Learning From Sandy: Looking Back and Thinking Ahead

This Nov. 4, 2012 photo released by Sears-KMart shows Food network personality Sandra Lee unloading donated items for storm v
This Nov. 4, 2012 photo released by Sears-KMart shows Food network personality Sandra Lee unloading donated items for storm victims to a food bank warehouse in the Bronx borough of New York. Lee is pleading a simple message about Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts _ Don't get complacent. Though government efforts to help those caught in the path of last week's epic storm have been tremendous, as have contributions by corporations and individual donors, Lee fears a fallout from all the goodwill and good deeds _ people outside the worst-hit areas might assume the work is finished. Lee has been working the phones to arrange corporate donations for New York's food banks and other charities, including five truckloads of food and emergency supplies from Kmart and Sears. (AP Photo/Sears/KMart, Jill Lotenberg)

This month marks the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. In the months since the storm, we've seen a tremendous outpouring of philanthropy and volunteerism. Here in New York City, it was heartening to see volunteers spring into action and donors give so generously.

I wish I could say the story is over. But the truth is that we haven't yet seen the true long-term impact of Sandy on many of our communities.

This is a time for all of us to step back, reflect on what actions we took, and to consider how we can best move forward.

In their book, Give Smart, Tom Tierney and Joel Fleishman wrote that one of the questions all philanthropists should ask themselves is "Am I getting better?" Giving is usually motivated by values, empathy and a desire to help those who are less fortunate. But to have an impact, we have to be able to learn from experience.

My foundation's mission is to improve access and opportunity for all New Yorkers. When Sandy hit, neighborhoods were devastated, families were displaced, businesses were closed and people were out of work. It was immediately obvious that we needed to find a way to help.

But we had never seen a natural disaster of this scale in New York City. We didn't have much experience to draw upon. So we learned from others. We looked at what happened after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Hugo, Andrew, and Charlie, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and other events, and charted a course from there.

One of the most important lessons is that disasters have a disproportionate impact on populations that were already disadvantaged or vulnerable, such as low-income families, hourly workers without benefits, self-employed individuals who don't meet criteria for government benefits, seniors, and small businesses located in low-income neighborhoods.

Second, responding to disasters is notoriously difficult because while we all want to help, it may take some time to figure out what's really needed. There are information gaps, and the actual needs may turn out to be different from what you initially assumed.

And finally, if you have particular skills, knowledge and resources, use them. Before the hurricane, we had been working to launch the Illumination Fund's Healthy Food & Community Change initiative, a significant expansion of our commitment to improving access to healthy food in New York City's high-need communities. Through that work, we learned a great deal about food issues and challenges within low-income communities. When Sandy hit and food became a key concern, we were able to use the knowledge and relationships to identify needs and determine how we could be of greatest help.

We decided to dedicate our support to help restore healthy food access and stability in high-need neighborhoods throughout the City. We committed $500,000, but rather than allocate funds immediately, we would see what needs emerged.

Our partners at Karp Resources reached out to street vendors in the NYC Green Cart Initiative, a NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene program that we helped to launch in 2008 to improve access to healthy foods in neighborhoods where access is challenging and rates of diet-related diseases and obesity are high. Joel Berg at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH) surveyed neighborhood food pantries and soup kitchens and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors reached out to a network of citywide food nonprofits. We found that:

NYC Green Cart vendors were hit badly.

  • Two-thirds of the Green Cart vendors surveyed lost more than one week of work. Many lost more than two weeks.
  • About one-third of the vendors lost inventory because of spoilage or damage.
  • Gas shortages made it impossible to resume quickly, as it was difficult to get to wholesale sources such as Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx.

Cristina, a vendor in Brooklyn, was out of work for more than two weeks and lost nearly $1,500 in inventory. Shawn, also in the Bronx, had started as a vendor just a month before the storm, and he couldn't afford to restock. In Brooklyn, David's van was damaged and he couldn't afford the repairs. We heard similar stories from across the city.

So we funded the Business Outreach Center Network of NYC (BOCnet) to make direct grants to NYC Green Cart vendors who lost two or more weeks of work or $1,000 in inventory, and to provide disaster resilience training workshops and one-on-one financial counseling, resulting in aid to more than 100 vendors. In some cases, the vendors needed funds for the business but some simply needed help to pay for rent, food and household expenses. Many have now reopened or are planning to do so as the weather warms up this month.

Food pantries and soup kitchens were overwhelmed.

  • Many food pantries and soup kitchens lost food due to flooding, and many lost power, so any remaining refrigerated food was spoiled due to the power outage.
  • Nearly 70 percent of the food programs had cancelled or late food deliveries, so they were unable to get the supplies they needed.
  • Because low-income New Yorkers lost wages and children lost access to school meals, the number of people forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens surged even outside the neighborhoods most directly impacted by the storm. Over 60 percent of the agencies that responded to NYCCAH's survey reported an increase in the number of people requesting food.

The vast majority has resumed normal operations, but it's critical that they become better prepared for the future. So we are funding the United Way of New York City to develop a training program in disaster preparedness and business continuity training for the managers of up to 200 food pantries and soup kitchens.

Citywide nonprofit organizations had to redirect funds and staffing from their ongoing programs and operations, putting them at risk of cutbacks later in the year.

  • God's Love We Deliver. Power was out in their offices and their warehouse was damaged. They quickly delivered additional frozen food to clients and to emergency shelters for storm evacuees. This was costly, but the food was in freezers and would have spoiled if it was not delivered immediately.
  • GrowNYC. They lost inventory, staff time, and regular program income, and their truck was destroyed by flooding.
  • NYC Coalition Against Hunger. The storm caused a two-week power outage at their offices, computer and phone systems were out, and staff hit the streets to help their member agencies.

Although many food assistance nonprofits received significant emergency funding from the government and donors, these funds are generally earmarked and don't cover regular costs and staffing. So we're providing special unrestricted grants to six citywide organizations to help them restore funds for their core, ongoing services: God's Love We Deliver, GrowNYC, the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, Citymeals-on-Wheels, the Food Bank for New York City, and United Neighborhood Houses.

There's more to do.

If you've already given to organizations or volunteered your time, thank you. At this anniversary, please check in with those organizations and find out how they're doing.

  • Make another donation, but don't restrict it to Sandy. Ask them what they need to help get their programs back on track.
  • Offer a few more hours of your time. If you have a particular skill, let them know.
  • If you live in New York City, visit a Green Cart vendor and make a purchase! And if you don't live near a Green Cart, go to any local business that was shut down for a period. They need loyal customers.

We learned invaluable lessons from our research and from the experiences of other organizations and funders. I look at the magnitude and thoughtfulness that went into the philanthropic response over these past six months, and I can sincerely say that we -- collectively -- are getting better.