SANDY, ONE YEAR LATER: MUCH ACCOMPLISHED — BUT FAR FROM HOME

Last week, the Human Services Council (HSC) hosted a conference for leaders from New York’s human services, public, and philanthropic sectors.

At the opening, the group took momentary satisfaction in the collective effort of the recovery thus far.  But a clear consensus quickly emerged around the understanding that many New Yorkers affected by the storm continue to struggle sorely — and that intensive recovery efforts will remain necessary for a considerable period ahead.

The event featured a keynote address by NYC Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs ( a summary of her speech can be found here), a presentation of findings of a survey conducted by HSC and the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, focusing on the experiences of nonprofits engaged in the recovery, and panel discussions about housing, case management services, immigrant issues, volunteerism and disaster preparedness.

Among the comments, concerns and insights rising to the surface during the course of the event were:

HOUSING

Sandy caused profound damage to housing.  In New York City alone, more than 24,000 households have registered for City government’s Build it Back program, which assists with repair, rebuilding and reimbursement.  It’s expected that in December, registrants will begin receiving assistance.  But, the federal funds behind the program will permit the City to support only a portion of registrants.  Further, we’re concerned that only a modest amount of these funds are dedicated to helping the many affected renters.  Also troubling is that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for the program.  So, we expect that the housing recovery will last several years and that large sums of additional funds will be necessary to assist all in need.

DISASTER CASE MANAGEMENT

The State’s Disaster Case Management program is a primary source of support for those coping with the effects of Sandy.  Through the program, participants are helped to navigate public systems and gain access to a range of services.  To date, more than 6,000 households have participated in the program and more than 5,000 of their cases remain active.  And, new cases continue to be established at a steady pace.  Until housing matters are resolved, we expect that case management and related services – like mental health counseling, legal assistance, financial management, and support to vulnerable populations – will remain necessary.  And, we are concerned that that the State’s Disaster Case Management program is slated to expire in a year.

IMMIGRANT ISSUES

New York City is, of course, home to a vast population of immigrants, and many, including large numbers of undocumented immigrants, have been unsettled by Sandy.  The nonprofit and public sectors have gone to lengths to reach out to immigrant communities, but language barriers and the reluctance of some immigrants to be publicly identified have complicated these efforts.  Also, as indicated, the federal government’s policy that prevents the undocumented from participating in federally funded housing assistance programs is creating challenges.   Going forward, then, it is crucial that we pursue inventive strategies to ensure that the needs of our immigrant neighbors are met.

VOLUNTEERISM

Volunteers from New York and well beyond have been instrumental in the recovery.  In the weeks following the storm, some 65,000 spontaneously came forward as part of the Occupy Sandy movement and thousands more have generously given time and shared skills, including in the rebuilding of housing.  But we have not always been organized enough to make the most of volunteers.    In the coming weeks and months, we should refine practices for recruiting, deploying and housing (out-of-town) volunteers wishing to support Sandy recovery and begin designing systems that will enable us to engage them optimally in future disasters.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

While the response to Sandy has certainly been admirable, there is wide agreement that it could have been more effective if the human services sector, in partnership with government, had been better prepared.  Over recent months, government has been formulating plans to react to another disaster, in large part based on the experiences of Sandy.  But the nonprofit sector lacks the proper infrastructure for doing so.   It is imperative that we harness the energy and expertise that has accumulated over the last year and build a disaster preparedness function for the human services sector that interfaces efficiently with government, delineates roles and responsibilities, and ensures that all actors are trained and equipped.  Also important is that government and philanthropy establish funds to be made available to nonprofits in the event of another disaster – so organizations can respond rapidly with the knowledge that their finances will not be de-stabilized.

Over the next weeks, based on survey findings, discussions at the conference and continuing input from the field, HSC will develop recommendations to the incoming City Administration as well as State government leaders about how the continuing recovery can be best supported.

Contributed by Danny Rosenthal, consultant for the Human Services Council

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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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