Whose Recovery?

A year after Hurricane Sandy hit, despite community efforts, marginalized New Yorkers aren’t back on their feet.

Sarah Jaffe

Some Staten Island houses hit by Hurricane Sandy still lie in disrepair. (Sarah Jaffe)

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 immediate response to Sandy was led by volunteer groups and community organizations.

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?”

Chang­ing neighborhoods

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 for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH