A Flood of Compassion, but Not Much Justice

Co-authored with Lisa Cowan (Red Hook Initiative)

One year ago, Hurricane Sandy darkened the skyline and changed the lives of so many of our neighbors.  This week's anniversary calls to mind the crowds who waited for food and supplies in Red Hook, the cars full of baked ziti and batteries dispatched to Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Rockaways, the gas station lines, and the rows upon rows of cots for hundreds of evacuees at the Park Slope Armory (and so many other places).

After Sandy, many of our neighbors either left their homes or stayed in place without power, heat, or hot water for weeks on end.  It was a time of dark despair, illuminated by flashes of beauty as we saw the ways neighbors cared for each other.  After the waters ebbed, our city was flooded with compassion -- what evacuee and temporary Park Slope Armory resident Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler called "courtesy, gentleness, and goodness beyond description."  We saw this compassion through neighbors taking each other in, volunteers flocking to the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and people donating money and resources to those in need.

That flood of compassion was a counterforce to the flood that Sandy brought, and it helped the city weather the storm as well as it did. As awful as it was, the storm offered us a chance to be our best selves -- it brought us into each other's lives in new and different ways.  Seeking to help those in need, people ventured into neighborhoods where they had never been before, went up dark staircases in unlit buildings to deliver meals and medical supplies. Afterward, they understood viscerally the challenges of living in low-income housing, even when the power is on.

But while we saw a flood of compassion, we have not seen more than a trickle of justice.  Feeding our neighbors during the storm is different than demanding an end to the policies and structures that leave people hungry and vulnerable.

The mobile boilers are still heating the Red Hook Houses, where NYCHA residents still wait years for repairs, and longer for real economic opportunity.   Hundreds of evacuees were repeatedly threatened with mass eviction from hotels, with no place else to go, as the City sought to save money.  It took Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler and her neighbors months to get home, as they bounced around a Kafkaesque series of nursing homes.  Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still rely on soup kitchens -- a number likely to rise, thanks to cuts to the SNAP/Food Stamps program imposed by the federal "sequester."

As we come up to the anniversary of the storm, we have a chance to do even better than we did a year ago.  We have the chance to turn that sense of compassion into real action towards justice.

We must track rebuilding funds coming into New York at all levels of government (we have a City Council bill to do this) and make sure that we rebuild stronger communities, by demanding good jobs, local and living wage opportunities, and low- and moderate-income housing. We must use these funds to rebuild the city more resilient for the next superstorm.  We must ensure that the city, state and federal governments are working with communities to envision their future inclusively. We, as citizens, should demand aggressive action on climate change to avoid even more destructive storms in the coming generations.

Let's not forget that when the physical infrastructure was overwhelmed by the water and wind, it was our human infrastructure -- community organizations -- that stepped in to bring relief.  While City officials scrambled to react after the evacuation did not go as planned, these groups were working in the communities they knew, marshaling volunteers and coordinating donations, so that they got to people in need.

To be prepared, and to build more just communities, we should support the organizations like Shore Soup, in the Rockaways, which started delivering food the day after the storm. That initiative has become a lasting organization, working to help increase access to healthy food with a pay-what-you-can food truck, on-going food deliveries and cooking workshops. Similarly, we should be supporting Red Hook Initiative's work to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that left some New Yorkers so exposed to the storm's wrath, just blocks from their more prosperous neighbors.

We can also do more to push our existing structures of "organized compassion" -- our churches, synagogues, mosques, our soup kitchens and shelters, even our PTAs and little league teams -- to build on the ways we take care of each other, and to look more deeply at root causes of the challenges we face.

We need to remember that it is New York's vast income inequality that makes many of our citizens so vulnerable in emergencies.  It must be a priority for elected officials, and the voters to whom they are accountable, to make this a city where everyone can be economically secure -- in times of high water, and after the waters recede.

As the great progressive visionary William Sloan Coffin noted, "You can say, with prophet Amos, 'Let justice roll down like mighty waters!' but figuring out the irrigation system is complicated." We didn't know until now that he meant it literally.

We hope another storm like Sandy will not come again, even as we know that there will be more and more weather-related disasters that will disproportionately affect our most vulnerable neighborhoods. The best way to prepare for the next disaster is to make sure that we know how to work together -- and that we are all fighting for a neighborhood, borough, city and region where all our neighbors can weather a storm.

A Few Next Steps to take the Justice (and Compassion) Forward

  • Red Hook Initiative: Learn more on how to help RHI break the cycle of poverty in Red Hook by engaging community members to develop skills and leadership. And sign up to get involved.
  • Alliance for a Just Rebuilding: Join the campaign for a just, equitable, and sustainable rebuilding.
  • NYC Coalition Against Hunger: NYCCAH works to support emergency food providers, while also fighting the root causes of hunger.  Get involved here.
  • Shore Soup: Volunteer to prep food, sort donations, or make deliveries. Or learn more on how to support their efforts.
  • Congregation Beth Elohim: After Sandy, CBE started delivering meals to people in need, and 90,000 meals later, they are still going.  Sign up here to help.
  • Masbia Soup Kitchen: Masbia stepped up on short-notice with hot meals for Hurricane Sandy evacuees at the Park Slope Armory.  Help keep this community organization strong by showing your support.
  • 350.org: Join 350 and the global movement to combat climate change.