March 19, 2013

Superstorm Sandy: long term recovery

Participant Shavon Camper.
Participant Shavon Camper. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

By Chris Herlinger

New York, N.Y. -– Responding to an emergency in New York City is not like responding to one in, say, rural Missouri.

Call it the density equation. There are more people in New York, more neighborhoods, more people packed in neighborhoods, more social service agencies at work.

In many ways that means more or certainly different challenges, said CWS Emergency Response Specialist Joann Hale as she began a recent day helping coordinate one of CWS’s long-term recovery trainings in one of the outer boroughs of the nation’s largest city.

The trainings of those who assist people affected by disasters are part of the global agency’s ongoing work in support of efforts following Superstorm Sandy.

A key challenge in New York: “There are so many social service agencies tripping over each other,” said Hale, who was also a key player in CWS’s response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

While it is a challenge to coordinate who does what to assist those who survived Sandy, the response in the city has a good side. In typical New York City fashion, “all of these agencies are willing to step up to the plate,” said Hale, who was joined by her CWS colleague Susanne Gilmore at the training.

During the March 4 training, held at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, and in subsequent trainings held March 6 and 7 in Staten Island and Brooklyn, respectively, participants from social service agencies in the region got an idea of what the long-term recovery landscape looks like. They shared lessons learned and best practices from experience in large and small disasters.

As part of its global commitment to respond to disasters, CWS helps build grassroots recovery infrastructure to help the poorest - those who are uninsured, under-insured or un-served by other sources.

Among the topics covered: long-term recovery issues, community needs assessment, construction volunteers and management, disaster case management, emotional and spiritual care, FEMA individual assistance, and the national donations management system.

The training utilized the expertise of not only CWS staff but that of partner agencies and CWS member denominations.

Cathy Earl of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, for example, noted that the foundational idea of a long-term recovery committee is that of “neighbor helping neighbor.” But that is an idea that is easier to pull off in rural settings than in large metropolitan areas because there are more layers of bureaucracy in places like New York.

“If I’m a survivor, I shouldn’t have to tell my story to 15 people,” she said.

One of the nagging problems in New York following Sandy is that while much of the city “is bustling” and the media “have moved on to the next story,” there are still people living in hotels who have been permanently displaced because of Sandy. “There are still considerable needs,” Earl said.

Florence Coppola of the United Church of Christ agrees. “There’s a long way to go here before there is anything approaching full recovery,” she said, noting that cleanup in some parts of the city still continues – a cold and wet winter in New York has contributed to a mold problem, for example.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, residents are grappling with the unresolved questions of property buyouts and possible rebuilding. “The challenges are massive, and people are really concerned about how to move this thing forward,” Coppola said.

Participants at the training included representatives of social service agencies, New York City churches, national denominational offices, and federal and local governmental bodies.

Among those attending was Shavon Camper, a case worker with the Queens Library. Among the concerns she raised is that non-English-speaking residents of New York are getting conflicting information about assistance. And those who are undocumented are still reluctant to come forward and ask for needed information.

Camper praised CWS’s work in coordinating the training. “I’m learning a lot,” she said.