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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Appears Live on the Brian Lehrer Show

September 3, 2021

Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC and here's a little behind the scenes story about our weekly Ask the Mayor segment. There wasn't supposed to be one this week because the Mayor was taking a long Labor Day weekend. Fair enough. Until we got hit as hard as we did by Hurricane Ida, and the Mayor came back to work. So, guess what? Now, it's time as usual on Fridays in the 11 o'clock hour for our weekly Ask the Mayor call-in, my questions and yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio at 646-435-7280, 646-435-7280, or you can tweet a question, just use the hashtag, #askthemayor. And we usually take some of our questions from Twitter. Just use the hashtag, #askthemayor. And good morning, Mr. Mayor. Thanks for adding us back to your calendar once you realized you had to work. Welcome back to WNYC.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Of course, Brian, and thank you. And we've all been through a lot the last few days, but you know, New Yorkers once again, really, really showed extraordinary strength and resiliency dealing with yet another challenge on top of COVID. It's almost unbelievable how many things have been thrown at us, but people keep fighting through. And I hope everyone's going to get a break this weekend because all New Yorkers deserve it.

Lehrer: Do you have any update on the immediate recovery from the storm, including people who've lost their homes, or their homes have become uninhabitable or anything else? 

Mayor: Here's the broad strokes, the most important and the saddest part, we’ve lost 13 New Yorkers. The storm has shown us a ferocity and a speed that is just absolutely breathtaking. And it's made very clear we're going to have to change a lot of things we do. But in terms of folks displaced, we've actually had a very small number of people. Last number I have is fewer than a hundred families had requested housing because they were displaced. What we've seen is a lot of property damage, particularly to basements, both homes and stores. That's been the thing that we're getting the most and folks are digging out right now, and Sanitation is making – our Department of Sanitation is making extraordinary effort yesterday, today, and they'll go all through next week to ensure that folks get extra support, they just want to get all the refuse out of the way so people don't have to deal with it and they can get in the practice, you know – in the process I should say of getting back on their feet. Another really important fact for all your listeners, Brian, alternate side parking is suspended all the way until Thursday, September 9th. So, the next time it’s back, is Thursday, September 9th, because of the crisis for the storm. And then of course, Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah. 

Lehrer: For those people who are having housing problems, even if it's a relatively small number, will FEMA funds – Federal Emergency Management funds be available to renters or homeowners without flood insurance? And if so, how can people get that relief if you know?

Mayor: So, first of all, for anyone in the immediate situation that they don't have a place to stay, the City works with the American Red Cross to get people to hotels if their home has been knocked out. So, that help is available immediately. Our Emergency Management office coordinates that with the Red Cross. Anyone in that situation should call 3-1-1 right away. Now we're working right now with FEMA. And, of course, the FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell was our own Emergency Management Commissioner until just a few months ago. So, she's been very, very helpful. We're working with FEMA to maximize relief. There is relief available for store owners that we want them to be able to access. There is relief available for homeowners. I need to get better answers on renters, but anyone with those questions can call 3-1-1. And as we're getting updates from the federal government about what they will make available we will be able to guide people and help them. And particularly for any store owners, our Small Business Services department is helping them with everything from accessing the federal funds, to getting their insurance claims in, getting legal help, whatever they need.

Lehrer: So, for people who've had flood damage, and obviously that's a lot more people than those who've actually become temporarily homeless as a result – for people who have had flood damage, but don't have flood insurance you're saying start by calling 3-1-1?

Mayor: That's right. The federal aid that – again, we've had a declaration from the White House, which is crucial. We now have to ensure that everyone who can get access to it gets it. So, the best way to start is by calling 3-1-1, and then they'll connect you to the folks who are working – the money is not available instantly, but we want to get it to people as quickly as possible, obviously. And that's the best route to register that at your need. We have, again, a lot of homeowners who had a basement flooded, a lot of stores that lost inventory in their basements, because it’s the only place they have to store anything. So, we want to try and help each of them to get the maximum available support available to them.

Lehrer: Here is Laura calling from Texas, but said she worked with NYCHA developing a storm plan after Sandy. Laura you're on WNYC with Mayor de Blasio. Hi.

Question: Hi, thanks for taking my call today. Hi, Mayor. I worked with the New York City Housing Authority after Sandy, and we developed a really amazing plan in conjunction with the City, looking at massive storm water management that was designed to handle and accommodate an eight-inch rain event, similar to the one that has devastated the city. I'm wondering, Mayor, what your thoughts are about the opportunity to implement a project like this now that the extreme rain events are becoming more frequent and have impacted the city in this way.

Mayor: Yeah. Laura, thank you. Thank you for the work you did to help us. And I think you're pointing us in the right direction. Look, it's very important to make the juxtaposition with Sandy because in Sandy, as you know and all New Yorkers know, that was an event that really hurt people in coastal areas. And then, since then we have been implementing a $20 billion resiliency plan with a lot of features that are already in place. And, Brian, you know, some of them well, like the Rockaway Boardwalk, 5.5 miles that is also a resiliency barrier now. A lot of that's in place, a lot of it is being built, but what's so striking about what happened on Wednesday night, not only was it the record rainfall in the entire history of New York City, the entire recorded history, that one hour was the most rainfall we ever had an hour by a lot, but the impact was not primarily in the coastal areas. The folks who suffered the most, the folks we lost were far from the coastal areas. So, this is a different reality. And I think the fact is it calls upon us now to start adapting to much more extreme weather. This is – I hate to have to say this, but now the extreme weather is becoming the norm. 

We set two records in less than a month for the most rainfall in one hour, and the first record was bad. The second record was astoundingly bad. So, I think it's going to come down to a combination of a huge amount of change in infrastructure and hopefully it's finally getting the federal support to do it on a massive scale. We're talking hundreds of billions of dollars over time. But second, what I talked about this morning in my press conference, we're going to have to orient people to much different approaches to storms, things like mandatory evacuations and travel bans that are enforced. Those have been rarities in the past, but I fear now they are going to become more normal. And we're going to have to say at the beginning of an incident like this, to prepare for something like that. And then the second we see God forbid the turn in the weather to activate those kinds of plans, because the weather now is so unpredictable. We've got to be just – some cases do not have the big long-term structural solution that we can reach right now, but at least we can get people out of harm's way in a very aggressive fashion.

Lehrer: So, when you talk about travel bans, are you talking about shutting down the subways earlier, on a more frequent basis than has been done in the past, because, certainly, you know, people are reluctant, who run the MTA, for good reason, to lock people out of getting home or wherever they have to get, unless it's absolutely necessary. Do you think we've been too conservative about that?

Mayor: I fear we have for the very good reason, and I've been through a couple of these and let's hasten to add the State runs the MTA, they make that call. And I, you know, like many of us for decades assume the subways would keep going on no matter what. And we've had now, of course, in one way with Sandy, but a whole different reality now we're seeing with this very sudden kind of weather, where we have to think about when are those times. Now I would never do it lightly, and I'm sure that the State would never do it lightly. But what is clear with a scenario the other night, unprecedented kind of rain that overwhelmed the MTA system, and had we had more of a projection of it we could have said, okay, we know at this hour, we're going to stop everyone, you know make your plans, get ready. So, again, the – you're hearing immediately, Brian, some of this is just the unknown and the sudden shifts in weather, the kind of raging weather we're seeing lately. 

But I think if we say to people, either the day before or the morning of, prepare for a travel ban potential, know that at any moment we may need to shut the subways and we need to be tell people, get off the road, you know, adjust to the best of your ability, your schedule, knowing it could be as early as whatever time and equally with evacuation, if we're saying to people in this case, let's not just talk about the traditional evacuation routes with coastal areas, but in this case, we now know we have a different kind of problem with basement apartments, we know some of the areas where they're predominant – if we’re saying to people early, including what cell phone alerts which are very effective, prepare for the possibility of evacuation from this point on. So, everyone is hearing that we may order them out and then we would send, if God forbid it came to that moment, we would send first responders out to go door-to-door, literally get people out. It's a paradigm shift. We're going to have to communicate a kind of urgency and a kind of rigor that has generally not been the case in the past. But now I think is going to be much more the norm.

Lehrer: Question via Twitter from a listener on Staten Island. A listener writes, “Does the Mayor still support the development of the BJ's,” the store, BJ's, “on Staten Island on wetlands after this week’s storm?

Mayor: There's a folks – when I was out, we had the City Hall in Your Borough in Staten Island last week. And actually, some of the folks from the community came over and had a conversation with me and some of our commissioners. Let's be clear, this is a private application. It's not about something the City is sponsoring. I don't support it or reject it. It's something that was put forward privately. But so far, our experts have looked at and said they don't see from that project a threat of flooding. But I asked them to go back and reassess, and obviously these events now add another thing to assess, to see if there is something there that has to be handled. Previous environmental impact did not suggest it, but I want to make sure it's airtight.

Lehrer: Eileen in Manhattan. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Eileen.

Question: Hi, Mayor. Good to talk to you. I mean I'm sure that you agree, we – obviously that New York City deserves the best resilient waterfront plan. And yet it's puzzling that an environmental justice neighborhood like the East Village and the Lower East Side has a big resilient park that protected the neighborhood, especially during the pandemic. And yet you want to ram through the ESCR plan, which is a flood wall. And flood walls have been widely criticized because they will do such things as send the water to Brooklyn. You know, and flood walls will trap the water in the park. The East River Park is resilient, and it was – in two days after Sandy it was clean of water and people could use it again. I mean, ESCR's a bad plan. Environmental experts have testified against it. The neighborhood is against it. NYCHA is against it. And Scott Stringer even sent the contract back to you. So, we really want to have an oversight review in the City Council looking at ESCR. It's not been looked at since the pandemic and we're going to lose green space for 10 years. We're New Yorkers and we know how long it takes for the city to do something. But meanwhile, they're going to pull up 1,000 trees in the only green space in Lower Manhattan. Manhattan has two lungs, Central Park and East River Park. And you're going to take away one of our lungs and put up this very flawed flood plan. We need to look at the plan after the pandemic and in light of the new thoughts about flood walls. Thank you.

Lehrer: Thank you. I’d say Manhattan has three lungs, by the way because you left out the one in the Heights, near me. The wonderful greenery up here –

Mayor: I think it might be – I think folks on the West Side would say Riverside Park and say four lungs. We can talk about many lungs – 

Lehrer: Fair enough.  But to her point about flood walls, you know they're controversial.

Mayor: Yeah. But I want to go – look, I appreciate both the passion in Eileen's voice but also, she's raising real concerns. For example, yes, when you work on a park, the park won't be fully available to the public for that period of time. And yes, it's true and it's painful that some trees are coming down. But let's go back to why we're even doing this. We're doing this because of what happened in Sandy. And we're doing this because of rising sea levels globally and the threat of these kinds of storms. That whole area was hit so hard in Sandy. Everyone remembers the images of what happened. NYU Hospital, Bellevue, so many parts of the community that were hit so hard. So, the current state of affairs in that broader community is not acceptable. And a huge amount of public housing developments are vulnerable. And that was Sandy. And now we know we could be seeing storms worse than Sandy combined with rising sea levels, which no one doubts anymore. So, we have to take intensive measures to protect that part of Manhattan. This plan is much stronger in terms of protecting the community. I understand people love the park. I really do. But we're talking about protecting the people who live there, hundreds of thousands of people and hospitals, everything in harm's way. This plan does it better than the previous plan. We are going to rotate the work so that part of the park is open at all times. We're going to replace the trees. It's not perfect, but again, we are dealing with weather dynamics beyond anything we could previously imagine, and we have to respond to them. So, there's been a huge amount of review and oversight on this. It's been debated, we've got to get moving to protect that community. 

Lehrer: I want to ask you about the basement apartments. You mentioned this before. And the latest stat I saw anyway was that at least 11 people died in flooded basement apartments in Queens. That’s, you know, I guess from the ways that the storm was different from Sandy, more inland and from different kinds of infrastructure, what do you think the policy response to this should be since basement apartments – some of them illegal conversions – were already controversial for other reasons?

Mayor: Yeah. Look, Brian, this is one of the thorniest, toughest issues that I've seen. Not only are we talking about basement apartments, let's talk about the illegal ones that would need a huge amount of work to be brought up to code, a lot of expense and they’re – and I don't like the fact that there's health and safety dangers there that’s profoundly troubling. And then on top of that, you're talking that in many cases, the folks that live in them happen to be undocumented immigrants who are fearful in many cases to turn to government for help. So, it's like so many factors on top of each other, but then think about the alternative. We talked about it this morning. Our estimate is at minimum – at minimum it's 50,000 apartments. At minimum, it's 100,000 people, probably higher, substantially higher in both cases. We do not have a way to suddenly say to a hundred thousand or more people, you know, here's a new place for you to live.

And if we said to people, you can't live there anymore, they'd rightfully be entirely dislocated, and their world would be thrown off in every way. So, what we need to do is try and protect people the best we can in the current situation while trying to figure out a long-term solution. And the only way we'll do it is with a long-term solution, not a fast one. I think things like identifying all the apartments, coming up with a way to canvas them with community groups so they have trusted voices in the community talking to them, particularly when there's dangerous events like this coming, using the cell phone alerts, using mandatory evacuation door-to-door with first responders, we can protect people from the worst situations while trying somehow to find a bigger solution to the situation.

Lehrer: Changing topics. Liz in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Liz. 

Question: Hi, thanks for taking my call. My thoughts are with everyone who is suffering right now due to the flood damage, but I'm going to change the topic a little bit to talk about schools. So, Mr. Mayor, 5,000-plus parents have signed a petition asking for a remote option for any family who wants it, which is what LA offers families. Why do we need this? Many kids can't get vaccinated. And there are other reasons too. Schools weren't prioritized in the decision to relax the mask mandate and restrictions on capacity. And rather than increase mitigation layers because of Delta and 700,000 more bodies being funneled back into school, you're not doing weekly testing as so many districts are, and studies tell us that this action alone might cut cases in half. The plan to only quarantine close contacts in middle school and high school was very risky because COVID is like smoke. It floats to all parts of the room. The whole classroom needs to close. Other districts have CO2 monitors in every room to make sure their air is safe. Again, we are failing to provide the best we can. Parents are very concerned, and we shouldn't have to choose between our children's health and their education. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times looked at the science in New York City plan and concluded my family's chance of getting through this fall without either of our kids coming down with COVID is almost a coin flip. 85 percent of – 

Lehrer: And Liz, I’m going to leave it there. I know you're reading a long statement and I’ve let you go for a while and you’ve got a lot of important points in there. But let’s have a conversation. So, Mr. Mayor, you hear that she’s asking for a remote option.

Mayor: And I respect the request and I respect the concerns that were raised. I listened to them and I again, will say it’s never abstract for me. My kids went to New York City public schools from pre-K all the way to 12th grade, both of them. And I would not hesitate for a second to send my kids to school if they were that age right now. Why? Because we proved last year that we could have the most stringent health and safety standards in the country and get COVID down to almost nothing in our schools. Then we proved it again during Summer Rising. So, anyone who wants to say, oh wait, that was June, that was before Delta was as prevalent. We proceeded to do the same thing again with Summer Rising, with hundreds of thousands of kids. We had a grand total of two school closures over the course of the summer. Why was that possible? Because of the level of vaccination. So, I want to keep bringing it back to facts and science and what our health care leaders say. And this is crucial, I respect Liz, and every other parent’s voice. But our health care leadership adamantly believes, and they spent a year and a half fighting this pandemic, adamantly believes that our kids need to be back in school for 1,000 reasons, including all health, mental health, physical health, educational, social development, all of these reasons. And as a city, right now, 5.5 million people have gotten at least one dose. Almost 78 percent of adults have gotten at least one dose. We are close to two thirds of kids, 12 to 17-year-olds who have gotten at least one dose. This is why we can do it safely. All the health and safety standards we’ve put in place before that worked. And now a much higher level of vaccination then we’ve ever had before and on top of that, requiring all adults in the building to be vaccinated. That is by far the best way to protect kids here. And we do not believe in remote education. It didn’t work as well as in-person by any estimation. So, we know we can keep kids safe. And look, we are seeing that massive vaccination is fighting back the Delta variant. You can see it here. And you can see where there isn’t massive vaccination what happens. But in this city, it is actually working.

Lehrer: So, you are placing a bet on a much lower infection rate in the schools then some other people, I guess as reflected by Michelle Goldberg’s column quote there from the caller, think are likely to happen?

Mayor: I respect Michelle Goldberg, who I think is a very smart commentator, but I respect our health care leadership in particular, who have been fighting this battle. Any commentator, any citizen, anybody with a viewpoint I’m going to listen to. But the health leadership of this city have been fighting this battle for a year and a half. And they are saying all our kids need to be in school. Our top educators are saying all of our kids need to be in school. There’s not even a hint of disagreement. Of all the leadership have looked at this and fought this battle say we need our kids back. And we can keep them safe in a way that goes far beyond what most parts of this country can do because we have vaccination at extraordinarily high level and all the other health and safety measures. We keep adding health and safety measures. And every adult in the building vaccinated. And Brian, we are going to keep getting kids vaccinated over these next weeks. That number that we are at now with the 12 to 17-year-olds, almost two thirds already, that’s going to keep going up. And then we expect the five to 11 vaccine as early as November.

Lehrer: Follow up, listener on Twitter writes, could you ask the Mayor if he’s looked into the HEPA purifier situation, he last stated – last time you were on the show, that he didn’t know anything about this topic, that’s the air purifiers that were purchased by the City for the public schools that are not HEPA, which is generally considered the highest standard, and where not the highest rated. So, he’s asking that. And I’ll add that Gothamist has an article on several thousand classrooms not having much in the way of ventilation other than openable windows. So, on either of those things?

Mayor: Yeah, sure. In fairness, I know plenty about ventilation writ large, I don’t want you to suggest to your listeners otherwise because I have been working with the whole team of people for a year and a half on this. But on the specific thing you raised Brian, I want you to be accurate my friend. You raised a specific company and a specific product which I hadn’t heard of. Went back with our team and said where does that stand compared to HEPA, they said this product is actually regarded as more rigorous then HEPA. So, we will get you all the facts on why that was chosen and the impact it has. But the other Gothamist article, and I would really urge people to be careful about their facts, was also inaccurate. The standard that’s been held and has been proven effective, because we had a year in the nation’s largest school system to prove it, is the one we continue to use. An open window is a very big deal for fighting COVID and the ventilation units we are using have worked and we are doing, in many cases, both at once and we are even adding additional units now. The problem with the critique is it ignores a year of evidence of what worked. And you saw the COVID levels in schools. And you saw how low they got, particularly toward the end when Delta was already present. The kind of ventilation in our schools in real life conditions, like battlefield conditions worked. And we are repeating the same formula again this year. 

Lehrer: Let’s end on a politics question. I’ve seen the reports in the Times and Politico that you hired a pollster and contacted unions to gauge an interest in a potential run for governor. We have a listener on Twitter, now I’ve lost it, let’s see if I can find it. Oh, there it is. Please ask Mayor de Blasio why he is running for governor in 2022? I got a call from a pollster a couple of days ago. Please give Kathy Hochul a chance and don’t primary her. What do you say to that caller or those reports in the press?

Mayor: Look, as you can hear from the passion in my voice on your previous questions, honestly, what I focus on every single day, fighting COVID and bringing the city back. And I’ve got four more months to do that in this office and then I’m going to handoff this office to Eric Adams, and I’m quite convinced he will do great work going forward. That’s my focus. Now, I want to keep serving. I’ve done public service my whole life. I care deeply about education, I care deeply about health care. I want to keep serving. I’m going to look at the best way to do that. And that’s a decision I will make in the future. And I can hear your music coming so I also want to say to all your listeners, have a very safe, safe and I hope restful Labor Day weekend. And in advance for folks, shanah tovah for the new year. And we will all keep fighting COVID together.

Lehrer: And same to you about Labor Day and we will all keep fighting COVID and the aftermath of the floods together. But you are keeping the door open to primarying Kathy Hochul, it sounds like from that answer? Fair?

Mayor: I want to figure out the best way to serve going forward. I don’t know what that is yet. But when I know, I’m certainly going to let people know. But right now, again, I’ve got a mission I’m working on every day for the people right here.

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