Sandy Recovery: Still So Much Work Ahead

It’s now one year since Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey and New York and so I’m in New York to attend two retrospectives. On Wednesday  I participated in a seminar hosted by the New York Human Service Council (HSC) designed to assess the experiences of the New York nonprofit community. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s Hurricane Sandy Disaster Recovery Fund was a partial funder of this event.
From a number of speakers we heard a common theme:  a remarkable amount of good work has been accomplished, but much still needs to be done.
NY Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs reported that as many as 450,000 people were initially displaced after the storm, but that number now stands at somewhere around 20,000 people. All the evacuation centers have been closed, so those without homes are either renting or staying with friends and family.Gibbs also observed that Katrina helped FEMA learn many lessons that helped with the Sandy response, including creating a Longterm Case Management system. But Sandy is teaching FEMA new lessons, including how to deal with renters (rather than homeowners) and how to manage hotel programs for displaced persons.
Many of the speakers spoke about the need for better coordination in responding to disasters. One frequently expressed sentiment was “there was a lot of duplication.” Gibbs urged the NGOs to create better protocols for action and compared this to her father’s experience as a volunteer fireman, where there was an elaborate system of signals and systems in place which helped volunteers know when they were needed and what they were expected to do. Many in the room urged that the city or the nonprofit community create a position for a Coordinator – perhaps a full-time job – to manage disaster relief activities in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency. NYC Commissioner of Human Resources Administration Robert Doar offered one bit of caution: don’t let coordination stifle the enthusiastic action we now witness in times of disaster.
My keynote remarks were about the importance of planning and preparation. I urged everyone to create a disaster plan, ideally with the input of their constituents, making sure to start working on partnerships now and putting aside money well before disaster hits.
The Human Services Council also released the results of a survey of about 100 organizations that identified themselves as being engaged in Sandy relief and recovery efforts.  Among some of the highlights that caught my attention were these:

  • Many feel that the needs of the people in their community have still not been met
  • Many are forecasting case management  and crisis counseling needs for up to three years
  • More than half of the organizations suffered damage to their own facilities and only about 60% expect to get reimbursed
  • Only about 20% of the organizations expected full reimbursement for the cost of providing services and there were many examples cited of slow payments
  • About half of the organizations said they had a disaster plan before Sandy, but only the larger organizations claim they are ready for another disaster
  • Few organizations have funds set aside for the next disaster

The event reinforced a message that we here at CDP strongly advocate: recoveries are long and complicated and difficult to fund.  Although the results of Sandy may not be front and center on the minds of most Americans any more, for nonprofit organizations in New York, the recovery effort will be going on for years to come.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

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