By MARGUERITE WARD
The influx of national media coverage around Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary has come and gone, but what becomes of the communities still struggling to rebuild?
For thousands of low-income residents in New York and New Jersey, displacement, homelessness and unemployment mar hopes of recovery. Even today, Westchester County is still in critical need of food, clothing, furniture and monetary donations.
More than 22,000 households are still displaced as a result of the storm, according to a report by New York Magazine. Many stay with friends, family or have found temporary housing with the help of FEMA and nonprofit groups. But the solution is not a lasting one, with assistance just barely meeting basic needs. Plus, there is the constant reminder that, whether staying on a friend’s floor or in a makeshift shelter, the ability for these people to sustain themselves is still elusive.
United Way of Westchester and Putnam County works with New York State to run the official 211 helpline call center. Up and running in a matter of hours after Hurricane Sandy hit, the emergency line is still ringing.
Shannon Cobb, senior vice president for marketing and communications, gives some perspective on what the need in Westchester looks like one
“For people living in poverty—when you lose all of your food for a month or place of employment—the effect is devastating. Many people never recovered,” Cobb said.
Superstorm Sandy blasted New York City and the surrounding area with winds of up to 80 mph on Oct. 29, 2012, causing devastating flooding along the New Jersey shoreline as well as in lower Manhattan and coastal communities in Westchester County. Many residents of all affected areas were left without power, and in some cases use of their homes, for weeks. Some areas damaged most by the storm have yet to fully recover.
In the wake of Sandy, the 211 call line was 24 hours, as mandated by the state government. It has since scaled back to its regular schedule of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 365 days a year. The need for basic resources and services, though, persists.
“This continues to be an eye-opening experience. We at United Way are aware of the poverty that exists in Westchester, but the sheer numbers of households that could not, [and] still cannot, afford basic needs is shocking,” Cobb said.
Drawing on an unofficial non-profit and community network, groups in Westchester continue to collaborate to address the area’s needs. Organizations like The Food Bank for Westchester, Furniture Sharehouse, Hispanic Resource Center of Larchmont and Mamaroneck, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley and the White Plains YMCA still provide resources to those in need. In addition to providing food, furniture and clothing, these non-profits assist in ways many people aren’t aware of.
Critical budget counseling, employment search assistance, aid application assistance and ongoing insurance guidance are just some of the services these organizations provide to thousands on a daily basis. The Westchester Community Foundation maintains a list of non-profits in need of resources to continue work on its “Hurricane Sandy Relief: Where to Give” website.
“Even one full year after Sandy crashed down on our region, Westchester and Putnam are still regaining their footing and the recovery effort remains ongoing for many residents,” Naomi Adler, president and CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam said. She stressed the importance of honoring the volunteers who devoted time and energy to helping after Sandy.
“Looking forward, we are bolstering our efforts to prepare for the next disaster, like training residents to help answer disaster-related calls at our 211 helpline call center,” she said.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a group of creative individuals set up a different sort of emergency call center, one to help people process the psychological impact of the storm. Not long after the superstorm hit, Sandy Storyline, a not-for-profit documentary project, opened a telephone call and SMS texting line for people to share their stories. What the project uncovered were many stories of fear, loss and confusion that accompany a traumatic event. When Internet and electricity were down for weeks across the New York City area, the line was available.
Sandy Storyline serves the direct, and often overlooked, need to process an event in the wake of disaster. Even larger than that, though, the project is documenting a community-driven narrative of the storm. The goal of documenting the story is to ensure that public discourse includes the voices of those directly impacted. The project rests on the belief that those with the most difficult experiences can provide the most insightful policy recommendations looking forward.
Rachel Falcone is the co-founder and co-director of Sandy Storyline.
“People were displaced, out of work, hungry. Kids were out of school. There was a great need to talk about it. People still want and need to talk about that night. People’s lives were upended,” Falcone said.
An all-volunteer project, the documentary team has traveled to the most distraught places in the New York and New Jersey areas.
As it gathers stories, Sandy Storyline continues its advocacy on behalf of those affected. It won an award from the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, but the work is far from done.
“We see our work as linked to the massive housing crisis as a result of Hurricane Sandy and the struggle for sustainable redevelopment. Resident voices are an integral part of the trajectory. If we share their experience, we have a better view of the tools and platforms to facilitate recovery,” Falcone said.
While Sandy Storyline has not produced stories from Westchester yet, it invites people to share their stories by phone, text, online or in person at their storytelling workshops. Stories can be viewed and shared on the project’s website, SandyStoryline.com.
As winter approaches for the second time since Hurricane Sandy’s surge, hundreds of thousands in Westchester and other parts of the greater New York City area are still struggling to not only rebuild, but to survive. Beyond helping those whose lives were overturned by Hurricane Sandy, ongoing efforts are critical to informing a stronger response and recovery plan for future disasters.