With the one year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, you may be wondering how the disaster recovery process is going for those who were directly impacted.  Fortunately, some people were able to address their needs with available federal resources; others had adequate insurance, and still others were lucky enough to have family, friends, and communities that rallied to provide the resources they needed.  Those folks are back in their homes or have moved to new homes, made repairs, replaced their essential belongings, received disaster unemployment assistance to supplement their lost wages, and are adjusting to their new normal. Conscious Magazine, Issue 01

However, there are thousands of individuals and families who are still struggling.  Some families lost loved ones, and this type of loss always lingers.  Some are still displaced from their homes for various reasons, including mold, ineligibility of federal aid (due to immigration status, not adhering to flood insurance requirements after a past storm, etc.), or simply not being able to afford alternative housing.  Others lost their jobs, businesses, or rental properties, and haven’t been able to regain economic sustainability.  Critics look at these remaining needs and think that the government failed, that non-profits haven’t spent their funds fast enough, or that the recovery process is taking too long.  I’d like to shatter a few disaster recovery myths and provide some context, so that you can form your own opinions and adjust your expectations accordingly. 

One common belief about disaster recovery is that federal disaster resources will address all of the needs of those who are impacted.  First, it is important to understand that federal disaster resources only flow when there is a federally declared disaster.  That means that emergencies and disasters that affect fewer people and cause fewer damages (no matter how severe the effects are to the people who are directly impacted) may not meet the threshold for federal funds to become available.  Even when these funds do flow, they will not address the entirety of everyone’s needs, and they are not designed to.  As a wise colleague of mine said, “There will never be as much funding available as there is after a federally declared disaster, and it will never be enough.” 

For example, there is a maximum amount that an affected household can potentially receive from FEMA ($31,900 for Sandy), and this amount is not automatically given to everyone affected.  The amount a person can receive is based on the eligible damages that a household sustained and what it will take to make the damaged home safe, sanitary, and functional.  For those with substantial damages, the maximum is just a drop in the bucket.  It is assumed and expected that people will carry the proper amount of insurance (home, flood, renters, car, etc.), and that they will apply for and utilize this assistance.  Federal funds through grants and loans cannot duplicate the benefits that a person receives from insurance, but it may be used to supplement insurance funds or be available to those who did not have insurance (although there are caveats).   Once insurance funds and federal funds are tapped into, it is expected that non-profits, community agencies, faith-based organizations, and multi-agency collaborative groups will address the remaining unmet needs.

Another common misconception is that non-profits have not spent the disaster funds that they have received through grants and public donations fast enough.  It may be easy to spend money carelessly and hastily.  It is much harder to spend a lot of money in a responsible and thoughtful manner that addresses the gaps in funding that is (1) available through other sources, (2) does not duplicate the funding from other sources, and (3) provides a fair mechanism for distributing funds.  This also begs the question: “What is fair?”  Non-profits generally aspire to be good stewards of the funds they have to distribute and aim to provide those funds to the people who need it the most.  This cannot happen overnight, and it can take many months to understand the resources already available or soon to be available, as well as to anticipate the needs that will not be met by those resources.  In addition, past disasters have illustrated that serious unmet needs often come to the surface years later, so it is wise and warranted to save some funds for long term recovery.

One last false impression is that disaster recovery should not take longer than a year.  In fact, recovery can take many years and even decades for some individuals and communities, depending on the scope and impact.  First, every disaster is different, and every disaster is local.  This means that even when individuals, communities, and responding agencies are prepared for a disaster, there are factors that were not or could not have been planned for and that there will be local needs and ways of doing things that may take time to understand and address.  In addition, disasters often expose underlying societal issues and inequalities (like poverty coupled with a severe lack of affordable and accessible housing) that have gone unaddressed for years under the best of times and cannot be solved easily.  Moreover, when rebuilding is involved in disaster recovery, there are a lot of complicated decisions that affected households have to make and many unknowns that affect the ability to make an informed decision (i.e. flood zone changes, elevation requirements, and opportunities for buyouts).

Although we are one year from Superstorm Sandy, recovery is really just beginning for many folks, and we will continue to see a lot of progress over the next year or two.  The good news is that there are already many citywide and neighborhood-based benefit programs that can offer grants, loans, materials, goods, and volunteers.  In addition, there are professionals called Disaster Case Managers, who are available from various agencies to work one-on-one with individuals and families affected by Sandy to develop a plan for their disaster recovery and connect them to services and benefits that they may be eligible for.  There are also several benefit programs that are still in the process of getting underway and likely other programs that haven’t even been thought of yet but will surface in the years to come to address the unmet needs that Disaster Case Managers uncover.

Making a donation to a reputable agency that is in it for the long haul is just as important now and in the years to come as it was the day after the disaster.  It’s also not just about money – if you have professional experience or knowledge in areas such as law, insurance, mortgages, banking/financial empowerment, real estate, massage therapy, resume-writing, construction, etc., then please consider volunteering your time at a local agency that works directly with disaster-impacted households.  Never underestimate the value of a service that you can provide to others.  Finally, take the time to learn about disaster preparedness steps you can take at www.ready.gov, including understanding your current insurance coverage and/or gaining coverage.