A year ago today, the forces of nature conspired against New York. The coincidence of a deadly storm surge, and astronomical high tides resulted in the disaster we now call Superstorm Sandy. The storm killed 181 people, displaced tens of thousands of New Yorkers and caused more than $50 billion in damages. It was so unprecedented that the National Weather Service retired the name Sandy: it will never be used again.
For NYLAG, and for me personally, the last year has been a time of hope and a time of heartbreak, a time of achievement and a time of struggling to do more, a time of learning and a time of sharing what has been learned.
To date NYLAG has provided free civil legal services to over 5,800 low-income storm victims, helping them with a tangle of legal issues exacerbated by public bureaucracies and private for-profit interests. Along the way, we learned a good deal about what makes a coordinated disaster response work, or not work so well.
First of all it is important to be prepared as an organization. I don’t just mean having an emergency response plan for your own operations, I mean having processes and procedures in place that will ensure that substantive disaster support gets to affected communities right away. And these procedures cannot just be in a binder gathering dust on a shelf, they need to be robust and kept current. For providers of civil legal services this means a serious level of commitment in order to be prepared to act immediately. For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced with Sandy was getting up to speed in unfamiliar legal areas, specifically insurance law where we had no in-house expertise. We were lucky to receive pro bono training, but in the future I will make sure that we keep current with disaster law, and track changes in regulations and procedures governing public agencies and private entities that come into play when disaster strikes.
There needs to be far better communication between federal agencies, state and local government, community-based organizations and civil legal service providers like NYLAG. The moment that the President declares a disaster area should be the trigger for rolling out a coordinated plan. For example, it is not enough to have FEMA and SBA onsite in community centers. They need to be trained as problem solvers and not slow down the process, as they did after Sandy. I also think the federal government might learn from some of the innovations introduced at the state or local level, such as New York State’s mediation program for homeowners’ insurance claims. A joint mediation program for both homeowners’ and flood insurance (which is a federal program) would be far more efficient and effective for everyone.
One other takeaway from our Sandy experience: all disasters are not created equal. Every city, every community, is unique – and a standard template is just not going to work. New York is a diverse community. Our population speaks scores of languages. We have particular needs regarding our large immigrant population. There are high volumes of both homeowners and renters with very different needs. New York City is one of the most expensive places to live in the world: plywood at the local Home Depot costs more than plywood in Boulder, Colorado. All of these factors need to be considered before a disaster strikes if we are to improve the nation’s disaster response capabilities.
I have an image that has stayed with me now for a year. I remember watching news coverage right after the storm. A woman from Staten Island was standing in the muddy ruins of her home, picking through rubble, her whole body signaling defeat. Then she looked right at the camera – at me in my living room, and said, “I just want to go home.”
More than anything else, when I think about Sandy, I think about that woman and the thousands more for whom the storm is not over, and may never be. We owe it to them to make the system work.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge