June 26, 2014

Forum Supports Sustainability of Sandy Recovery in New York City

“I love bumping into Brooklyn and Staten Island.  I don’t see Queens enough.”

That was Manhattan talking – specifically Lilah Mejia, Coordinator of Lower East Side Ready, the Superstorm Sandy long-term recovery group for that Manhattan neighborhood.  Mejia was among participants in a June 18 strategic recovery planning forum held in New York City and hosted by Church World Service and New York Disaster Interfaith Services.

The nearly three dozen participants represented long-term recovery groups, or “LTRGs,” from four of this sprawling city’s five geographic “boroughs” – Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan.  The Bronx, the borough least impacted by Superstorm Sandy, was unable to attend.  Chairpersons of the LTRGs meet periodically, but this was the first meeting to include board members. 

Dana Nelson, with the Brooklyn LTRG, affirmed, “The networking is great.  To be able to speak with the other LTRGs is not something we have the chance to do regularly.”

But as much as they enjoyed the chance to network, forum participants’ first priority was to make progress together toward solving a daunting challenge: how to sustain and strengthen their important work to be sure every Sandy survivor, especially the most vulnerable, gets the disaster recovery help he or she needs.

“Thousands of Sandy-affected New Yorkers are not yet back in their homes,” reported NYDIS Chief Response Officer Peter Gudaitis.  “An estimated ten thousand houses still need contractor or volunteer rebuild work, and the rebuilding programs are getting to only a fraction of them this year.

“We need to change the mainstream perception that Sandy recovery is over,” he said.  “It could take another five to 10 years.  We expect that most of the Sandy non-profit funding and capacity in the city will sunset in the next 12 to 24 months, before sustainable recovery has taken place for many families.  This leaves the community in the coordination role – and what does it take to keep LTRG capacity given attrition in funding and professional staffing?”

As preparation for the forum, registrants were surveyed to identify their LTRGs’ top priorities and challenges.  Survey results were reported out first thing.  Then participants were rotated to three different table groups to brainstorm actions.

High on the list: advocacy – together, whenever possible – for the recovery needs of their boroughs.  By the end of the day’s meetings, the group had identified a host of common issues that they resolved to pursue together. 

Also getting the forum’s attention: how the LTRGs can help New York City prepare for future disasters.  Participants were asked to consider, “What if there’s another bad storm this summer?”

To support sustainability and capacity building, participants considered possible sources for new funding –perhaps congregational funders or other special events; how to identify more community partners to participate in the LTRG process; succession planning for organizational leadership, and how to get more support from borough and city government.

John Berglund, Emergency Services Director or the Greater New York Division of The Salvation Army, urged forum participants to adapt as needs on the ground change – and to try to think and plan six, 12 or even 18 months ahead.

Lila Mejia remarked, “We all have the same issues.  We just work in different locations.  To hear how others are doing takes meetings like these.”   Lisa Fenger from the Queens LTRG agreed, remarking how differently each of New York City’s LTRGs is structured – and how much they have to learn from each other’s experience.

“Getting a lot of players in the room to have a facilitated discussion was a ‘win,’” said Hannah Arnett, Disaster Recovery Specialist for Queens with the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, a partner of UMCOR.

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Sandra Kennedy-Owes reminded the group that CWS has many resources of value to LTRGs – in-person training, webinars and web-based resources at www.cwsglobal.org.

CWS and NYDIS hosted the forum in partnership with the American Red Cross, FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons, New York City VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and the Metropolitan College of New York Emergency and Disaster Management Program.

American Red Cross and NYDIS staff are writing a report-out on the day’s findings and priorities set on a variety of recovery topics. The report will include next steps and a timeline for consideration of the LTRG boards  when they reconvene – tentatively in late July or early August.