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From the Edge of Disaster

How Activists and Insiders Can Use the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy to Make the City Safer

A North Star Fund Report

Written by Lisa Cowan Edited by Hugh Hogan

From the Edge of How Activists and Insiders Can Use the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy to

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements iii .......................................................................................................

This Report



The Emergency Plan 3 ..................................................................................................... The Players 3 ....................................................................................................................



The Role of Community-Based Organizations


Relief 9 ..............................................................................................................................




Recommendations 17 ....................................................................................................... Conclusion 26 ...................................................................................................................




©March 2014

Acknowledge ments

Our thanks to the following people who worked so hard on behalf of our city during and after Hurricane Sandy, and who spoke to us during the research for this report. The views expressed are those of the authors and all disclaimers apply:

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director and Juan Camilo Osorio, Research Director, Environmental Justice Alliance Fran Barrett, InterAgency Coordinator for Not-for-Profit Services, New York State Nate Bliss, Vice President, NYC Economic Development Corporation Joan Byron, Director of Policy, Pratt Center for Community Development Jill Eisenhard, Executive Director, Red Hook Initiative Emmaia Gelman, Policy Director, Alliance for a Just Rebuilding Robyn Hillman-Harrigan, Executive Director, The Rockaway Rescue Alliance Shore Soup Project Noel Kempner, Canarsie Coalition Coordinator and Managing Partner, Emergency Management Methodology Partners Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University Jack Krauskopf, Distinguished lecturer, Baruch College School of Public Affairs (former COO, 9/11 Services Group) Brad Lander, City Council member, 39th District Ian Marvy, Cofounder and Executive Director, Added Value Joseph McKeller, Executive Director, Faith in New York Erin McLachlan and Orly Amir, Regional Catastrophic Planning Team Gonzalo Mercado, Executive Director, El Centro del Inmigrante Maria Mottola, President, New York Foundation and Edna Iriarte, Program Officer, New York Foundation Michael Premo, Occupy Sandy/Sandy Storyline Herman Schaeffer, Director of Community Outreach, John Greenwood Human Services Unit, Planning and Preparedness; Emily Accamando, Director, Citizen Corps, Office of Emergency Management Allison Sesso, Deputy Executive Director and Danny Rosenthal, Consultant, Human Services Council Nancy Wackstein, Executive Director and Anne Shkuda, Deputy Executive Director, United Neighborhood Houses Helena Wong, Executive Director, CAAAV Dan Zarelli, Director of Resiliency, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability Andrea Zussman, Disaster Preparedness Officer, The San Francisco Foundation

Deep thanks also to those who read and commented on earlier versions of this report: Adam Leibowitz, Program Officer, North Star Fund; Carlos Menchaca, City Council member, 38th District; Matt Ryan, ALIGN; Nathalie Allegre, Alliance for a Just Rebuilding; Betsy Dubowski, Staten Island Foundation; Kate Slevin, NYC Department of Transportation; and especially to Michael Schmeltz, who researched and read countless drafts.

From the Edge of Disaster

How Activists and Insiders Can Use the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy to Make the City Safer

Hurricane Sandy was not a harbinger of things to come. Rather it was a grim reminder that we are already

living in a world in which extreme weather events put communities at risk. While all of our lives are deeply impacted by climate change, these disasters are not equal opportunity events. The most vulnerable communities in terms of income, housing stability, inadequate educational and employment opportunities, undocumented status, and health care are those most at risk in cases of extreme weather. This is true across the globe, and it is true here in New York City.

Since Hurricane Sandy hit, there has been increasing agreement that the region’s best hope is to develop more “resilient” communities. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, overcome adversity, and cope in the aftermath of a disaster or catastrophe. It requires being able to understand a rapidly changing landscape of environmental, political, economic, and cultural dynamics—a set of abilities that can be hard to come by in any neighborhood, and more so in systematically under-resourced neighborhoods.

Resiliency skills are often developed and coordinated in strong community-based organizations (CBOs), which serve as gathering places and centers of local knowledge and expertise. During Sandy, these CBOs became centers of relief work, providing essential support for vulnerable residents. Although they had no idea they would be called on to play this role, there was precedent. In the states along the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina, as well as in multiple disasters across the world, CBOs have played this immediate relief and response role. Indeed, the Federal

Photo: Kisha Bari
Photo: Kisha Bari

Watermark on single-family home, Rockaway, Queens

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) holds that all disaster response is local for the first 72 hours, but these local organizations were not integrated into New York City’s emergency response plans prior to Hurricane Sandy. However, they served and continue to serve on the front lines for relief, recovery, and rebuilding with great care and effectiveness. As people and institutions working on these issues move forward, we must continue to build resiliency in communities and individuals on an ongoing basis and in anticipation of extreme weather or other catastrophic events. CBOs will play an important role in the

outreach, development, and implementation of these adaptive and resiliency strategies.

This Report

The North Star Fund started hearing from grantees the day after the storm—these are community-based organizations who were finding that no one was showing up to help in their low-income neighborhoods— no one from the city, state, or federal government had made it to their streets. At the same time, Lisa Cowan, the report author, spent the three weeks after Hurricane Sandy in the offices of the Red Hook Initiative in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where she was the board president. The small youth development organization became a coordinating center for a neighborhood-wide relief effort.

Based on these experiences as well as on interviews with 30 CBO staff, intermediary organizations, funders, academics, and government workers, and participation in dozens of meetings and conferences across the city in 2012–2013, this report lays out the experience of several CBOs that use community- organizing strategies along with advocacy and direct services in their work. From the Edge examines the nature of their response work, the ways they collaborated with other individuals and institutions, their role in the rebuilding, and the ongoing challenges to their organizations. CBOs, experts in their localities, were central to the New York City disaster response, and have an equally vital role to play in the rebuild. It was clear from the experience with Sandy, as well as previous storms like Katrina, that these CBOs will always play a vital role in emergencies and disaster no matter how well a municipality, a state, or the federal government has planned for a response. So we must learn from these lessons, talk about them, apply them and above all, allocate resources in a strategic way so that institutions at every level, both public and private, have what they need to respond to the plight of every person— but especially the most vulnerable.

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

Community meeting to share information, day after the storm, Red Hook, Brooklyn

This report will briefly discuss the city’s emergency plan, review the players who were at work during and after the storm, describe the CBO role in providing relief after the storm as well as their role in the rebuilding. Finally, we will lay out a series of recommendations that came from the CBO experience during and after the storm. All sectors in the city have a role to play after a disaster. Figuring out the best ways to communicate, coordinate, and learn from each other is an essential task, and there is much to learn from our experiences during and after Hurricane Sandy.

The Emergency Plan

New York City had certainly seen disasters before Sandy—both natural and man-made. The city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is responsible for intergovernmental coordination during an emergency, and the state has a separate OEM that coordinates on a state level. At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security manages disaster planning though FEMA. Additionally, New York City had been a part of regional disaster planning processes, with Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Each of these entities created emergency plans that called for collaborations among the state, city, disaster response organizations and non-profit organizations.

Though the city began issuing warnings days before the storm hit, and announced a mandatory evacuation order for Zone A neighborhoods 1 on the Saturday before the storm, many New Yorkers failed to realize just how long-lasting and widespread the impact of the storm would be. Once the storm was in force, those emergency plans largely stayed on the shelf. A variety of players went to work at the onset of the storm, but roles and responsibilities were unclear.

A New York University researcher who interviewed emergency management officials at city and state levels, as well as first responders reported: “New York City’s Office of Emergency Management was theoretically responsible for coordinating the different city agencies. But it was quickly sidelined by the mayor’s office. The result was a haphazard approach that led to some notable failures with respect to evacuations and the safety of public housing residents.” 2

When state, city, and the big disaster relief organizations failed to show up in a consistent and meaningful way in many of the hardest-hit communities in the city, citizens and activists at the local level had no choice but to become their own relief workers. Without pre-existing bureaucracy or regulated ways of doing business, they were able to create flexible, fast, and humane systems to reach and rescue each other.

The Players

All over New York City and the region, individuals along with their families, neighbors, civic groups, volunteers, local community organizations, large relief organizations, and government agencies at the city, state, and federal level organized to deal with the effects of the storm. Their efforts were sometimes in isolation, sometimes in cooperation, sometimes parallel, sometimes redundant and sometimes in conflict— depending on the neighborhood and circumstances. What all these stakeholders had in common was the deep desire to help, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the disaster.

  • 1 Zone A includes NYC neighborhoods that experience flood warnings in any hurricane that makes landfall close to New York City. Zone B includes neighborhoods at risk in a Category 2 or higher hurricane, and Zone C in Category 3 or higher.

  • 2 David Wachsmuth, “How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters,” (The Atlantic, October 28,2013).

Government actors in the city after the storm included:

Federal: FEMA and the National Guard representing the federal government; State: the state Office of Emergency Management, and state elected officials who represented the city;

City: the city Office of Emergency Management, the mayor’s office, local elected officials including city council members, the public advocate, borough presidents, and community boards.

The New York City Housing

Authority (NYCHA), landlord to many storm victims across the affected neighborhoods, was also deeply implicated during the storm as many NYCHA buildings lost power, heat, and water. NYCHA responsibility ranged from repairing infrastructure in flooded basements, to conducting door- to-door counts of the most vulnerable residents, to operating community centers serving as supply distribution centers. At times no one was clear on where NYCHA’s role started or stopped.

Photo: El Centro
Photo: El Centro

Day laborer volunteer work brigade distributing free clean-up supplies and information, Midland Beach, Staten Island

The city and state, often at odds over funding and management issues, set up separate command centers. In the affected neighborhoods, local CBOs reported that it was very difficult to keep track of who was representing which office, and who could be relied to come back again the next day.

Researchers at New York University’s Institute of Public Knowledge interviewed a top advisor to Governor Andrew Cuomo who explained: “The mayor has got a lot of authority in [New York] city. And then you have these parallel entities of the OEM, FEMA, command centers, and whatever the state is doing. And you have all these shadow players who each consider themselves the main player and everybody else the shadow players.” 3

While each agency seemed to think that they were in charge, and the other agencies “shadow players,” it was very hard for those in the streets to know who was running the show. In the days and weeks after the storm, the mayor appointed borough-wide coordinators and set up recovery centers in the neighborhoods where representatives of different agencies could sit to meet with citizens.

Professional relief organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, were brought in, and often traveled neighborhoods in mobile vans.

Large place-based non-profits like Settlement Houses and food banks, many of which contracted with the city to provide services, played a critical role in their communities. This report focuses on the smaller, community-based organizations, but the work of New York City’s non-profit sector as a whole was life saving, and certainly deserves a report of its own.

Cadres of volunteers and self-organized groupings like Occupy Sandy, local faith communities, civic associations, and individuals also played a key role in the work. Occupy reconstituted itself from the Zuccotti Park group, and grew to become a grassroots mutual aid collective that blanketed the city and parts of the Jersey Shore. They worked with faith-based institutions and community organizations to reach into the most desolated neighborhoods, and to collect and distribute resources in a previously unimagined way.

Perhaps most remarkable were the volunteers who themselves were storm victims. People came out of their flooded homes or NYCHA buildings that were

Photo: John Moore
Photo: John Moore

Distraught Red Hook resident, two weeks after the storm

without heat and power to help their neighbors. On Staten Island, day laborers, many of whom had been flooded themselves, worked with El Centro to run volunteer brigades by loading a bus with workers and supply bags, driving into Midland Beach, and walking block by block, asking residents whether they needed anything, and offering their own hands to help clean up. 4

Land fall

The storm hit the whole city, but it was the lowest-lying neighborhoods that suffered the most damage. Most of these neighborhoods are the homes of immigrants, public housing residents, and low-income workers. Where the storm hit the more affluent communities—as in lower Manhattan—repairs were rapid. Low-income communities in Red Hook and on the Lower East Side were devastated by the storm, but because they had pre-existing social infrastructures, were closer to governmental offices and volunteer resources, and had different housing stock, the destruction was not as devastating as in the farther-out communities in the Rockaways and on Staten Island, where the impact lasts through today.

In a New York Times piece on the history of public housing, published after the storm, the author reflects:

In retrospect, after the storm, it looked like a perverse stroke of urban planning. Many of New York City’s most vulnerable people had been housed in its most vulnerable places: public housing projects along the water, in areas like the Rockaways,

Coney Island, Red Hook and Alphabet City

New York started building housing projects on the waterfront because that’s

... where its poorest citizens happened to live. It continued because that’s where space was most readily available. Finally it built them there because that’s where its projects already were. 5

Much of the development of our city traces back to Robert Moses, head of the “Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance” in 1949. As such, he pushed the development of thousands of units of high-rise public housing near the shoreline. Taking the Rockaways as an example:

“…in the aftermath of the storm, it is hard not to see the Rockaway projects as inherently flawed, doomed not only by their exposure to the storm-churned waters of the Atlantic, but by their very design. Densely populated, without any retail space, and isolated from the rest of the city, the mostly poor residents have relied on help arriving from the outside. Moses may have thought he was breaking up the city’s ghettos; in fact he was relocating them and setting them in concrete.” 6

The impacts of the storm—physical, emotional and financial, were borne out by New Yorkers who were already struggling with affordable housing, good jobs, and quality education and health care. These same communities, disproportionately made up of people of color, continue to suffer as their homes have not been rebuilt or their rents have been raised since the storm. For many, it was the CBOs in their neighborhoods that were, and continue to be, strong allies.

The Role of Community-Based Organizations (CBOs): Scenes from the Storm

The morning after the storm ended, Helena Wong, the Executive Director of

CAAAV: Organizing Asian

Immigrants—a citywide organizing group with an office in Chinatown walked and shared rides with strangers from her home on the Upper West Side to get to

Chinatown. According to Helena, “The first place I came was to our office. It was eerie. Everyone was in their homes, waiting. Nobody knew what was going on, so we knew that we needed to get information out fast. I went to three

Photo: CAAAV
Photo: CAAAV

Food and water distribution, Chinatown, Manhattan

  • 5 Jonathan Mahler, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” (The New York Times, December 3, 2012).

  • 6 Ibid.

buildings to see how people were, and it was pretty clear that no one knew what was happening. Members were shocked that electricity was going to be out for awhile.”

The streetlights in Chinatown were out and the streets were empty. There were no police officers or emergency personnel out. Helena described the

scene: “After the last disaster in Chinatown, on September 11, there were tanks in the streets and police barricades everywhere. This time the streets were empty.”

Using emails, texts, and social media, the CAAAV staff generated donations of food, relief supplies and volunteers to dispatch from their office into the nearby housing projects. The scale of people and need and volunteers looking to help was overwhelming. CAAAV recruited volunteers who could speak the different languages of the tenants in the public housing projects where they worked, in order to help them understand the challenges they were facing, and make plans for their survival.

Helena adds, “It was a no-brainer, these are our community members, we had to do something. We had long-term relationships; a lot of our members have known us for the last decade. People knew to come here, and others knew to send supplies to us. Some police were trying to shut down our relief work, but other police were referring people to us. The Red Cross didn’t come in for a week. Across the board, we were disappointed with every single level of the social infrastructure response.”

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

Hot meals for residents without power, Red Hook


Local activists, faith leaders, and organizers founded Faith in New York (FNY) in Queens, Brooklyn, and Harlem to work with a multi-faith, multicultural federation of congregations and faith communities to develop grassroots leaders and move policy change that supports a more just and equitable New York City. In the days after the hurricane, they found themselves playing a very different role. The two-person Faith in New York staff recruited over 450 volunteers from congregations across New York City, visiting church halls in the Rockaways, Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and Coney Island to assess needs and deliver immediate relief, both home repairs and the distribution of emergency supplies. Faith in New York became a makeshift disaster response team mainly because the clergy, volunteers, and Sandy survivors who are part of the communities in which they organize were so frustrated with lack of governmental coordination.

In the days after the storm, Joseph McKellar, the Faith in New York executive director, rented a Zipcar and went driving with volunteers from congregations across NYC to visit their congregations. As he reported from his travels, many of the churches across the

Rockaway peninsula became relief sites. “It seemed like some neighborhoods were getting lots of resources and others didn’t. [The] pastor of a congregation in Howard Beach was irate because the only supplies that he had to distribute from their makeshift disaster relief shelter were donations from other

churches, [even] 10 days later. He was screaming at his city council person because he could not get anyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to come. We would take church vans filled with volunteers and go to places where people were

dropping off supplies and take them to the neighborhoods that needed

them. . . .

We got the word out by

volunteers calling other members of their congregations and coordinating through email and social media.”

Joseph concluded: “We don’t typically supply direct services, but we did because we had to.”


The morning after the storm, the youth job developer from the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), Sheryl Nash-Chisolm, a long-time community member who lives in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing projects, crossed the street and opened the door of the youth center. Because the building had no basement it had not flooded, and RHI had miraculously retained power and heat in the largely blacked-out neighborhood. As soon as Sheryl opened the doors, the phone started ringing and Red Hook residents in need of power and information started showing up. Almost immediately volunteers from outside the neighborhood and beyond arrived to help.

Occupy activists set up in the tiny RHI kitchen and started serving hot meals for hundreds from the organization’s small, four-burner stove. Volunteer medical students, nurses and doctors created a system for monitoring, feeding, and providing medical attention to homebound seniors and others who could not get out of their apartments since elevators were knocked out during the storm. Lawyers showed

Photo: Jordan Fletcher
Photo: Jordan Fletcher

Waiting for heat, two weeks after the storm, Rockaway Park, Queens

up to help residents with FEMA applications. People dropped off food, blankets, batteries, flashlights, and clothing by the carload. Volunteers canvassed the streets. RHI staff and board members reached out across the city to try to understand the scope of the problems and a timeline for restoring services, as well as trying to figure out when and from where relief might arrive. Staff worked 18-hour days and then walked up the cold dark stairs of the NYCHA housing project to get to their cold apartments. Local police, other non-profits, city council members, and businesses—all formed a sea of help and confusion. RHI sat at the intersection between neighborhood residents in extraordinary need and those who sought to help them in extraordinary numbers.



Eric Klinenberg’s article Adaptation, in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker quotes Nicole Lurie, a former professor of health policy who has been President Obama’s assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response since 2009: “There’s a lot of social-science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections,” she says. “It was a big evolution in our thinking to be able to put community resilience front and center.” 7 CBOs and community organizing groups put those social networks and connections front and center in normal times and that proved to have an unanticipated benefit after the storm. The same social networks and connections proved vital as neighbors and CBOs in the affected communities worked to keep track of each other and provide essential services and information.

Re lief


Scores of CBOs became de facto relief organizations in the days after the storm. They collected food, delivered meals to people stuck in their homes, delivered medical supplies and cleaning and building materials, served meals, transported stranded residents, shared information, and created emergency centers. They facilitated the work of thousands of volunteers, stayed open around the clock, and were often the prime source of help for people stranded after the storm in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.

Many of the capacities and skills that make CBOs successful advocates and organizers, working to improve lives and conditions in their communities, turned out to be essential to providing meaningful relief services. These groups used the deep relationships and mutual trust they had built within the communities where they work to find and serve as trusted helpers to scared and stranded community members. They used their experience with door-knocking and their commitment to letting the people affected define the problem to find out who was in need of help, and what kind of help they needed. They used their local geographic knowledge of institutions and the make-up of their communities to identify relevant resources and services, in order to find out who was able to provide assistance. They drew upon the flexibility, creativity, and resourcefulness that has always allowed them to do much with few resources and their ability to reach out to allies across the city. Perhaps

Photo: El Centro
Photo: El Centro

Volunteer day laborers distribute building supplies, Midland Beach

Photo: Charlotte Badler

most important, these CBOs based their relief work in their deeply felt knowledge that people who live in their communities are not victims per se. Rather they are people who can take constructive action for themselves and their neighbors, once they have the necessary information and connections. CBO leaders, staff, and members guided and supported a group of New Yorkers who were literally and figuratively living in the dark through the terrible weeks following the storm, and have stayed with them as the effects of the storm linger.

What elevates their work beyond relief services, compassion, and crisis leadership is the clear insight of these community organizations. They saw that the disaster affecting the most vulnerable individuals and communities after the storm is strongly tied to the more protracted disaster that is the economic inequity and inequality within New York City. Inadequate housing, economic uncertainty, poor health care facilities, little attention from city services, faulty food supply—all of these were highlighted by the storm, but all were endemic in those hard-hit neighborhoods long before it ever started raining.

Photo: Charlotte Badler most important, these CBOs based their relief work in their deeply felt knowledge

By recognizing and naming the connections between these two disasters—that of systemic long-

Note in lunch made for displaced residents

standing inequity and that of the hurricane—many community organizations are using this fleeting moment of attention and resources that are available post-Sandy to try to advocate for a more just and equitable rebuild of the city’s and the region’s infrastructure—both physical and social.

It is difficult to know just how many CBOs ended up providing Sandy-related relief and recovery services, or how many people the organizations touched. The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding (AJR), a coalition of organizing, labor union, faith-based, environmental, and policy organizations that came together to address immediate relief and long-term rebuilding issues in the wake of the storm, surveyed 18 community groups that worked in Sandy-affected areas, none of which were relief organizations. Collectively, these organizations served tens of thousands of Sandy-impacted New Yorkers in every affected community. By gathering more than 20,000 documented assessments of Sandy-affected households, AJR documented unmet needs over the period of time between the day after the storm and July 2013. Beyond the documents, the community groups logged tens of thousands of conversations with people struggling to recover. 8

The Human Services Council (HSC) and Baruch School of Public Affairs surveyed an additional 104 organizations that provided Sandy relief and recovery efforts. These were mostly large, well-established social service organizations that contract with the city to deliver services, as distinct from the smaller organizing groups who AJR spoke with. Neither group of non- profits had prior experience as disaster relief organizations. After the storm, the HSC-surveyed organizations provided case management, crisis counseling, financial assistance, housing aid, and other services. Nearly two-thirds of the 90 responding HSC organizations served more than 100 cases, while less than one- quarter of those 90 organizations served fewer than 50 cases. 9

While it is clear from reports and stories of previous storms

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

Sorting donated supplies

that community-based, non-profit organizations play a central role after a disaster, few of the CBOs or even the bigger service delivery organizations that were active after Sandy had any knowledge about or role in the city or region’s disaster planning. If this was the case, we are left to ask why these lessons were not applied prior to Sandy in New York City.

Nationally, non-profit organizations come together to form coalitions called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOADs). The New York State VOAD website defines a VOAD as “a forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response, and recovery—to help disaster survivors and their communities.” Nationally, government interface with non- profit organizations during disasters is often through a VOAD.

The executive committee of the New York City VOAD is made up of the Red Cross, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Salvation Army, New York Cares and the World Cares Center. According to their website, the New York City VOAD had 38 members, including city agencies, the summer before the hurricane hit. The NYC VOAD has a seat in the Office of Emergency Management crisis center, where all city agencies active in an emergency gather to coordinate services and responses. In a public meeting in October, 2013, representatives of the VOAD said they had hundreds of organizations participating in planning phone calls in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, but VOAD leadership was not able to provide a list of their members for this report. It is telling that none of the organizations interviewed for this report had heard of the VOAD, except for the Occupy Sandy representative, and so were not well-served by this structure. Though large nationally known relief organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army were active in the VOAD, many community members around the city reported feeling that the response from the national relief organizations was absent or inadequate or poorly executed in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

The challenge of determining the precise number of organizations that provided relief services after the storm is reflective of the challenge of working after the storm. Since there was no clear agency, office, or organization “in charge,” many parallel systems were created, and many organizations and agencies worked without formal connections to the city, or formal training in disaster response. There is also no single or coordinated way that organizations active during the storm have been engaged or tracked since the storm.

While there were some helpful partnerships with individual city agencies, many residents of geographically isolated neighborhoods felt abandoned by their government, and CBOs were confused about who was in charge at the city level. The Human Services Council survey reported:

“Organizations most frequently perceived that FEMA and the mayor’s office played the leading coordinating roles. However, a quarter of the organizations [surveyed] saw other non-profit organizations as playing the leading coordinating role and identified more than 15 different organizations as doing so. It is important to have clear direction after a disaster, and it is a point of concern that non-profit responders had varying perceptions about who played the central coordinating role.”

When asked to name one agency that played the leading coordinating role, there was still no consistent point of view. More than 35% of those responding identified the mayor’s office as doing so, followed by 27% identifying FEMA. The New York City Office of Emergency Management was identified by 18.9% for this coordinating role. 10

In a report written after Hurricane Katrina, author Tony Pipa, writing for the Aspen Institute’s Non-Profit Sector Research Fund, found many of the same dynamics at play in New Orleans and the Gulf region:

While the different parts of the charitable sector leapt to help, many in the sector soon became bewildered by the impression that they were mostly on their own. Whereas they anticipated fitting into a system that simply needed to expand its capacity, they soon became uncertain whether there was a system at all. They had a difficult time determining where to direct important information about their activities and their needs, and how to communicate with others involved in providing crucial supplies and services. Almost all interviewees loudly declaimed the lack of an effective coordinating superstructure and the inefficiencies caused by poor coordination. 11

Photo: Kamau Ware
Photo: Kamau Ware

This paragraph could have been written word for word about the Sandy response. In New York City, lost FEMA drivers called the offices of the Red Hook Initiative asking where they should drop off blankets in the Rockaways—an entirely different neighborhood in a different borough (Queens) miles away from Red Hook (which is in Brooklyn). In Chinatown, some police officers referred residents to CAAAV for help, while other police

Community meeting flyer to organize affected residents

  • 10 Ibid, p. 11.

  • 11 Tony Pipa, “Weathering the Storm, The Role of Local Non-Profits in the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort,” (Aspen Institute, 2006), p. 15.

Photo: Faith in New York

tried to shut down their relief efforts. In Red Hook, residents contrasted the Red Cross workers who showed up days after the storm and who could or would not leave their trucks and National Guard members in Army fatigues distributing pre-packaged MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) with the Occupy volunteers and CBO staff who walked up flights of stairs in NYCHA buildings and elsewhere to deliver hot, home-cooked meals. On Staten Island, as in other communities, information was not translated into the languages of all the storm victims, and undocumented citizens were hesitant to ask for help. El Centro del Inmigrante a storefront immigrant day worker center in Port Richmond, Staten Island, organized its own recovery center with translators, legal assistance, and access to needed supplies.

Michael Premo, an organizer and early member of Occupy Sandy, described Occupy Sandy’s ability to set up and get to work so quickly: “Working with existing [Occupy] networks meant there were shared values and principles and agreement that the experts are the people who have been impacted.” Even though the Occupy network had not been involved in relief work in the past, and indeed had not existed at all prior to the 2011 movement, they report mobilizing 50,000 volunteers who provided over 300,000 meals, remediated over 1,000 homes, and generated over a million dollars worth of donated supplies as mutual aid throughout the rebuilding process. 12

Michael credited their success to their ability to be agile and creative, and not tied to how things had been done in the past, particularly the paramilitary, vertical, organizational style of traditional disaster response.

At a convening held by the Human Services Council at the one-year anniversary of the storm, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Linda Gibbs, declared to a room of non-profit service providers that the city’s agencies had done a great job with Sandy. But that was not what it felt like to the staff of CBOs leading relief work in the days after the storm who saw how many people were left in the cold, and how many still remain in dire circumstances a year later. 13

Photo: Faith in New York tried to shut down their relief efforts. In Red Hook, residents

Given all that concerned stakeholders have seen and learned since the storm, and all of the energy and resources that are coming into the city for the rebuild, this emerges as a critical opportunity to create a city that is stronger and serves its most vulnerable residents better than the city that got hit by the storm.

Faith in New York members march to demand more action from city leaders

  • 12 Occupy Sandy website,, October 25, 2013.

  • 13 Emmaia Gelman, “What CBOs Know About Unmet Sandy Needs, and How They Know It,” (unpublished report, Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, August 2013).

Re build

“[In New Orleans] pre-storm vulnerabilities continue to limit the participation of thousands of disadvantaged individuals and communities in after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding and recovery.” 14

The confusion that marked relief efforts in New York City and the region in the immediate aftermath of Sandy continues into the rebuilding process. There are multiple players, competing priorities, and unclear funding streams. There is little conversation between city, state and federal agencies. At various meetings around the one-year anniversary of the storm, there was much talk about how much progress the city has or has not made. From talking to CBO staff, it seems clear we have far to go. The HSC survey shows that many of the surveyed non-profits are forecasting an ongoing need for these services for up to three years, and sometimes longer. 15 In a meeting between Gulf Coast and New York City CBOs organized by the New York Foundation in January, 2013, the Gulf Coast groups projected that Katrina is at least a 10-year recovery process. More than a decade after Katrina, they

Photo: Michael Premo
Photo: Michael Premo

reported, some New Orleans

Damage to boardwalk at Beach 102 Street, Far Rockaway, Queens

neighborhoods have never been rebuilt or were transformed by developers into neighborhoods that pre-storm residents could not afford. Similarly, New Yorkers displaced by the storm are facing wildly increased rents, lack of insurance, lost jobs, and increased mold and mold-related illnesses, among other challenges.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy, looking across the globe, reminds us that:

The difficult task of rebuilding takes time. We know from Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and other catastrophic disasters that bringing communities back to some sense of normalcy can take decades. Often the full needs of a community are not revealed in the days and weeks following a disaster, but rather it can take months or more for some needs to expose themselves. 16

Much of the post-Sandy conversation about the city’s rebuilding process, and the need to foster resilience, however it is defined and it what context, focuses on the physical structure of New York City. The outgoing Bloomberg Administration’s post-Sandy report—the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR)—laid

  • 14 Beverly Wright, “Post-Katrina, Black Families Still More Vulnerable to Extreme Weather,” (, August 27, 2013).

  • 15 Micheline Blum, Jacqueline Fortin, Jack Krauskopf, Danny Rosenthal, and Allison Sesso, “Far From Home: Non-Profits Assess Sandy Recovery and Disaster Preparedness,” (Human Services Council, October 2013), p. 3.

  • 16 Center for Disaster Philanthropy website,

out the Bloomberg Administration’s vision for a citywide rebuild after Sandy. Linked to the Bloomberg administration’s earlier city planning work, coordinated in a process called PlaNYC, and given special urgency post-disaster, both the SIRR report and the work of the City Office of Resiliency are almost entirely focused on improvements to the city’s physical infrastructure. There are many physical infrastructure projects that can make the city stronger, but questions about which areas and strategies to prioritize, and how to integrate strengthening the social infrastructure were not part of the SIRR process. The report does not address the underlying economic disparity that heightened the social, economic, and public health impacts of this unprecedented weather event and what it foretells about the coming affects of climate change. Nor do the SIRR recommendations take into consideration the need to enhance social resilience—the need to enhance or build the organizational and human capacity to cope with, adapt to, or transform the conditions that threaten our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Joan Byron, Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development, summed up Mayor

Bloomberg and the SIRR report in The New York Times:

“His [Bloomberg's] response to Sandy at the human level was appalling. But the infrastructure stuff is brilliant.”

Unlike government offices and agencies, CBOs with deep relationships in vulnerable neighborhoods like those hit hardest by the storm are perfectly positioned to respond at the human level and to make sure that the economic and social infrastructures are addressed as we rebuild our city. However, with the myriad planning processes at the neighborhood, borough, city, state and federal levels, it is a challenge for CBOs, even larger better resourced ones, to weed through the many meetings and determine where their input is most important and ultimately which ones will actually benefit the people they exist to empower. At the same time, it is critical that they do so, to make sure that the time, energy, and money that flow into the city benefit the most vulnerable among us—especially those in low- income communities.

As the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding stated about the SIRR plan:

“Bloomberg’s blueprint promises to make the City of New York more resilient to future disasters. But ‘resiliency’ must apply not only to physical infrastructure, but also to economic and social infrastructure that can strengthen struggling communities and ready them for future crises. And ‘recovery’ measures should not replicate the circumstances that made so many New Yorkers so vulnerable in the first place.” 17

Photo: John Moore
Photo: John Moore

Volunteer canvasses public housing buildings

Low-income New Yorkers who were displaced or impacted by the effects of the storm continue to struggle with drastically rising rents in storm-impacted neighborhoods, increased debt for both homeowners and renters, wage theft and worker health violations in recovery jobs, lack of rental assistance programs for

undocumented residents, public housing units with temporary boilers, lack of repairs to already poorly maintained public housing complexes, and mental and physical illness resulting from mold, trauma, and chronic duress.

CBOs are working to participate in both emergency preparedness planning for the next crisis and in the work of rebuilding the city after Sandy. These are distinct but connected conversations. At the same time, these organizations that functioned as emergency responders have the critical work that they were founded to do prior to the storm, and that cannot be left behind during recovery and rebuild. In order to integrate all these needs, the CBOs who work with and for vulnerable populations along with policy makers, the media, and elected officials, are asking which preparedness measures also address the ongoing challenges in our poorest neighborhoods, and which make daily life better.

Photo: Michael Premo
Photo: Michael Premo

The staff and members of the Red Hook Initiative, for example, have been invited to participate in literally dozens of disaster preparation planning processes, conferences and meetings at every level—neighborhood, borough, city-wide and regional. Jill Eisenhard, the executive director, reflects on the process of planning for future disasters, and how her organization should prioritize that work in relation to their mission to serve young people in Red Hook:

Wreckage in Far Rockaway

To me it’s very, very confusing to figure out how the city and state and feds and neighborhoods are working together, or are supposed to. [I’m] trying to figure out who in government is ultimately responsible for coming in and saying there is a need for a plan and who is responsible for creating it. And then we need to figure out how that also becomes something that is useful on a daily basis, and not about sitting around on a shelf until the next disaster. If we are going to train residents to deal with emergencies, we need to create jobs and skills, and have concrete and immediate benefits in which preparedness is tied to daily life.

In understanding that our most vulnerable neighborhoods are both the victims of a grinding crisis of inequity, as well as the sudden crises brought about by the storm, we are challenged to develop structures and processes that address both needs. Planning and rebuilding efforts must not pit physical and social needs against each other, or distract from the important work these organizations were doing before the storm. Eric Klinenberg, professor of Sociology at New York University, and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge, has written and spoken about the benefits of neighborhood-level sense of cohesion and community both as a protective factor in emergency, and as a part of daily life. Strong CBOs are critical to building this kind of social infrastructure:

If you think about the response we had to 9/11, the kind of investment we made in homeland security and national security, we are now at that moment when we have to make that kind of commitment to climate change. Not just with the hard

infrastructure, but also with the social infrastructure. And the nice thing about investing in climate security through social infrastructure is that the residual benefit is such that we could dramatically improve the quality of life in all these [vulnerable communities], all the time, regardless of the weather. 18

Our conversations about the city’s experience during Hurricane Sandy strongly show that resources as well as a clear role for CBOs, and a plan to support these organizations in filling that role must be a priority. CBOs are often holders of the wisdom and experience of New Yorkers who are not traditionally at the decision-making tables, and all policymakers, philanthropists, and agency leaders risk repeating the same mistakes of hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy if they ignore that fact.

Re commendations

Most of us turn to our families, friends and neighbors in times of crisis. Beyond them, we turn to trusted institutions like churches, mosques, and synagogues, and to community groups or institutions that we already know. If you had asked an organization like CAAAV or the Red Hook Initiative whether they ever intended to provide post-hurricane relief services a month or even a week before Sandy hit, they would have laughed. But in the moments after the storm, the organizations took on the role without a second thought.

The recommendations in this report address two fundamental questions:

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

Fallen tree in front of public housing building

  • 1. How do people with the power to make decisions about how the city prepares for future disasters make sure that every vulnerable neighborhood and constituency has pre-identified resources and champions?

  • 2. How do we give community institutions the support they need to play the role even more effectively in the future to ensure that resources and efforts put into rebuilding the city post-storm create a more just and equitable place for all New Yorkers?

These questions are at the heart of this assertion from the Clawback blog of Good Jobs New York:

Many low and moderate-income communities had long standing inequality issues before the hurricane that were then exacerbated. In order for resiliency efforts to move forward efficiently, local officials must better communicate with their constituents. The old adage about there being a silver lining holds profoundly true after Sandy: federal officials have a chance to diversify the type of stakeholders who will be at decision-making tables around the region as neighborhoods rebuild in the face of climate change. 19

  • 18 Eric Klinenberg, professor of Sociology, NYU, “Here and Now” radio program, (WBUR, October 25, 2013).

  • 19 Good Jobs New York, “Clawback,” (, August 27, 2012).

In the months after the storm, it was said that Sandy brought out the best in people, and the worst in systems. Or, as City Council Member Brad Lander reflected after the storm: “We saw a tremendous amount of compassion but not a lot of justice.” It is essential that we learn from, and build on what worked in the aftermath of this unprecedented storm, as well as from those systems and institutions that failed. The following recommendations arose from the many interviews and conversations that were conducted in the course of researching this report. They serve as a jumping-off point for developing thoughtful, concrete, and doable new ways to approach the impact of climate change on all communities, but especially the most vulnerable ones.

Most recommendations will require cross-sector planning and implementation. Below we have used the following key to indicate who is identified with and responsible for each recommendation: G = Government, P = Philanthropy, C = Community Responders. The recommendations are divided into two sections: Response and Rebuild.



One of the most consistent themes in the conversations with CBO leaders and other responders was that of frustration and fear at the lack of clarity about who was in charge of relief coordination at the city level. The Human Services Council survey cited on page 11 in this report showed that community organizations were confused as to whether FEMA, the mayor’s office, OEM or some other entity was “in charge.” 20 Moving ahead, the city must determine and then communicate who, indeed, is in charge.

It is also essential that the key leaders at the OEM and other city offices have an understanding of and appreciation for both the needs and capacities of vulnerable neighborhoods. We need leadership at the senior levels of the new mayoral administration, and within OEM and the office of long-term sustainability and planning who will take the lessons of Sandy and apply them. Emergency response will be more effective if city leadership respects local knowledge that comes up through the neighborhoods, works with community institutions, is fierce about ensuring communication and cooperation between city agencies, relief organizations and CBOs, and appreciates that while neighborhoods of NYC have many things in common, they also have different needs and resources and thus require unique plans and solutions. To paraphrase Carlos Menchaca, the newly elected city council member from District 38, speaking at a recent forum, “if not an organizer, the new administration and OEM needs to be run by someone who thinks like an organizer.”


Then-Public Advocate de Blasio’s 6/13 report, Supporting Community-Based Disaster Response: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy, clearly articulates what many of the people interviewed for this report felt:

The city did not make adequate efforts to identify and build relationships with CBOs prior to Hurricane Sandy. 21

  • 20 Micheline Blum, Jacqueline Fortin, Jack Krauskopf, Danny Rosenthal, and Allison Sesso, “Far from Home: Non-Profits Assess Sandy Recovery and Disaster Preparedness,” (Human Services Council, October 2013), p. 11.

  • 21 Office of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, “Supporting Community-Based Disaster Response: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy,”

Having determined who is ultimately in charge, the city must 1) communicate which is the first point of communication for CBOs and 2) that point of communication must be as senior as possible in mayor’s office. This so that communities know how to coordinate their work with government efforts. It is incumbent on CBOs to work with the city, but they must be given the appropriate scaffolding and power to do so.


During an extreme weather event, it is essential to know which CBOs, civic associations, organizing groups and small businesses are known by the community, are available and able to take leadership in an emergency. Most CBOs know their neighborhoods and resources intuitively, but even local CBOs and certainly the various government agencies and offices charged with emergency response could use tangible, common map that builds on existing maps and makes this knowledge visible. A mapping process should identify who the neighborhood players are and what their relevant assets and capacities are in an emergency. In addition, any future mapping must build upon and integrate existing mapping efforts like the New York Disaster Interfaith Services map of faith communities and congregations, the Red Cross mapping project, and the Pratt Institute maps that groups like Occupy Sandy used during the storm. It should include food

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

Hot lunch served at Red Hook Initiative office two days after the storm

systems mapping, both proximal (meaning places in directly impacted communities where, for example, food could be warmed and water and other relief supplies made available) and distal (certified, kosher, halal and other kitchen facilities where emergency meals could be prepared safely and readied for distribution). Where there are insufficient resources in the community, the mapping process must identify new partners and resources.


It is critical to identify spaces in each neighborhood that can serve as gathering places and information centers in an emergency. These may be NYCHA community centers, located within the housing developments, 22 they could be churches that serve as collection points for relief supplies and volunteer dispatching. They could also be CBOs like CAAAV and the Red Hook Initiative, which retained power when public housing and surrounding homes and businesses were without it. They could be civic institutions like city libraries or even local businesses like Tom’s Diner on the boardwalk in Coney Island, which also retained power after the storm, and became a gathering place.

There should be clear criteria for gathering spaces, and once designated as an emergency gathering place or relief center, organizations or businesses should be given resources and training to ready them for a potential relief role. These spaces will be better utilized during a crisis if they are known and trusted, and are positive parts of daily life of a community.

With respect to government shelters, during Sandy, city government used schools. This worked in the first few days after the storm when most facilities in hard hit neighborhoods and elsewhere were closed. But once schools re-opened, the city and communities ran into problems turning away people who were directly impacted by the storm, or those, like some who were homeless, who took advantage of the well- organized and secure school facilities where the petty crime and other challenges faced in the shelter system were not happening. Ultimately, the mapping of a range of shelter-appropriate spaces that are categorized for short- and longer-term use would go a long way to making the disaster relief response more effective.


As part of creating a clear communication plan, the city should create access points to the city’s communication infrastructure so that CBOs can communicate with the city, and find emergency response activities in their own neighborhoods and other neighborhoods or boroughs. During Sandy, most of the hardest hit neighborhoods were entirely without power or cell phone services. Nonetheless, several local activists and volunteers were very resourceful in deploying staff and volunteers in unaffected neighborhoods by using Twitter, Facebook, and other online tools to meet community needs. If it does not already exist, the city should create a text messaging or mobile application that could be helpful in both recording and accessing what is happening in a given neighborhood. Plans for investing in “low tech” resources, like generators, CB radios and bicycles for getting around in a no-power, no-gas situation, must be assessed and where they make sense, planned ahead of time.


A coordinated response requires deeper cooperation and support between local CBOs and national relief organizations than was seen during Sandy. Each type of entity brings distinct assets to the work, and they will be more effective if they are able to plan and communicate better, and support each other.

Most national and much local giving goes to the large relief organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army during an emergency like Sandy. In his report, Weathering the Storm, The Role of Local Non-Profits in the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort, Tony Pipa recommended that Congress create a special designation—to be invoked during exceptional disasters—that mandates the American Red Cross to contribute five percent of its overall fundraising to local grant-making intermediaries for distribution to local non- profits and faith-based groups. 23 Another approach would be for the mayor’s office to convene visioning and planning sessions between CBOs and the large relief organizations to plan fundraising efforts together, so the onus does not fall solely on the Red Cross to redirect dollars. Rather, donors at every level could find information online about local relief efforts and organizations that are recognized leaders with clear plans and agreements in place.



Volunteers were essential to responding to Hurricane Sandy, and in many ways the massive volunteer effort is why the city emerged as well as it did. The strain of finding, dispatching, and managing volunteers, however, was a huge challenge for the CBOs. While some communities were flooded with help, others did not have enough.

New York Cares took on some of this role during Sandy, but there was still much confusion, duplication of efforts, and uneven volunteer supply. A large non-profit or city agency must be made responsible for identifying and communicating the need for volunteers, and serving as a clearing house for interested volunteers in an emergency. Even better, volunteers can be connected to CBOs for non-emergency work, and will then be in place should there be a crisis.

At the same time, CBOs should familiarize themselves with potential sources for volunteer aid, so that volunteers can be mobilized and deployed without wasting anyone’s time or compassionate energy.


There were emergency plans that were not pulled off the shelf during Sandy, and there are many current emergency planning processes going on around the city in the wake of the storm that are not coordinated with each other. The city should catalog existing plans and planning processes, and then working with a range of stakeholders, determine if these plans are relevant and feasible, and where they are redundant.

Emergency plans should include a wide universe of organizations and groups, and consider roles for individuals, civic associations, volunteers, religious institutions, CBOs, and local, state and federal government agencies.

Photo: VOCAL
Photo: VOCAL

An article from reflecting on disasters in Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Hurricane Sandy recommends:

Ideally, a combination of capable government and robust informal networks, working in tandem, could provide the bulwark that cities will need in the age of climate change. This will require not only social cohesion, but also a willingness on the part of governments to help equip communities for self-reliance and

VOCAL NY members demand that city address needs of people in transitional housing and those on public assistance

develop disaster plans that allow for a citizen-led response. There are signs that this is slowly occurring—from New York to Bangkok, recent events have forced cities to let informal networks react to disasters with relative autonomy. Whether they embrace a model in which private citizens and government agencies work in partnership could define their resilience as the coming storms arrive. 24

The June 2013 Public Advocate’s report recommends that the city do a number of specific things that resonate with our research findings (report excerpted below):

The city should partner with CBOs to develop neighborhood-specific emergency plans and designated door-to-door outreach teams that are well coordinated with other relief workers.

The emergency response teams should be equipped with consistent monitoring forms and comprehensive relief information in all eight of the most widely spoken languages. In the course of research for this report, the authors heard over and again how basic information was not available in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Afford outreach teams access to NYCHA buildings and vulnerable tenant lists, facilitate the creation of neighborhood coalitions of CBOs throughout the city, and develop mutual aid agreements so CBOs will be poised to openly transfer resources within and across neighborhoods. 25

Last, even the best plans will not work uniformly in each neighborhood, so plans need to be updated annually, and to be tested and re-tested to tailor them to the unique challenges, conditions, and opportunities of a particular area.



Right now, responsibility for recovery and rebuild is scattered across several city agencies including the Office of Emergency Management, the Economic Development Corporation, the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Housing Preservation and Development, and Health & Human Services. Each office holds responsibility for part of the plan, but there is no obvious single place to go, and no obvious position responsible for looking across the physical, economic, and human needs. The city needs to designate a single senior-level position that directly reports to a deputy mayor

  • 24 Dustin Roasa, “The DIY Disaster Plan,” (, April 29, 2013).

  • 25 Office of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, “Supporting Community-Based Disaster Response: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy,” (Dustin Roasa, “The DIY Disaster Plan,” (, April 29, 2013)

  • 25 Office of the Public Advocate, (June, 2013), p. 7.

and meets with the mayor on a fixed basis. This person should oversee all rebuilding and preparedness efforts, and prioritize the development of social infrastructure as a resilience strategy.

Examples of this dual focus include—retrofitting public housing, improving access to utilities in vulnerable communities; improving access to health care/food in vulnerable communities. This type of physical infrastructure goes along with reducing the overall inequality that is prevalent in New York City.


Community groups must engage in climate-related planning, both in times of relative calm and during moments of crisis or disaster. There are critical conversations going on about the future of our city, and the perspective of CBOs is essential to the conversation. We can strengthen institutions and leaders by making grants for local organizations to hire directors of planning or community engagement workers. Philanthropy must continue to fund intermediaries like Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and other planning groups to help CBOs sort through the myriad of planning processes and resources, and guide community groups to the best places to use their time and expertise.

We must make sure that the CBOs that have developed new capacity and expertise in the wake of the storm are supported to continue this critical work.


Several of the CBOs we interviewed said that foundations and donors had asked them to make grants to local residents who needed cash during and right after the storm. They were also asked to assist small businesses in the community. This request put enormous strain on the CBOs, and philanthropy should figure out a way that a foundation or an intermediary organization can take this on (with guidance from local CBO staff) rather than asking that CBOs provide the direct grants to individuals and businesses.

Photo: John Moore
Photo: John Moore

Powerless buildings, Red Hook

Based on stories and needs identified through a three-part series on Irene, Sandy, and the Food System convened by Community Food Funders in May and June of 2013, farmers and fishers identified the need for economic support after these extreme weather events. Small bridge loans of up to $10,000 could help producers get new seed and other inputs to be able to replace damaged crops or lost fishing or harvesting days in the immediate aftermath of a storm. These were absent during Irene. Related to this, fishers and farmers reported that during Sandy, they had fresh fish, vegetables, meats, and fruits that could have been deployed in the relief effort, but they had lost access to local distribution networks and resale points. As part of the city’s and the state’s future planning efforts, the needs and contributions of local producers, as well as consumers in vulnerable communities, should be articulated, mapped, and addressed as integral to a comprehensive emergency plan.

Photo: Rachel Falcone
Photo: Rachel Falcone

It will take vigilance, organizing, and activism to ensure that low-income communities’ needs and priorities are reflected in the rebuild, and the spending of city, state, and federal monies. Government must be pressured, and CBOs and their supporters must be consistent and strategic in their advocacy around the needs of low-income communities. We need an equitable and transparent rebuilding process; quality, economy-building jobs for all New Yorkers; investment in jobs, affordable housing, health care, and transit; and a commitment to long-term climate sustainability and the elimination of environmental

disparities across communities. 26

Schedule of events and resources for local residents after the storm, Red Hook

City council, the city comptroller, and the public advocate should take leadership to monitor these expenditures by the city, state, and federal government. Thanks to advocacy by the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, the City Council took a bold step toward more accountability at the end of 2013 through passage of the Sandy Tracker Bill. The legislation creates an accessible online database of projects funded with Sandy recovery and rebuilding dollars in New York City, and requires comprehensive reporting on the jobs created, local hiring by zip code, implementation of Section 3 HUD guidelines, contractor safety records, and other critical rebuilding contract details. The city council should work with the city administration to ensure successful implementation of the bill. The city comptroller should similarly use his power to audit Sandy contracts. The public advocate’s office could be instrumental in monitoring whether help is reaching those who need it most.

As billions more in funds will continue to be allocated through the years, philanthropy should resource a respected organization like Good Jobs New York, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the New Economy Project, or a local university research team to continue monitoring the rebuilding process.


All planning processes and resulting action must acknowledge the climate crises we are facing, and at the same time must work toward a better quality of life for all New Yorkers. Money and resources put into protecting the city should result in physical and social infrastructure that create more vital, just, and thriving communities.

One painful outcome of the storm was to see how vulnerable the regional electrical grid is, as well as its local networks. Technology exists to make New York a global model of sustainability and equity—we can tie the process of improving the grid to local economic development, job training, and small business creation. As Alliance for a Just Rebuilding’s Turn the Tide report states, there is a “need to create a bold Climate Response Plan that ensures just, safe and resilient communities.” 27 There is tremendous potential, for example, to work with the NYCHA to carry out a broad scale co-generation project that could create an ongoing alternative grid in some of the most vulnerable communities that could be used in the event of another major storm that knocks out part or all of the city’s grid. There are also a number of projects identified in the Sandy Regional Assembly report spearheaded by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. 28 Too often, innovative projects developed by researchers, designers, engineers and CBOs sit on shelves for lack of public, private sector, or philanthropic support. This must change.

  • 27 Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, “Turning the Tide: How Our Next Mayor Should Tackle Sandy Rebuilding,” (Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, July 2013).

  • 28 Sandy Regional Assembly, “SIRR Analysis: An Assessment of the Mayor’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) Plan, and Recommendations for Federal Sandy Rebuilding Task Force,” (New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, July 2013).

Con clusion

In its wake, the storm laid bare a series of complicated questions for the city to deal with. The questions are challenging and a process to even consider them is not obvious. There is a temptation to offer up quick solutions: a task force here, a planning meeting there, a resolution to store information on “the Cloud” instead of on servers in offices, a better list of emergency contacts. And while some structural solutions will help, including those listed in the recommendations section of this report, the deeper need is to reframe the disaster response and recovery conversation in terms of economic inequality. As a city, we need to look at a set of questions and actions that are not just about the next 30 years, but also about the next several generations. We will likely need a different set of strategies and actions for the near future and then for the long-term. These strategies have to work together, not against each other. It is not at all clear that we can continue to live in neighborhoods like Coney Island, the Rockaways, and others. How will we make those decisions, and where will we go?

The necessary conversation and resulting action is complicated and nuanced, and not one we have had on a city-wide level to date. The hard dilemmas and new challenges that we face will be best addressed if we include all New Yorkers in naming the questions and looking for solutions.

As we move forward and continue to build resiliency in neighborhoods and individuals, CBOs working in our most vulnerable communities have an essential role to play in the development of these adaptive and resiliency strategies for disaster preparedness and recovery. If we want these critical voices, we must promote the capacity of these organizations to participate in a nuanced and targeted conversation.

In the wake of the storm, our city was flooded with compassion. We saw it in the way neighbors took each other in, the way volunteers showed up, the generosity with which people donated money and resources. But as we have noted, compassion is different than justice. We are at a moment where we have a chance to take that compassion, that connection that New Yorkers felt to each other and their city, and try to link it to a movement toward greater equity and a more resilient and thriving city that works for all New Yorkers. It may be lifesaving work.

Biblio graphy

Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, Turning The Tide: How Our Next Mayor Should Tackle Sandy Rebuilding, (Alliance For Just Rebuilding, July 2013).

Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, Towards a Just And Equitable Rebuilding In a New Climate, (Alliance for Just Rebuilding, January 2013).

Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, Community Voices Heard and others, Weathering the Storm: Rebuilding a More Resilient NYCHA Post-Sandy (Community Voices Heard, March 12, 2014)

Hector Cordero-Guzman, Elizabeth Pantaleon & Martha Chavez, Sandy Reconstruction and Day Labor Job Centers (Baruch College, School of Public Affairs, October 30, 2013)

Emmaia Gelman, What CBOs Know About Unmet Sandy Needs, and How They Know It, (Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, August 2013).

Good Jobs New York, Federal Task Force on Sandy Rebuilding Cites Need for Community Engagement, (Clawback.Org, August 27, 2012). Eric Klinenberg, Adaptation, (The New Yorker, January 7, 2013). Jack Krauskopf, Micheline Blum, Nicole Lee, Jacqueline Fortin, Allison Sesso, and Danny Rosenthal Report, Far from Home: Nonprofits Assess Sandy Recovery and Disaster Preparedness, (Human Services Council, October 2013). Max Liboiron and David Wachsmuth, The Fantasy of Disaster Response: Governance and Social Action During Hurricane Sandy, (Social Text Periscope, 2013). Jonathan Mahler, How the Coastline Became a Place To Put The Poor, (The New York Times, December 3, 2012). Office of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Supporting Community-Based Disaster Response: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy (June, 2013). Tony Pipa, Weathering the Storm, The Role of Local Non-Profits In the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort, (The Aspen Institute, 2006). Dustin Roasa, The DIY Disaster Plan, (Nextcity.Org, April 29, 2013). Sandy Regional Assembly, SIRR Analysis: An Assessment of the Mayors’ Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) Plan, and Recommendations for the Federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, (New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, July 2013). David Wachsmuth, How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters, (Atlantic Cities, October 28, 2013). Beverly Wright, Post-Katrina, Black Families Still More Vulnerable to Extreme Weather, (Ebony, August 27, 2013).

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