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Lessons from Sandy

Houses along the New Jersey shore damaged by Hurricane Sandy

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service via Flickr Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast on October 29, 2012. At the time, it was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S., second only to Katrina in 2005; government and private recovery efforts began immediately. In the wake of the 2017 hurricane season, now the most disastrous on record for the United States, we pause to consider some of the lessons learned from the recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy.

A Multi-Faceted Role in Disaster Recovery
LISC’s New York City and Greater Newark programs were instrumental in the response to Sandy’s destruction. LISC created an Emergency Relief Fund, Mold Treatment Program and Homeowner and Multifamily Home Repair Programs, ultimately leveraging more than $50 million to assist local community based organizations and property owners. In the five years since the storm, LISC has assisted with the repair or rebuilding of more than 2,500 homes.

Lessons from Sandy
Through LISC’s work in the immediate response to Hurricane Sandy, as well as in the longer-term rebuilding process, we learned some lessons about what makes communities more resilient to disaster.

Community connectedness aids resiliency
Communities where residents are already engaged with one another are better able to stay connected, even when the usual systems are not functioning. Having these connections can save lives in a time of disaster. When residents are connected to one another, they look out for one another. They know where the senior citizens live, the single moms with small children, the neighbors with physical challenges. They can be invaluable in helping first responders know where to look and for whom, and in making sure that emergency relief resources get to those who need them. The Center for American Progress noted the role of social cohesion during times of disaster in a 2015 article. 

In her 2014 testimony to the New York City Council on Recovery and Resiliency about Sandy recovery efforts, then-LISC NYC Policy Director Helene Caloir told the Council that community-based organizations that have already done the work of engaging residents and connecting their community are invaluable in times of crisis. Because these organizations are rooted in the communities and physically present, they can be a conduit for information and resources “and can be at the door even when outside access is cut off because of blocked streets [or] flooded public transportation.”

For effective recovery, lead with community-based organizations
We know that poor people are disproportionately affected by disasters. In neighborhoods where the residents lack financial resources, community-based organizations are a critical bridge to recovery. With their local presence and knowledge of community residents and needs, community-based network led by locally rooted nonprofits and religious institutions are the most effective way to ensure even and equitable delivery of recovery resources.

 Disaster recovery requires coordination, money and time, all of which the community-based organization is uniquely equipped to manage. Many different agencies and programs have to work together in a recovery effort, and community-based organizations’ knowledge of the local landscape and stakeholders make them natural leaders to coordinate this work. They are well-positioned to channel resources flowing from different agencies and funders to where they are needed most and avoid duplication and waste.

And, most importantly, they are present in the community for the long haul. In the aftermath of a disaster, people have immediate needs – food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Funding may pour in initially, but national interest and coverage can peter out quickly. Within days or weeks, the community shifts to the longer-range work of recovery: repair and rebuilding of homes, businesses and civic infrastructure. And in the long term, a community has to plan for its future. In the most strongly impacted areas, recovery should take place with a vision for what the community should be. The community-based organization is present for every stage of recovery, even after the television cameras have moved on. They ensure that the community’s voice is heard in recovery and planning efforts.

Cultivate connectedness and capacity before disaster strikes
We need to support community organizations to be strong and sustainable in the best of times so they can lead the way in the worst of times. In her testimony, Caloir argued, “we can’t neglect entire neighborhoods in normal times and miraculously expect them to be fully functioning and resilient when disaster strikes, [and] we can’t expect our community-based organizations to spring into action in a disaster when they are surviving on a shoestring during normal times.”

Governments and philanthropy must invest in in the capacity and sustainability of community organizations against future disasters. This includes not only the strength of the personnel and balance sheet, but also organizational disaster planning to ensure that critical operations can still function in times of crisis.

At the same time, funders and community organizations must prioritize the work of community engagement, building connections and resilience among residents before disaster strikes. LISC personnel in New York, New Jersey and other East Coast locations spoke to the importance of connectedness as they reflected on Hurricane Sandy just weeks after the storm, noting that community organizations that had already laid the groundwork of community engagement through their day-to-day work were well positioned to help connect their communities to resources effectively after the storm.

Crews repair traffic lights after Hurricane Harvey

Photo by Austin Transportation Dept. via Flickr Creative Commons

Meeting Today’s Challenges
At every stage, community connectedness is the key ingredient that makes some communities better able to withstand disaster and recover from it. Community engagement is always a vital part of LISC’s work; having active residents and well-connected communities makes the day-to-day work of community revitalization more effective. But our experience with Hurricane Sandy demonstrated how important it is in times of crisis as well. As leaders and community developers now embark on supporting hurricane recovery efforts in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and in Northern California communities ravaged by wildfires, we carry these lessons forward.

For more on community engagement see our Engaging resources or check out Going Back to the Engagement Drawing Board. For capacity building resources, see our page on Leading. For more on disaster resilience and recovery, see When Disaster Strikes.

Posted in Engaging

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