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Life after Sandy

Sandy from space

Cities and communities are still in the first stage of disaster relief of Hurricane Sandy, digging out from the destruction and assuring that families have the food, power and shelter they need.

Through this process, and as the repair and rebuilding gets underway, LISC offices and their local partners have been involved. In Newark, N.J., for instance, the Renaissance Community Development Corporation Center provided clothing, blankets and food packages to affected community members, and La Casa de Don Pedro organized a food drive and collected blankets, clothing, toiletries and nonperishable food.

The next stage for recovery will be as complex and difficult as the initial disaster relief—ensuring that resources continue to flow to those most affected, that rebuilding is done right, and that measures are taken to limit the damage from similar storms in the future.

To gauge how recovery has proceeded to date on the East Coast and what comes next, on November 26th, the Institute convened a roundtable discussion of key LISC staff in the cities in Sandy’s path and those that may be hit by the next “super storm.” This is an edited version of that conversation.


Jim Capraro, Institute for Comprehensive Community Development senior fellow

We have a hypothesis that I’ll put on the table: When something cataclysmic strikes, communities that are organized really well—like you might find in a Sustainable Community neighborhood where great care was taken to build relationships and build partnerships—might be better prepared to deal with it. They may be more resilient and able to kind of turn on a dime and face a new challenge pretty quickly.

Jim Capraro

We’ve witnessed this across the country in the past three or four years as [community] quality-of-life plans and priorities changed as the economy went into the tank and different things became important than when folks were planning during a more robust economy.

That’s not really the kind of the disaster that Sandy represented, of course. But we thought we might have people weigh in on how it’s going and whether you think the presence of your support and an infrastructure of relationships makes a difference when disaster happens.

Denise Scott, New York LISC executive director

I think that the hypothesis may be true. Sandy’s greatest impact was on the coast. And in New York, there were some 80,000 public housing units along the water’s edge, from Brooklyn to Queens to Lower Manhattan, where power went out.

"Volunteerism and the ability to shift capacity pretty quickly to the areas that were most impacted has turned out to be particularly important."

Those are not the areas where [New York LISC] had spent most of our time and investment. But the level of volunteerism and the ability to shift capacity pretty quickly from one part of the city to the areas that were most impacted has turned out to be particularly important.

There are organizers and other community groups that literally just moved into Rockaway, for example, and set up camp to become part of the expanded FEMA activity there to try to reach people—the most vulnerable homeowners, small business people— and get them tied into the first wave of emergency services. That’s still going on.

That shifting of capacity from sophisticated community development to those communities is, in the long run, going to prove to be particularly helpful. Hopefully in the next couple weeks or so, we will begin to fund the ability to pay staff to remain in those areas over the next two years.

Jim Capraro

I’ve had the opportunity in the last nine months to be where folks were talking about disasters, mainly private sector companies who respond to disasters, State Farm, FedEx, UPS, Allstate: those that have a stake in it and those that have a key role in moving in supplies.

And one of the recurring themes is that there’s this kind of onslaught of folks wanting to do something while the disaster is young and fresh, within the first month, basically. But then as time lingers on, there’s a need for continued and different kind of support. Can you explain a little bit more as to how you came to make that decision to include long-term plans?

Denise Scott

I was part of a team that was sent from the city when Katrina happened. We got there probably about four months after the hurricane, and one of the observations was that the flurry of generosity kind of does taper off and then there’s still this lingering need. I went back about a year or so later and saw the same thing.

Denise Scott

And so one of the first things I thought about [with Sandy] for what LISC could do to respond is be there through the long haul. And to figure out how to direct some of that generosity that’s just tripping over itself right now, how to direct it into a medium and long-term strategy.

We’ve done a number of things. We’ve had conversations with the City and with the funding community. I’m on the governor’s recovery task force asking, through that venue, that both the mayor and the governor use their ability to redirect some of the philanthropic generosity to a longer, medium and long-term strategy.

A lot of people feel like if they don’t give right away, they haven’t given. So we’ve been turned down by some people we’ve tried to raise money from because we’ve said we’re in this for the long haul. On the other hand, we’ve begun to, I think, influence a number of people to realize that there is this longer term need.

The other part is a back and forth with resources that people could benefit from or are in entitled to, and that takes time.

The people who are most impacted have short-terms needs—heat, hot water and all of that kind of stuff—and they may qualify for the first two months of FEMA benefits. But then after that, there’s a lot of back and forth with FEMA as to whether they qualify for a loan or whether they can continue to get grants, whether the grants are adequate. They have to negotiate with insurance companies.

And a lot of people [struggle with that], especially the elderly, a lot of the small businesses. Some of the homes that are in these neighborhoods were already under water financially, and now they’re literally underwater.

It seems like the best response that LISC could provide would be to figure out how to take a long view, expand the staff capacity in these neighborhoods, and then sort of wrap a level of LISC capacity around these groups out in the neighborhood, move capacity from one part of the city to the next, and just figure out how to sustain it.

So that’s what we’re attempting to do. We’re both raising private money and hopefully redirecting some of the demand and response dollars. Our hope is that over the next, say, two years plus, we should have between three to five million dollars to fund this level of activity and to make sure that everybody is tied into the benefits and are beginning a path to a substantial recovery.

Robin J. Brown, Greater Newark & Jersey City LISC program officer

Here at Greater Newark LISC, the situation is similar to what Denise described. Most of the hard-hit damage in New Jersey actually occurs outside of what we consider our target area, much more in the south part of the state.

Robin J. Brown

We did have short-term issues in our areas, like a lack of power, which was more than inconvenient for some. Most of our [CDC] partners were very well organized in Newark and surrounding neighborhoods to really get volunteers and do that first response.

To try to help some of the people outside of our target area, we’re considering trying to identify some of the organizations in those communities in Mammoth County and Atlantic County, and then perhaps use some of our funds to fund staff working on the recovery. We’re considering how we can try to provide some assistance there on the back end, because their budgets were stressed due to these unexpected Sandy expenditures.

We’re also considering working with our advocacy partner, the New Jersey Community Development Network, on recommendations for both the federal government and the state government on issues like extending the deadlines for our partners who needed to divert their attention to Sandy, as well as some statewide issues like extra funding for some of the state tax credit programs.

We are trying to get a fuller sense of what those long-term needs may be, especially, again, in the areas that we don’t have partners.

"LISC has provided an invaluable intermediary role with the government."

Barbara Baer, New York LISC director of policy

I came from the government sector, and I would say that LISC has provided an invaluable intermediary role with the government. The city, state and ultimately the federal governments are going to have to make major decisions about how to go forward. And I think that Denise has been communicating with those agencies in a way that can have a lot of influence on major decisions about how to rebuild, what to rebuild, what acceptable building codes will be.

As things develop, [we may be] able to move what the City is going to do and to watch what kind of allocations everybody’s asking for and where they go. So it seems to me LISC being at the table is very important.

Andy Frishkoff, Philadelphia LISC executive director

For us in Philadelphia, this is really more looking forward to the next time. We were spared any severe damage in the city and in our neighborhoods.

But I think that there’s a wake-up call for us. We need to be ahead of the curve and actually be thinking much more than we have been about some of the lessons, particularly what Denise was laying out, and see what we can have in place in terms of the communications network within the community development world and the ability to be first responders in our neighborhoods. Because we believe we will be hit at some point soon, just looking at the weather patterns.

Bob Van Meter

Bob Van Meter, Boston LISC executive director

There’s a California-based writer on cities by the name Rebecca Solnit, and she published a book about a few years ago called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She looked at post-Katrina New Orleans and she looked at post-9/11 New York City and she looked at the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and Mexico City’s earthquake in 1985.

Her argument is that people naturally do respond in an appropriate and collective way to disasters, and that a lot of the hand-wringing and worrying about looting that seems sometimes to dominate the media after disasters is really kind of the nightmare of the power elite that the poor will rise up against the class structures that oppressed them.

And in some cases, the response to a disaster becomes the kind of embryo of broader political change. That’s what she argues about Mexico City in 1985, actually. So that’s a really interesting kind of argument.

Mike Davis

Mike Davis, Boston LISC program officer

My background is in urban planning. Historically, a lot of the waterfront lands in New York, and you could argue other cities as well, was manufacturing. As they moved away from a manufacturing base, the real opportunities for density and growth were on these, you could call them stop-sites along the waterfront.

In New York, they are upzoning along the waterfront, in the Williamsburg neighborhood and other points along the coast. And I can see that happening in Boston, as well, in the innovation district that’s adjacent to the water.

My question is: I wonder if this is going to change at all? In some of these large cities, the real estate interests are very powerful. So I’d be interested in hearing what people think we can do proactively to put some of the soft infrastructure there, instead of reacting to disaster after disaster after disaster.

Andrea Pereira, Connecticut LISC executive director

In Connecticut, a lot of destruction was where there’s a hot real estate market, where people had second homes or very expensive first homes, and so they were not at all the areas that [we at LISC] work in. We’ve worked in those towns to try to build some affordable housing, but we didn’t get it close to the water.

What we’ve heard is that there’s so much investment and so much at stake in the real estate community in those places, that trying to pry them away from rebuilding is going to be a tough political thing for the governor or anybody.

What we have heard in places like Bridgeport [from local CDCs] is that some things—like backup generators or moving the mechanicals—which were seen as luxuries before, are maybe now seen as things that have to be there.

Eileen Figel

Eileen Figel, Institute for Comprehensive Community Development director

I think that’s a good point. I don’t know what the answer is. I find it really astounding that we got this far with a debate in the country whether climate change was even occurring and we’re just still so much in denial and so unwilling to make changes that are clearly long overdue.

Barbara Baer

New York rebuilding on the rivers was sort of the policy of this administration. In many ways, they did wonderful things, but two-thirds of New York City has been rezoned. So a tremendous number of buildings on the coast got hit. A couple of buildings had boilers upstairs or on the roof or had barriers out, and they sustained [the floodwaters].

But right on the Brooklyn waterfront in Dumbo, new buildings—and very expensive buildings—had water up to 10 or 15 feet in their lobby, and some of the commercial buildings in Manhattan have still not reopened.

"I’m not sure that they’re going to want to stay in denial if they really want a healthy New York."

So I think these are really serious issues for the real estate community. I’m not sure that they’re going to want to stay in denial if they really want a healthy New York.

But I think the real truth is that people still don’t believe in climate change. The media seems to be a little bit ahead of everyone else. Every day, there’s an article about what can we do? Should we review the building code? Should we make enormous changes? And so far, I don’t think politically, except for the governor—who said we should build barriers—I don’t think that there’s been a chorus of agreement.

Eileen Figel

But some of the private sector is showing a response. A bunch of private insurers years ago stopped insuring some of these areas, because they know it’s not a good bet anymore.

Unfortunately, then the government stepped in and took on that insurance. When the private market finally is responding and saying no, we recognize this enormous risk and cost, I’m not sure the answer is for the government to underwrite it. Because then we continue building inappropriately and in inappropriate places.

Barbara Baer

If the housing authority ever recapitalized, I guess it would be really good to push them to change the infrastructure to deal with the potential next storm, which would be a way of sustaining and greening and be less expensive than building new housing. It’s a long shot, but that might be something that really needs to be thought about.

Denise Scott

The public housing [in New York City] was built in the Rockaways not because it was the most desirable land, but quite the opposite. At the time when all that public housing was built, I would say maybe close to more than a third of the 80,000 units are out there. And then there’s also elderly housing out there. All of that was put there because it was undesirable land, and that’s where the city kind of dumped the poor people.

And so rethinking where else in the city those public housing units could be replaced is a much harder question.

Julia Prange Wallerce

Julia Prange Wallerce, assistant program officer at the LISC Green Development Center

I’m also a trained urban planner, and during grad school I did a lot of work on this concept called managed retreat. It’s actually in the works in a lot of parts of the world where there are communities that are past the point of saying, “We can mitigate this.” Entire communities have to leave in some of the barrier islands in Louisiana, up in Alaska and in certain parts of the South Pacific.

And I think it might be something just to look at what are the psychological impacts of that and the human attachments, and how that plays into what we’re trying to do with communities in lower lying areas or places where it looks it’s not such a good idea to build there or live there anymore.

Jim Capraro

One last question, and that is back on the hypothesis: That in times of disaster recovery, both immediately after the storm and for years after, there is worth in community development, of relationships and collaborations and the kind of infrastructure that we seek to provide. Any last thoughts on the worth of that platform?

Robin J. Brown

In our Newark neighborhood where we have a Sustainable Community, our lead agency had done the groundwork [before Sandy] of pushing for new partners, for having conversations, for meeting people.

"Having gone through the Building Sustainable Communities process really benefited the community in terms of quick access to information and quick access to resources."

And because of that, I think they were much more connected and in a position to react and to serve almost as an intermediary to find out where resources were and connect individuals with those resources.

They also were able to participate much more on a large scale with the government than they had done before, specifically with the public school system. Having gone through the Building Sustainable Communities process, especially the early engagement, I think really benefited them and therefore really benefited the community in terms of quick access to information and quick access to resources.

Andrea Pereira

I think those organizations help in preparing, getting accurate information out about what to do to get ready, as well as in the recovery. We had a couple community organizing entities here who were really good about helping people get ready for the storm, as well as helping to check on them afterwards, and I think that platform is important through all of it. 


Read other stories in our special section about community development and responding to Hurricane Sandy.

Fighting climate change at the community level - Thanks to a program that provides a comprehensive perspective on green development, urban neighborhoods are giving a new look at saving the environment.

Response teamwork - Five big ideas for how CDCs and other local organizations can play a key role in helping their communities recover from disaster.

Posted in Planning, Affordable Housing, Thinking Out Loud

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