Nonprofit Response in the Wake of Superstorm Sandy

One year and three months ago, New York City was preparing themselves for Hurricane Irene. It was believed to be one of the worst storms to have ever hit the Atlantic, and Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for New York State. Luckily, NYC managed to sustain little damage relative to what was expected—we were in the clear.

Fast forward to now, Superstorm Sandy makes its way up the coast and suddenly it becomes disaster planning “déjà vu” from last year. However, this time, Sandy leaves behind much destruction and devastation in her midst. Meteorologists have taken to pronouncing the superstorm the largest to hit the Atlantic Ocean, claiming parts of New York to even be flooded before the massive storm struck.[1] New York City has been in a state of utter shock ever since the storm hit, and it has been a constant struggle to bring our city back to normalcy.

Government responded to emergency situations quickly, and while has established many short-term recovery efforts, certain areas haven’t received the aid they need. Numerous nonprofit organizations organized relief efforts, gathered donations, and went to the hardest hit areas to provide water, food, blankets, and more to those affected by the storm. Several of these nonprofits were located in areas that enabled them to mobilize quicker than certain government responders; however, it is also in the nature of human service providers to fill in some of these gaps and deliver services that certain government programs aren’t able to offer.

Governor Cuomo issued a statement following the aftermath of Sandy; speaking to the nonprofit response and how it was crucial to partner with their organized disaster relief efforts and assemble in the harder hit areas and boroughs. With agencies like FEMA not reaching some of these areas in the outer boroughs like the Rockaways and Staten Island, or shutting down service in parts of the region; these organizations helped to bring resources to these communities. He also applauded the nonprofit sector on their ability to be fast responders in times of crisis; filtering into the struggling boroughs and continuing to distribute essentials to those hit hardest.

Through a post-storm survey done by HSC, it has been estimated that 382 responding organizations were providing direct services to approximately 333,511 individuals.[2] Many of these agencies themselves experienced power outages and had to shut down from the storm, yet still focused their efforts on helping those around them. Specifically, Hudson Guild, a nonprofit located in Chelsea, lost power during the storm yet they gathered their staff and local volunteers to distributing food and blankets, knocking on doors and making phone calls to make sure people got the help they needed. They then continued their mission and provided over 5,000 meals and thousands of bottles of clean water to those in need. Recognizing nonprofits and the human service programs that they do provide is more important than ever, particularly since now many New Yorkers find themselves in a vulnerable place.

Post-Sandy, it would seem as though the relationship between nonprofits and the public sector would only grow, especially since Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his plan for “NYC Restore” which will help rebuild New York City through the work of these nonprofits, their volunteers, and public agencies.[3] However, given the history of funding cuts to human service programs, the future is still uncertain. The nonprofit sector has continued to struggle as a result of the economy. In the last three years, cuts to human services in New York State and localities have totaled approximately $1 billion, as poverty, homelessness, and hunger continue to grow. These funding cuts have perpetually weakened the sector which disables nonprofits from responding to future disasters and emergencies quickly. Given their lack of reserves or credit, nonprofits are not as financially sound as they once were. Many aren’t able to dip into their endowments or extend their lines of credit; several are running on “survival mode” where they are just making ends meet with their funds. The sector has drastically changed because of the economy, and is suffering since it wants to provide the same services as it always had to their communities.

Human service programs are integral to those who live in poverty, which is now growing in Sandy’s aftermath. Sandy left destruction in her path, which leaves us to pick up the pieces and rebuild. It is therefore necessary to have a strong and reliant sector so we can continue to respond and provide for our communities. We might have a long road ahead of us, but this only further proves how agencies need to band together and commit to restoring our City. After all, we’re New Yorkers—it’s nothing that we can’t handle.

Contributed by Marisa Semensohn of the Human Services Council.

[2] Super-storm Sandy and the Impact on the New York Non-Profit Sector, Survey conducted by the Human Services Council of New York,  11/1/12


About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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