Last night, the House of Representatives passed a $50.7 billion relief bill for those affected by Superstorm Sandy. This long overdue measure represents a sign of hope that the many people still awaiting aid will finally begin to see some progress. On this landmark night, I had the opportunity to join the discussion on NBC New York Nightly News. My comments in the clip above address why this funding is so critical for the millions of people and businesses affected by the storm, as well as for the organizations scrambling to provide adequate recovery services. Without this bill’s provisions, FEMA would be unable to sustain its own relief efforts past March, and the public and private service agencies already struggling to meet their communities’ overwhelming needs would be left in the lurch.
This action comes 78 days after Sandy upended the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. For many, that is 78 days in the dark or without access to their homes and businesses. Approximately 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed statewide, and Governor Cuomo noted yesterday that more than 15,000 New Yorkers still cannot return to their homes. Meanwhile, 265,000 New York businesses were affected, with 42,000 still awaiting financial assistance.
As welcome as the passage of the bill is, the allocation of a mere $1 million to storm-related legal services (only 0.002% of the total relief package) is a disgrace. This funding can support fewer than 10 attorneys who could handle a total of 500 cases in a year. Given the vast scope of the disaster, this is simply not enough. Legal services enable storm victims to maintain safe, affordable, habitable homes, appeal inadequate FEMA and insurance decisions, and resolve an entire host of other critical problems. NYLAG alone has encountered thousands of victims who stand to benefit from legal interventions. The time to act is now. Any comprehensive emergency response model must include a properly scaled legal services component to ensure that the rights of victims are protected.
It is vital for the country to understand that this bill is only the first step on the long road to recovery. Needs will grow and change, and we cannot let Sandy victims be forgotten with the flip of a calendar page. Legal advocates are providing concrete, tangible benefits to storm victims by fulfilling their basic needs for shelter and income supports. I challenge our government to do the same.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge