November 19, 2012

Sandy’s Lesson: Today’s Relief System Doesn’t Work for the Vulnerable

Eric Thayer/Reuters/Newscom

Some New York-area residents, like this man and his daughter who live in public housing in the Rockaway section of Queens, are still without services.

Grass-roots leaders who lived through Superstorm Sandy have learned many painful lessons.

We now fully understand that extreme weather in the age of climate change and global warming knows no class, race, or privilege boundaries.

And in the storm’s aftermath, we realized that city and state agencies and large relief organizations did not have the expertise, networks, or trust to aid many of the hardest hit communities, especially in neighborhoods that are home to low-income blacks, Latinos, and other immigrants and elderly people who live on fixed incomes.

That must change.

Donors should ask what government agencies and charities learned in the wake of Sandy and whether they can think differently about the way they provide relief—especially in urban settings.

Big organizations need to build relationships with local groups. Donors should get to know local organizing and direct-service groups so they can provide money and other help to people who provide aid at every level—from the national to the hyper-local.

As we turn our attention to recovery and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, grant makers need to focus attention on the neighborhoods and people that have thus far received the too little attention.

To do that, we need to rely on local organizations that understand those communities and have already earned their trust.

That’s why North Star Fund established a Grassroots Hurricane Relief Fund to help the most vulnerable residents and communities in our region recover. All the money raised is being put to immediate use to support grass-roots organizations and activists who are aiding disenfranchised families and communities cope with this disaster.

My colleagues at North Star Fund and I have been systematically reaching out to the grassroots organizers and groups we support to hear how the people they serve are faring and what is needed next.

Here are a few of the challenges nonprofits and everyone else involved in promoting social change should seek to overcome.

Day laborers put their lives at risk but were then denied aid.

Staten Island incurred some of Sandy’s deepest damage, with dozens of homes lost and about half of the city’s hurricane-related deaths occurring there.

Day laborers from Port Richmond’s El Centro del Inmigrante were among the first to respond in the aftermath of the storm.

Carrying out some of the most dangerous jobs in the recovery effort, day laborers “are being sent into flooded areas where there are live power lines … and working around fallen trees,” said Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of El Centro.

A North Star Fund grant helped his group provide health and safety training for day laborers working on clean-up efforts.

According to the statutes dictating the distribution of federal emergency disaster aid, these workers are not eligible to apply for assistance because they are undocumented, even though they are heroes who swam through flood waters to save lives and belongings.

Now the New York Immigration Coalition is leading an effort to ensure that city and state relief dollars waive this discriminatory provision.

Residents of public housing and the homeless face worsening challenges finding decent shelter.

The people who live in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses, a public housing complex, did not receive evacuation orders, nor did government workers give them high priority after Sandy.

In the wake of dropping temperatures and another storm on the horizon, the situation had become dire.

Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, a grass-roots organization in downtown Brooklyn, better known as Furee, used a North Star Fund grant to collaborate with local restaurants, places of worship, community centers, and Gowanus neighbors to coordinate relief efforts reaching more than 3,000 homebound residents.

Valery Jean, the group’s executive director, says “We knocked on every door of the five impacted buildings every day, hand-delivered food and water to stranded elders, wiped tears, hugged frustrated residents, refilled prescriptions, served hot meals, handed out hundreds of blankets, flashlights, and warm clothing items. ... [We’ve] rebuilt a sense of community from the bottom up.”

The storm has exacerbated the city’s chronic lack of truly affordable housing, adding up to 40,000 people to the rolls.

These New Yorkers need help finding temporary shelter whether that is transitional housing, money for hotels, or doubling up with families and friends. The city must also deal with the big reason public-housing residents wouldn’t leave their buildings in low-lying areas: They feared that government would knock down their buildings in the wake of the storm.

People who lost their homes need to get high priority as government aid is distributed, but we also need to ensure public housing is improved and prepared so it can better endure future disasters. Groups like Furee are now working to get the city government to improve upon its meager response to their neighborhoods.

In a multicultural disaster zone, bilingual speakers and culturally competent relief workers are not optional.

Chinatown and the Lower East Side were among the Manhattan areas that suffered the greatest storm damage, but many of its residents were left waiting for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government authorities.

Home to one of the highest concentrations of monolingual immigrants in the city, the area was left in the dark with residents living isolated in high-rise buildings without electricity, water, or working elevators for days.

In response, the advocacy group CAAAV, Organizing Asian Communities, immediately set up an ad hoc relief center offering critical resources, such as phone-charging services and diaper distribution.

With the help of a North Star Fund grant, dozens of volunteer teams equipped with backpacks and flashlights were dispatched to canvass buildings, many walking up more than 20 floors to deliver food and water and to help translate relief information directly to the elderly, disabled, and others in need of help.

Local groups like El Centro del Inmigrante now need to hire and train temporary staff members to help displaced families understand and apply for FEMA assistance.

In many cases, these new staff members must be bilingual and have sufficient job skills to work with the many professionals who have volunteered in the relief effort.

Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath reminds us that when it comes to climate change, we all struggle together to fight this global challenge.

In several neighborhoods, local organizations are talking about a coordinated communications and advocacy campaign to demand that plans are developed for every neighborhood, to ensure that the New York City and New York State agencies actually talk to each other before the next storm and prepare now for the worst-case scenarios.

But what the superstorm also reveals is an undeniable social dimension to the impact of weather disasters.

Along with improvements in physical infrastructure, much needs to be done to change the underlying inequities in our social infrastructure before the next storm hits.

As donors and grant makers, we must ask what needs to change, and that assessment process should begin by visiting the parts of New York City and the region that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

We need to hear directly from grass-roots leaders what their experience was like and what must change in the wake of extreme weather.

Local leaders will probably ask donors to direct more support to grass-roots organizations that understand best the needs of local constituents and are therefore in the best position to lead the way to a more just approach. And we must push government agencies and large relief organizations to do the same.

Hugh Hogan is executive director of the North Star Fund.