The Check-In: Revisiting Sandy’s Survivors

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Images from the days after Sandy.


Images from the days after Sandy.

On a recent morning, Chani Okonov, the principal of Mazel Day School, showed off her school’s new digs in Manhattan Beach. Mazel, which caters to the Russian-Jewish community of South Brooklyn, used to be located on Brighton 6th street until Sandy hit, submerging classrooms in six feet of water. Everything was destroyed, from furniture to books to pictures to school supplies. The estimated damage is $2 million, but so far, FEMA has only paid $5,000, for a boiler that cost $15,000.

Instead, the community banded together to keep the school going, contributing their skills, labor, and donations to get the school up and running again. Parents pumped out the old school building and sent over electricians and laborers they had hired to repair their own homes damaged by the storm. Okonov established a Paypal account, where Mazel received donations from across the country: one school held a coin drive, while another had a car wash to raise money for Mazel. An Amazon wish-list of school supplies, games, and furniture, yielded more donations. “We would get every single day ten boxes from the Amazon wishlist,” Okonov recalled. “It wouldn’t even say a name on it.” Textbook companies donated new ones, or gave large discounts.

“We had to start from scratch,” said Okonov, scrolling through photos on Facebook of parents passing buckets of water out of the school and children carrying their chairs into the yard.

She also remembers the emotional aftermath of the storm, which took a toll on teachers, parents, and students alike. “A lot of the kids were traumatized,” she said. All year, the students kept speaking of the storm. It took until the start of this school year—two years later—for Mazel to get back the cohesiveness Okonov says is the heart of a school. “Now we’re back,” she said.

It’s been two years since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast, damaging 90,000 buildings in New York and causing $19 billion in damage. And yet for many, the lingering effects of the storm continue, unmitigated by the $60 billion in aid promised by Congress. Foremost on the minds of many individuals and organizations involved in repairing the damage wrought by the storm is developing preparedness strategies for the next storm.

The Undocumented: back to the basement

Brighton Beach is home to a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Pakistani, and Latino immigrants. Brighton Beach’s Latino community was particularly hard hit by the storm. Many undocumented immigrants lived basement apartments—some legal, some illegal SROs— that were utterly destroyed by the five-foot wave that washed through the neighborhood. Right after the storm, Okonov organized a clothing drive for the entire community. Days later, she told City Limits that “75 percent of people in line for the clothing drive they hosted were Latino immigrants.”

“The community is very devastated,” Pastor Josu Ayala of the Church of the Evangelical Mission on Neptune Avenue told City Limits just after the storm. Deacon Manuel of the Church of the Guardian Angel on Ocean Parkway told City Limits that because the community is so localized, people didn’t have family in other neighborhoods to go to, and are being forced to wait out the storm’s effects in undesirable situations.

Now, two years later, Deacon Manuel says that these people were left out of recovery efforts, especially those of FEMA. “Nobody helped the undocumented,” he said. “They gave everything to the people with documents,” even though FEMA’s official line is that undocumented individuals “may be eligible under many different programs run by State and local agencies and voluntary agencies for various types of cash assistance.”

From the archives

Click to read or see
The Superstorm: City Limits Coverage
Brooklyn Storms Back: BRIC Video Series

Most of the basement apartments in Brighton Beach seem to have been renovated as per FEMA’s requirements, though many are still illegal SROs, housing up to 10 families, many of who arrived after Sandy.

Some immigrant families moved from one ruined basement to a different, renovated one, like the Herreras, who moved from Brighton 3rd to Brighton 8th Street. Iris Nieves, a homeowner on Brighton 10 Court, never had tenants in her basement, but after the required renovations, which cost her in the ballpark of $100,000, she took in “a Spanish lady with her three kids” who had been living a block away in another basement before the flood.

One woman who declined to be named is living in the same apartment she lived in before the storm. She and her three children stayed with her aunt for four months while her landlady, who she says was helpful, renovated the basement apartment. She also got money from FEMA for the damage to her living room and kitchen, even though she is undocumented.

Red Hook is ready, says expert

Red Hook, too, was devastated by the storm, and had a rocky start to its recovery. The coastal neighborhood was submerged under a 14-foot storm surge, and it took a week for aid workers to even get access to the neighborhood.

But now, Red Hook might be the neighborhood most prepared for the next time a storm hits, says Noël Kepler, managing partner of Emergency Management Methodology Partners (EMMP). The firm was contracted by the Brooklyn Community Foundation to manage an American Red Cross grant for setting up recovery coalitions. Now, after eight months of disaster readiness training, Red Hook is more prepared and more connected than any other neighborhood Kepler has worked with, he says—adding that those newly-formed connections reach across the divide separating Red Hook’s 9,000 residents of public housing from its 1,000 home-owners. The public housing residents hosted the majority of the meetings, but their preparedness was done largely independently of the Housing Authority.

“We tried to get them to the table,” said Kepler. But the meetings with NYCHA’s single emergency manager, appointed to oversee the New York City’s entire public housing, were unsuccessful. “When she came to meetings, she was very defensive,” said Kepler. “She was offensive to the residents. We finally stopped inviting her.” There’s a lot residents of public housing can do independently of NYCHA, says Kepler. “It’s their building. It’s their home,” she said. “You can prepare a lot.”

NYCHA was widely criticized during and after the storm. It took as many as three weeks for the Housing Authority to get electricity, heat, and hot water back to the Red Hook houses. NYCHA has admitted that “there is still more work to be done.”

NYCHA has been engaged in numerous efforts to better prepare the Authority and residents for future crises, explained a spokesperson. These efforts included meetings held with residents, staff, and partners to record their experiences and lessons learned before, during, and after the storm. “The feedback we gathered guided significant organizational changes and improvements, including the updating of NYCHA’s hurricane and emergency procedures, strengthening internal and external communication, and establishing resident and community outreach protocols,” wrote a spokesperson in an email.

Dealing with trauma

Other neighborhoods continue to struggle in the wake of the storm. Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) focused its attention on Coney Island, working in close coordination with local community groups to provide wraparound services, including disaster case management, intensive family counseling, youth development, referrals for legal guidance, individual relief, and relocation assistance.

“One of the challenges in places like Coney Island is that many of the problems we’ve identified preceded Sandy,” explained Lisa Jones, the Coney Island program director. “Issues with housing, youth violence, and access to adequate services were preexisting conditions for many of the families we serve. The storm and the slow recovery process made them worse.”

Jones also said that programs such as Build-It-Back were mixed bags—while there was some progress getting reimbursements for repairs, there was also a “disconnect between the companies contracted to do repairs and the families they are assisting.”

“Many families have never had to work with contractors, and unlike standard home repair, many companies are in and out,” Jones wrote in an email. BCS hired staff with engineering training to work step-by-step with families. Rebuilding efforts are ongoing, says Jones, with clients trying to balance basic needs like paying for school uniforms with long-term safety needs surrounding emergency preparedness. Now that the immediate aftermath of the storm has been somewhat resolved, BCS is engaged in a new goal: getting local community groups engaged in a coordinated preparedness response strategy.

Many families have experienced severe trauma as a result of Sandy, and sought counseling through BCS group counseling sessions, Jones said. “But many in the undocumented community who we’ve helped still attach taboo around addressing mental health issues in a public setting,” she said. “We’re bridging that mindset through group counseling opportunities designed to be more culturally inclusive.”

Insurance still an issue

Since the storm, the federal government has issued new flood maps for the city. The new maps, expected to go into effect in 2016, expand the number of people who are required to buy flood insurance from 200,000 to 400,000—twice what it was before the storm. And flood insurance rates are climbing at the same time. FEMA sets the insurance premiums on homes in flood zones, and Congress passed legislation allowing FEMA to raise premiums on the homes hardest hit by Sandy by 25 percent, while also phasing out existing subsidies for those homes.

The current flood map was created in 1983, after which homes were built at a higher, safer elevation. 80 percent of the homes in high-risk areas were built before 1983. Prior to the new legislation, these homes were grandfathered in to subsidized flood insurance rates. Now, they will be expected to pay the highest premiums. Though Congress later enacted a bill to delay these rising costs, some are worried that foreclosures could follow soon in their wake.

The Center for New York City Neighborhoods recently released a report called “Rising Tides, Rising Costs,” which explores the effects these new maps will have on homeowners. “In the two years prior to Hurricane Sandy, 1,800 1-4 family homeowners in the storm surge area had started foreclosure proceedings,” the report states. “By 2013, 4,228 area households had “underwater mortgages,” meaning they owe more on their homes than they are worth.”

The Center has been engaged in getting the word out to homeowners about the new, non-subsidized flood insurance rates, as well as starting a national conversation about the burden faced by homeowners.

“We want to make sure that we don’t lose any more affordable housing in New York City,” says Caroline Nagy of the Center. “We have an affordability crisis. We can’t afford to lose any affordable homes.” The Center is looking into other ways to protect homeowners that are more economically viable, for example, larger infrastructure projects like oyster beds and dunes which reduce storm surges, protecting homes from flooding, as well as other ways to protect homes from flooding that don’t involve elevation.

The burden the new legislation places on homeowners is devastating, says Nagy. “This is really scary for people who are living in flood zone neighborhoods. They’ve already had to deal with the devastation of Sandy. And then they see these huge rate increases coming down the pike that threaten their ability to stay in their home and threaten their community. There’s a lot of trepidation and fear and anxiety.”

Some small businesses still struggling

Homeowners were not the only ones devastated by the storm. Many small businesses sustained significant losses, like Shannon Hummel, the founder of Red Hook’s Cora Dance Studio, a pay-what-you-can non-profit, whose clientele is a mix of public housing residents and home-owners. Hummel lost about $60,000 in tuition and grant money, but because she didn’t sustain and property damage, she was ineligible for any Small Business loans. Hummel raised the money she needed to keep her business afloat by organizing the Red Hook Prom—a 1980s dance night to which small businesses donated food, alcohol, and hair treatments. She raised $25,000.

Last year, Hummel told the Brooklyn Bureau “As an organization, we’re less stable than we were financially and institutionally because we’re still reeling from losses from Sandy.” []

This year, she says, thanks to community support, “Programs are thriving.”

After the storm, the Small Business Association offered loans of 6 percent over 30 years to small businesses impacted by the storm. But the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released a report which found the SBA’s response to Superstorm Sandy severely lacking. “Following Hurricane Sandy, the Small Business Administration (SBA) did not meet its timeliness goal for processing business loan applications,” the report concluded. The SBA took an average of 45 days to process physical business disaster loans and 38 days for economic injury loans, exceeding the 21-processing goal.

And they only approved a scant 42 percent of business loan applications, declining business loan applications primarily because of applicants’ lack of repayment ability and credit history. Furthermore, many who dealt with FEMA or SBA complained of changes in personnel that led to delays in processing.

Robert Piechota is the Director of the Small Business Development Center at Brooklyn (SBDC), a non-profit which helped the SBA implement its policies in the post-Sandy period. Piechota says SBA did not handle Sandy recovery well at all. “A lot of these loans were being judged like a business loan—‘Show me viability, show me future cash flow, what are you going to do with the money, if you have collateral, put it up, if you own a house, it’s going to be collateralized.'” But Sandy wasn’t business as usual—it was a disaster. “And there’s got to be an underlying measure that looks at disaster,” Piechota said.

He suggested programs that would give money to small businesses upfront, or grant programs that are more geared towards post-disaster relief, and less like they are helping a new business open. “You’ve got businesses that have been in the community for 10, 15, 20 years and they employ 10, 15, 35 people, and you’re underwriting them as though, ‘Well, I don’t know, if we give you this…’ They’ve been in business for 30 years and you’re scrutinizing them like they’ve never had an entrepreneurial endeavor.” Instead, Piechota says, “I do believe if there is a disaster, there’s gotta be a different underwriting process that recognizes it.”

SBA seems to have got the message. In an email, a spokesperson for the Association wrote, “Since Sandy, SBA has made several important changes that will accomplish this goal, such as implementing an expedited approval loan process for business and home loans, separate business and home loan processing tracks, and streamlined electronic loan application intake.”

For many, it’s too late. “I saw a lot of businesses go under,” Piechota said. “And we’re still working on Sandy.”

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