What We Learned Can Help Sandy’s Victims

Hurricane Sandy turned the world upside down for millions of people. This has happened before, and the housing groups that dealt with Katrina and Andrew and Rita are there to help.

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Beyond the 125 tragic deaths, how much damage has Superstorm Sandy done? 

How many homes, apartments, commercial properties and community facilities have been damaged or destroyed, how much business and how many jobs have been lost? Well over 300,000 individuals and households have applied for FEMA aid. The latest figures show about 86,000 applications approved, the vast majority for temporary housing.

But nobody knows the extent of the destruction.

More than two weeks after the storm hit, and for months if not years to come, the toll will continue to rise. Today’s estimates of a $60 billion price tag would make Sandy the second most costly hurricane on record. Katrina tops the list at around $129 billion in current dollars.

What dollar estimates don’t reflect is the human toll Sandy has taken and will take far into the future. 

If housing is damaged, people are hurt. For tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, living through Sandy and dealing with its consequences are like living through a bombing raid in wartime. You will remember, even relive it, forever.

How do I know this? Because at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), my work involved me in intensive efforts to help rural nonprofits help their communities recover from Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Rita. Centro Campesino in Florida, Southern Mutual Help Association in Louisiana, Mercy Housing and Human Development and the Volunteers Foundation in Mississippi are just a few of the courageous, persistent and effective organizations that taught me some vital lessons.

Here are two: No matter how “unique” your disaster is, you face the same basic challenges. And, the foundation for every recovery is hope for a better future. 

Nurturing this hope requires continuing, consistent contact, listening to people and helping them take specific measures to regain control of their lives. That means regaining control of their homes, their space, and their neighborhoods.

That’s why it’s so important to restore as much order and normalcy as possible by repairing the buildings that can be fixed quickly. For those whose homes and apartments need more work or are gone forever, temporary housing is essential, but not enough.

Try to imagine how you would feel. Your world is upside down. Suddenly you are dependent on government and the kindness of friends, family, even strangers. They drop in and drop out. You don’t know when, or if, you will be able to return home. You are expected to deal with the insurance adjuster, the FEMA application paperwork, on and on.

Meantime, nearly everything is different. You are away from friends and neighbors, your school, church, mosque or synagogue, your grocery store and pharmacy, your barbershop or beauty salon, your doctor, your bank, your bus. You don’t know where to turn and whom to trust. You feel angry or maybe resigned or both. Above all you feel powerless. 

You’re not a regular person anymore. People call you a victim. 

Your worst nightmare is being sent to a “trailer camp” located someplace you know nothing about, living with people you don’t know, who may not even speak your language.

There is some good news for Sandy survivors. Veterans of Andrew, Katrina and other disasters, understand the situation and ways to address it that work. They are anxious to volunteer, to share what they have learned the hard way. There are more and better housing options, including improved Katrina Cottage designs earning Platinum LEED certification.

I urge all concerned to call on these veterans. There is no doubt they can make a huge difference.

Sandra Rosenblith is director of Stand Up For Rural America. As senior vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, she founded and managed Rural LiSC, the largest private supporter of grassroots rural community development. Rosenblith is also a board member of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

 

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