Letter from a Reader:

Looking at Hurricane Harvey,
Remembering Sandy

September 4, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


As people are suffering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I’m thinking back on my experience working as a disaster case manager with a non-government agency in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. In the days and weeks after Sandy hit on October 29, 2012, many people were left with no way to get food, clothing, and safe shelter. I started my job about five months later. The government mistreatment and neglect continued and would get even worse in the months and years to come.

Whenever there was a new case, I asked people to tell me their story of what happened when Sandy hit. People had all kinds of horrific stories. A lot of people didn’t evacuate before the storm. Some of this was because they actually didn’t know how bad the storm was going to be—there wasn’t widespread public education about why they should evacuate. And many didn’t have the means, money, and resources to relocate their whole family. People described how a few inches of water in the streets rose to several feet in less than an hour. Many of the families had small, two-story homes and ended up stuck upstairs for days.

A lot of the cases involved families living in public housing, and they had to endure weeks where they had no electricity and water. These Housing Authority buildings are over 10 stories, and people had to walk up and down dark stairways to haul water and what little food they could find in the neighborhood. Some elderly clients said they were trapped in their apartments for days and days because the elevators weren’t working and they couldn’t walk down the many flights of dark stairways.

We tried to get families relief—whatever we could in terms of food, clothing, furniture, and reimbursements for what they had lost, spent on repairs, or having to relocate—but NONE of this was from the government.

The government’s multibillion-dollar “Build It Back” (BIB) program, announced seven months after the storm, promised to reimburse people for losses and repairs and rebuild hurricane-proof houses for those whose homes were destroyed, and meanwhile provide people with places to stay until their homes were repaired. But by March 2014—a year and a half after Sandy—BIB had failed to help any of the almost 20,000 people who had signed up. Only a handful of people (173) had been able to even just establish how much aid they were going to get, and no construction work had been done at all.

By September 2016, half of those in BIB had dropped out, some 10,000 people—mostly because they didn’t have any hope they would get relief. Many were seeking help from non-governmental agencies. People were also so frustrated by all the bureaucratic red tape—like being asked to provide receipts for every repair they had ever done or documents that had been lost in the storm. There were all kinds of deadlines—like people being told that if they didn’t contact BIB by such and such date, they would be dropped from the program. Sometimes people didn’t even know about these deadlines.


Many clients lived in attached row houses, and they were told that their homes would have to be elevated. But this meant that everyone in the whole block would have to be signed up for BIB—when some weren’t and the deadline had already passed. BIB officials actually didn’t even have a plan for how to deal with this. And there were many thousands of people who didn’t even have a disaster case manager to help them navigate all this.

In June 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio bragged that BIB construction had been started on 92 percent of the 5,000 homes that needed to be rebuilt. This was total bullshit!

The other part of this is the whole way that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, failed to give people the help they needed. FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is supposed to give people direct housing assistance after a disaster. But people can only get a maximum of about $31,000 from FEMA for temporary housing, home repair or replacement, and other disaster-related needs—a fraction of what most people needed. Lots of people were also told that they had to apply for a Small Business Administration loan—which meant that people ended up deep in debt.

FEMA is supposed to help renters as well. But many people in apartments were denied FEMA money. Clients who lived in public housing said that when the FEMA inspectors came, they just almost categorically said the families weren’t eligible for disaster relief because they lived above the first floor. But the fact is, lots of families had all kinds of damage to their apartments from wind and rain pouring into their windows during the storm, as well as the fact that many lost food because the electricity went out and they had to stay somewhere else for days, if not weeks.

Some people also became the victims of money-grubbing vultures. There were instances of contractors, knowing people were desperate, overcharging for shoddy work that had to then be completely redone. One client paid hundreds of dollars to get mold remediation done—but it turned out that all had been done was to throw some Clorox on the walls, and so she had to spend money again to get rid of the mold.

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program supposedly oversees insurance companies that provide funds for disaster claims. But many clients we were serving, like thousands of others, were either denied flood insurance claims or were given way less than they needed to repair their homes. And as it turned out, all kinds of insurance fraud was going on. The FEMA executive in charge of their insurance program admitted there was evidence of fraud in reports that were used to deny people full insurance payouts. He also said unlicensed engineers were used for flood damage reports—which also ended up with people being denied insurance or given way less than they claimed. FEMA actually knew that this was going on for more than a year.

By the spring of 2015, funds for disaster case management were stopping—even though there were many, many clients still in dire need of help. This included one family of about 10 people who had the first floor of their home completely destroyed by Sandy and had to all live in the three small bedrooms upstairs—except for the elderly father who had to live in the destroyed part because he could not walk up the stairs. The family was able to get into a non-government program for funds to rebuild their home. But then they were told they weren’t eligible because they were in the BIB program—AND no contractor would work on the house because the bank that had sold the family their home had ignored building code violations (which by law are supposed to be cleared up before any house sale). When I left my job, the family was still in BIB hell, trying to get repairs and reimbursements.


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