, more resilient, more economic development potential so we’re actually not wasting $100 million, we’re investing $300 million. And that’s what today is all about,” Cuomo said. “Many communities along this 400-mile stretch had economic development potential that we have not exploited. And we’re saying now is the time to do it.”
Cuomo announced the initiative last month. The commission will be co-chaired Howard Zemsky, president, CEO and commissioner of Empire State Development, and Basil Seggos, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and will include other state commissioners.
“This is the new normal, and we just cannot rebuild to old standards. We have to build to the future. And we must employ all the tools in the toolbox,” Seggos said at Monday’s conference. “It’s not just hard infrastructure. It’s not just soft infrastructure. It’s all of it integrated into a plan.”
The commission will look at the critical public infrastructure, wastewater, intakes at drinking water plants, marinas and ports who are having difficulties operating and other things, Seggos said.
“This is a sprint to the finish,” Seggos said. “This is a sprint to Labor Day. But the process will continue much beyond that at the state level.”
Five regional breakout sessions were planned for Monday’s conference, at which local leaders would learn more about REDI and the work ahead of them. Monroe County’s session included a planning team of Rossana Rosado, secretary of state; Roberta Reardon, commissioner of the state Department of Labor; Dan O’Hara, director of the Office of Emergency Management, state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services; Tim Walsh, chief, Western Flood Protection and Dam Safety Section, state Department of Environmental Conservation; Vincent Esposito, executive director of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council; and Conor McMahon, the governor’s regional representative.
“This is going to be an unprecedented action. This is going to take total partnership. It’s going to take creativity. It’s going to take everyone working together. It’s going to take us pushing the envelope. It’s going to take significant resources,” Cuomo said of the initiative.
REDI will have four meetings between now and the commission review Sept. 16. A July 8 meeting will include a site tour and community needs assessment, discussion of assets and the risk to those assets, brainstorming of strategies for mitigating risk and generating an initial project list.
Cuomo joked that his father, Mario Cuomo, who was governor of New York for three terms, had few emergencies to handle in comparison to himself.
“We’ve had more experience in dealing with emergencies than any administration in history,” Cuomo said. “My father was governor for 12 years. The emergencies he had to deal with were too much snowfall on the Thruway. With one phone call, close the Thruway. That’s it. We went right back to the ball game.
“That’s not what this is,” he added. “These are storms, floods. It’s life-threatening.”
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