Locals Are Still Trying to Recover From Sandy's Destruction

Government agencies and insurers still haven't delivered on promises to affected areas.
Oct 29, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

A year ago today, Professor Donna Gaines rode out Superstorm Sandy in the beachside city of Long Beach, New York, where she watched as the Atlantic's waters rose and thrashed the Eastern Seaboard.

The avid surfer hurt her knee and ribs after she slipped over the quickly rising water that eventually flooded her home and neighborhood, rendering the area virtually unlivable for six months.

One year later, in a phone interview with TakePart, her frustration is palpable. She describes dealing with federal and local government agencies and insurers, and facing one obstacle after another, including a lack of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and mismanaged insurance claims.

“I compare it to rape. First, there was the storm, the perp, and then there was the system,” said Gaines, who details her experience in a beautiful, brutal personal narrative. “People are paying into flood insurance, then being treated like they’re on welfare. We’re militant middle class activists. We’re water warriors. I think there’s some real anger that’s not going away.”

In all, 139 residents of New York and New Jersey died because of flooding, ripped-apart homes and buildings, and other mega storm-related circumstances. Many more dealt with long-term power outages, cold, water contamination and illness-inducing mold.

While aid groups dished out food and water, providing positive immediate responses to the storm, later bureaucratic muck has slowed the healing process.

New York officials have raised awareness to increasingly drastic climate change-related weather events and are pour millions of dollars into repair and preventative measures such as waterproofing materials and flood walls.

Yet, those like Gaines who have survived Sandy and attorneys representing hundreds of affected property owners and lower income residents say that more should have been done before the storm, and more needs to be done well into the future.

The non-profit Legal Aid Society in New York City, for instance, handles 300,000 cases a year, assisting low income city residents. Out of that number, 5,800 cases are Superstorm Sandy-related, says the organization’s chief attorney Steven Banks. Housing needs in New York areas such as the Rockaways, Coney Island, Red Hook and parts of NYC’s Staten Island were already immense before Sandy, but have increased exponentially.

“Looking forward, the most effective thing government can do is have more comprehensive planning with housing issues affecting people before the storm,” Banks says. “One of the greatest problems our clients experience are housing projects in areas where repairs were already needed, and flooding knocked out electrical systems, heat and hot water. Those problems were exacerbated by an underlying lack of maintenance to begin with.”

As a coastal resident, Gaines calls for more government transparency, more interaction with local advocacy organizations in waterside communities, more affordable ways to fortify homes and local bays and more awareness dealing with ongoing health effects due to bacteria-filled “black water.”

Dan McDonald, an attorney whose firm is among those representing about 200 Sandy-affected property and business owners, says insurance companies are also overwhelmed by these types of widespread disasters and they unwisely enlist new, inexperienced claim adjusters to try to settle claims over the phone instead of in person.

Still, the sheer natural force of shifting weather is something no one can control.

“Storms are one of those things unfortunately over generations, when they’re over, we don’t think about the next one,” says McDonald. “The problem along the coast is ‘What do you do’? How do you sweep away the tide with a broom? How do you sweep back 12 feet of water from the ocean?”