Web Only / Features » October 29, 2013
A year after Hurricane Sandy hit, despite community efforts, marginalized New Yorkers aren’t back on their feet.
The immediate response to Sandy was led by volunteer groups and community organizations.
It’s been a year since Superstorm Sandy devastated swaths of the East Coast, but Staten Island resident Victorina Ramirez remembers it like it was yesterday.
“The ocean was on the street right there on Highland Boulevard,” she recalls.
On October 28, 2012, with the storm fast approaching, Ramirez and her husband left their Midland Beach apartment and headed to Costco to stock up on diapers and other supplies for their 18-day-old baby, as well as food that wouldn’t spoil if the power went out. Then they went to stay with friends on higher ground, expecting to get back soon.
But the landlord called the day after the storm to tell them that their basement apartment had flooded and everything was destroyed.
They had to stay with other families for a month or so, but eventually their landlord managed to fix up the apartment—a bit too well, Ramirez notes, because the woman put in a washer-dryer for her own use, taking away some of Ramirez’s space. The rent went up as well.
They decided to move, but they wanted to stay on Staten Island, where they have lived for 12 years; Ramirez likes the area better than other parts of the city because it’s less cramped and her daughters have space to play outside.
When I met Ramirez on October 22, 2013, she and her family had found a new apartment, though it took them a while, she says, because rents had risen all over Staten Island. “People, they take advantage of you because you don’t have an apartment.” Her husband is back at work, but business is slow at the Staten Island auto shop where he is a mechanic’s assistant, as many residents lost their cars after the storm. With money tight, Ramirez relies on donations and aid through her daughter’s school to get clothes, diapers and toys for her daughters. Over the summer, during the heat wave, she couldn’t afford an air conditioner.
Victorina and her 1-year-old daughter in their new apartment.
Her 6-year-old daughter, she says, is still affected by the storm. “Every time she gets something, a toy or something, she wants to keep it safe because she says she doesn’t want the water coming again. She asks me so many times, ‘Mom, Sandy’s coming again? Mommy, Sandy will be happening again?’ ”
She's applied for rental assistance through the city, but is still waiting for a response. Like many New Yorkers, she feels that the relief effort has been unequal at best. People who had more money before the storm, or people who were not immigrants, she feels, have had an easier time getting help. “I think help has to be for everyone, everybody lost everything,” she says.
Outside of the affected areas, New York feels back to normal. But for many people in Staten Island, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and other neighborhoods, life is anything but normal. Though few residents are actually out on the streets, many, like Ramirez’s family, are still struggling with steeper rents, slow repairs, displacement and the psychological trauma of the storm.
Terri Bennett, of the grassroots relief organization Respond and Rebuild in the Rockaways, explains, “It’s hard to tell what the displacement looks like. There’s still a lot of people doubled up; there’s still a lot of people whose first floor was destroyed and they don't really know what to do about it, so they’ve moved the entire family up onto the second floor. They might be home, but they’ve got five people living in a 400-square-foot second floor. We've walked into people’s houses where all of their possessions are stacked on the stairs in the upstairs of their home [and] there’s almost no room to walk.”
On the anniversary of the storm, it’s worth looking back at how the relief effort was handled and what’s still left to do.
A community effort
As I and many other reporters have noted, the immediate response to Sandy was led by volunteer groups forming ad hoc organizations and community organizations that already had roots in the affected communities—many of which were already marginalized.
Respond and Rebuild was one of those groups, formed by Bennett and her partner and a friend, all of whom had done disaster relief work in Haiti following the earthquake of 2010. “It seemed like the combination of various experiences that we had might make us relatively useful in the first response,” she tells In These Times. “We realized that people really didn't know anything about what was coming with the mold issue. Because New York’s been spared these kinds of storms for decades, people really had no idea to what extent they were going to have to get rid of everything they owned that touched contaminated water—that they were going to have to gut their entire home.”
They worked closely with Occupy Sandy, the relief network begun by Occupy Wall Street activists. In the beginning, both groups had all the volunteers they could want. At a time when New Yorkers were still unable to get to work, as power was still out in parts of the city and sections of the subway remained down, hundreds pitched in to help their neighbors.
Respond and Rebuild began to focus specifically on the mold issue, sending teams of volunteers into homes to rip out soaked drywall and flooring and leave the skeleton of the home to dry out. (Full disclosure: I participated on one of the teams). They worked mostly with homeowners who had trouble getting help in other ways—through insurance companies or through the city’s Rapid Repair program—and formed relationships with many of them that lasted for months.
The holidays saw the flood of volunteers start to dry up. But recovery hubs continued to operate and feed people. Respond and Rebuild began to get calls from student groups and other organizations requesting “alternative spring break” volunteer opportunities as early as the first week of November, and signed up hundreds of out-of-towners to help the waiting list of Rockaways residents in need of mold remediation. Over the course of the spring break period—from February to April—they made it through most of their eight-week backlog.
Meanwhile, the process for getting official aid, or even aid from non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, was complicated and slow. Homeowners had to deal with their insurance companies; residents needed to register with FEMA, often as a prerequisite for other kinds of aid. Melissa McCrumb of the community organization Make the Road New York explains that many NGOs still asked for a FEMA number before giving aid. That often excluded undocumented immigrants who were ineligible for FEMA and thus blocked from other forms of aid as well.
Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), notes that the process was a constant struggle for applicants, who had to register over and over, prove that they had a right to their home, and prove that someone else hadn’t already given them money. Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association and a regular volunteer doing healthcare assistance in the Rockaways after Sandy, told me in February that to her, the system seemed designed more to prevent anyone from gaming it than actually dispensing aid.
“[The agencies] have a formula. You either qualify or don’t, and it’s in black and white,” says Bennett. But in the cases she encountered through her work with Respond and Rebuild, it was rarely so simple.
By late summer, Respond and Rebuild was getting fewer requests for relatively simple demolition and mold removal—the kind of things volunteers could handle—and more for the final stages of rebuilding, which required skilled labor. “We wound up diverting our resources more into hiring people in the Rockaways who are construction workers of various kinds to do this finishing work for people, so that they could actually get that last step done, that was keeping them from either being able to move home or having a livable home.”
Nearly all the people I spoke with agree that the city, state, and federal response was lacking, despite self-congratulatory reports issued by FEMA and other agencies. And New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pressured the Red Cross and other charities to release more of their funds raised for Sandy relief—as of July, his office found that 90 charities had spent less than half of what they'd raised. In addition to addressing the failure of the big organizations, the grassroots volunteer groups spent time considering the impact and value of their own work. Occupy Sandy in particular operated under the same principles of mutual aid that had been deeply valued in the original Occupy Wall Street movement, where solidarity, not charity, was a central ideal. But in the days and weeks and even months after a disaster, when people are traumatized and struggling to survive, the first thing people need is their basic needs met, and concern for political implications has to take somewhat of a backseat. That means accepting every volunteer, every donation and simply doing the work. “Occupy Sandy did a lot of charity,” says Andy Smith, an activist with the group. “[It] brought in a whole bunch of diverse people who had a bunch of different skills and social justice organizing was not the skill that pervaded them, not by a long shot.”
As long-term recovery begins, the relief groups had to think harder about the impact they might be having on the community. “There was certainly a struggle within Occupy Sandy about [identifying] the differences between charity and organizing social justice work,” Smith says. “Where are our resources most useful, in really deep community organizing or to be doled out one by one to this family, this family and this family? That discussion continues.” As Occupy Sandy’s financial resources began to run out, the organization began to shift to the resource it had more of—organizing skill, to help residents figure out how to politically pressure the city, state and federal government for better aid and sustainable rebuilding. The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a coalition of community and labor groups, grew up out of the need to do political work as well as aid work around Sandy.
To Bennett of Respond and Rebuild, thinking about deeper impact meant making absolutely sure that the construction work they did for free was as good as any done for pay. If their work was bad, not only would it have long-term consequences for residents, but it would also reflect badly on grassroots relief efforts in general.
Respond and Rebuild also made an effort to hire local workers for their jobs. Because a number of residents lost their jobs as well as their homes after Sandy—particularly, as Make the Road's McCrumb points out, immigrant workers who were doing domestic work or construction—it became even more important to ensure that the jobs created in the recovery process go to residents of the most affected areas.
And as the communities began to get back on their feet, the question of providing free help vs. putting money back into the economy by spending at local businesses and hiring local workers remained complicated. Sheridan-Gonzalez commented that after Sandy, issues like this made her and others consider broader questions of how society should be organized.
Who got help?
“The hurricane didn’t discriminate but the people who should have been helping us did,” Edith Olmedo says. (This interview was conducted through a translator.)
Olmedo and her family spent three months in a hotel after Sandy because her apartment was unlivable—the first floor flooded and everything was destroyed, and the power was out for months. She feels that the aid process left too many people out, and, like Ramirez, that she had been gouged by landlords who demanded more money. Her landlord demanded that her family continue to pay rent on their apartment while they were living in the hotel. Now back in the apartment, her family is living on the top floor in a building they used to share with family and friends. One of those friends left the country after the storm, after filing for FEMA aid with their address—because of that, Olmedo didn't qualify for FEMA, as two people couldn't use the same address.
Her husband, a construction worker, had worked independently before the storm, but his tools were all in the garage and were washed away. Olmedo herself had worked cleaning houses for nearby residents, some of whom have not returned. Both of them bring home much less money now. But while, she says, some people were able to make it a full-time job to chase down the various types of aid available, her family has had a hard time finding it, and has been disappointed with the aid they could get. The Salvation Army gave them vouchers to buy used furniture, but the furniture on offer was junk, she says, and the food assistance they got didn't allow them to buy hot food, leaving them with nowhere to cook the food they could buy. After staying in the cold, her daughter, who already suffers from asthma, came down with pneumonia.
“We all went through the same situation and we all have needs–all of us,” she says.
While the disaster certainly hit indiscriminately, wiping out the homes of renters and owners, wealthy and working-class, the inequalities that already existed have combined with a deeply individualized recovery process to leave neighborhoods haphazardly rebuilt and some people receiving aid much faster than others.
“The individual-oriented funding doesn't work in a city where very few things only affected an individual,” Speliotis says. When people live in row homes and apartment buildings, responding person by person rather than tackling the whole building, block or neighborhood seems inefficient.
Architect Emily Sprague, who works with Architecture for Humanity on disaster response, says that the density of New York made it difficult to provide transitional housing to people who lost their homes.
“You can’t just bring in FEMA trailers and house people, so it was a more tiered response where one thing that was really done was to try to keep people that could stay in their homes.” That meant rushing to fix heating in public housing buildings so that people didn't have to relocate.
But the funds allocated to help with housing expenses have been very slow to arrive. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that of $648 million in federal aid allotted to New York City, only one person has received help—a Staten Island woman who took a buyout for her damaged home. The article is filled with officials blaming one another and blaming Congress, but the gist of the story is clear: Hurricane response hasn’t gotten much better since Katrina.
Some of the recovery money, according to Melissa McCrumb, is set aside for assistance for renters. Similar to the Section 8 housing program, the city gives out coupons to renters, who can use them for a portion of their rent bill—but so far, only a few people, all of whom were staying in hotels, have received them, and some landlords have been unwilling to accept them , according to McCrumb. While that’s technically illegal, she notes, unless organizations like hers hear about it right away, there’s little they can do to help.
Then there’s the question of who can afford to rebuild. Lower-income landlords have been hit hard—particularly single women who relied on renting out one floor of their home as their sole source of income. “This often means that they live in the second floor of their home, they’ve always rented out the first floor, that $1,200 a month or whatever they got from rent was most of their income,” said Bennett of Respond and Rebuild, which assisted some of these landlords with rebuilding. “Nobody would help them because that [rental income] was considered a business. They couldn't get a loan from the Small Business Association because without the rental income they did not make enough money to qualify for the loan–do you see the circle that is arising?”
People who can afford loans to rebuild their homes or small businesses wind up taking on a lot of debt. In December, a report issued by the Occupy-affiliated group Strike Debt noted that many federal aid programs required residents to apply for loans before they could qualify for grants or aid money, so that they're going to take on interest-bearing loans rather than getting aid. Also, this process favored giving aid to people who had more money to begin with, and left out those who were seen as less credit-worthy—read, those who make less money.
Renters fall through the cracks
Information, too, has been hard to come by—Bennett says that she was shocked, even more than by the slowness of the aid funds, by the fact that the information provided about mold remediation was different at every agency or NGO. “There’s no continuity in the public health message,” she says. Neither has there been good, up-to-date data about community needs—Bennett says that while relief groups began canvassing attempts early on, she has been able to find no official plan by the city to assess needs.
Renters particularly suffered from the lack of information on how to access various kinds of aid and support, McCrumb says. “The city did really extensive outreach with homeowners to get them to sign up for the Build it Back program; they were very aggressive about calling everyone that talked to FEMA. [But in] the materials that you see out there, it's not obvious that this problem is also for renters. When folks call 311, which is supposed to be this clearinghouse, especially when renters call through the Spanish translation line, they're often told that renters can't sign up for the program.”
That becomes a problem not only for the individual who called, she continues. Those people tell their friends and neighbors, and so when Make the Road canvassed renters they found that many of them hadn't even called because someone else told them it was hopeless. And renters can be hard to track down once they've been displaced. Homeowners, she notes, pay property taxes, but renters, who are more likely to be low-income and people of color or immigrants, can easily fall through the cracks.
“Renters are extremely vulnerable to that ‘go live somewhere else, sorry’ type of situation because they don't have a real claim to property in a particular location,” Speliotis says. “So we have renters that have been getting displaced because either where they were living is gone, where they were has not yet been rehabilitated, or where they were was rehabilitated and they were not invited back.”
There’s not much that even the grassroots groups like Respond and Rebuild can do for renters, Bennett points out. “Does it make sense for a group like us with extremely limited resources, to rebuild an apartment of a renter that we have a relationship with when there's no legal contract that says the landlord even has to let that same renter back into the house?”
Another big question is whether homes that previously qualified for reasonably priced flood insurance will suddenly see their rates rise. Changes in federal law to raise rates for federally subsidized flood insurance are now taking effect. Moreover, FEMA is redrawing flood-zone maps, meaning that people who weren’t previously considered to be in a flood zone may now be required to get insurance. In New York especially, where the flood-prone areas are some of the few where lower-income folks could still afford to buy homes, these insurance rates could be yet another smack to already-reeling residents. Many of those flood-zone homes are bungalows that weren’t originally built to be lived in year-round, but rather had been part of resort towns where people went for summer vacations, Sprague points out. This means that many of them were unstable and sustained a lot of damage.
Each neighborhood had its own peculiarities that affected reconstruction, Sprague says, depending on everything from the construction of the buildings to the class makeup of the community to individual personalities. People who had construction skills or skilled workers in their social networks were able to rebuild faster than their neighbors even if economically they were no better off. Some residents whose homes were destroyed are simply looking to take a buyout and move on, while others are determined to build their homes back. Some people who rebuilt quickly are seeing mold return because it wasn't properly dealt with in the first place, a reminder that access to good information was key.
All of this means that the recovery might well change, possibly permanently, the class makeup of neighborhoods like the Rockaways and Staten Island, where working-class folks had previously been able to own or rent homes for less money than most of the rest of the city. Homeowners with less money to rebuild may wind up taking the buyout money and moving elsewhere—and that may mean out of the city, as communities like the Rockaways and Staten Island are already as cheap as it gets in New York. Renters like Olmedo find themselves being asked to pay more and more, if they’re even allowed back into their apartments in the first place, and if they do want to relocate, they have little chance to come up with the money for a new security deposit. Where before working-class immigrant families could afford an apartment or bungalow, now the rising rents and flood insurance rates might push them out, and leave the space open for fancier developments.
This makes McCrumb ask, “Who is this recovery for?”
Organizing for the future
“I think it will be maybe years until we'll be fine, 100 percent,” Ramirez says.
The problem with rebuilding is that the neighborhoods that were most affected already had problems. It’s become almost a cliché already to say that Sandy brought attention to the rampant inequality in New York, but a year later, that inequality continues to be exacerbated by the recovery itself.
Andy Smith from Occupy Sandy sees some hope, still, that something better can emerge from the storm. “When we get folks together, they have some power almost because of the storm,” he says. “There are some terrible stories and also some really great examples of grassroots organizations that are coming together. There's a whole network of faith groups being created in the Rockaways called Faith in New York, I think Rockaway Youth Task Force has been able to step up and grow.”
“An organized community is a resilient community, an organized community responds to disasters of all types,” he continues. “Organizing saves people's lives in any type of crisis.” Organized residents can push for the rebuilding to benefit the people who already lived there, rather than just wealthy developers.
What’s come out of Occupy Sandy in the Rockaways is a group called Wildfire, what Smith calls “an old-school membership-based community organization,” which is working on a community benefits agreement to make sure that the development of a piece of property known as Arverne East meets community needs, hires locally for the project, and creates community space beyond the high-income housing. There’s already one example of that, he says, in Arverne by the Sea, a development of expensive homes that abuts a new YMCA—which gives preference for membership to the residents of the high-end development. “That’s a real slap in the face,” Smith says. “A YMCA is what the Rockaways needs and they can’t go to it.”
“We need policies in place to ensure the long-term affordability of those areas,” McCrumb says. “New York should be leading the way in setting up a recovery that works for renters.”
For Speliotis, there’s an opportunity in New York to move beyond the individual response to disaster relief and come up with a more holistic approach that takes the whole community into account. Bennett points out that originally, the state had said that its buyout of destroyed homes would leave the land undeveloped, but now that the city and state are working together, “to my knowledge most things are available for redevelopment, 'when appropriate.' I think when appropriate seems to mean if someone has enough money in a 'resilient' way.”
But that doesn't have to mean just fancy vacation homes for the wealthy. Speliotis suggests instead using bought-out property to build affordable housing for the people who were displaced. Fighting with landlords one at a time to get them to take their tenants back is all well and good, but, she says, “Why not build? Why not take the money and say we're gonna build a big multi-family dwelling and the people who are going to live here are the people who were actually on the Rockaways on October 29th.” Developments like Arverne by the Sea could be balanced with affordable housing—the kind of development deal that, among others, mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio has suggested, where any development has to come with lower-priced housing, too.
Ramirez says her experience with the storm has made her more adamant about helping others. In Guerrero, Mexico, where she's from, floods and mudslides have devastated the area after Tropical Storms Ingrid and Manuel. While her family is still struggling to make ends meet, she's also raising money from friends and neighbors to send back home to help. “A lot of people helped people after Sandy, so we have to do the same thing,” she says. “You never know when it could be you. What they're feeling now, I felt already, and I'm a little stronger because I've already reached one year.”
Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.