Hurricane Sandy Reflections:
Where the City and Social Work Intersect
Monica Copeland, MSW
Senior Program Officer, Financial Services & Asset Building
Office of Financial Empowerment
NYC Department of Consumer Affairs
As we reflect upon the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, I would like to highlight some of the critical work that the City of New York accomplished and the important role social workers played during this natural disaster. In 2005 I was a student at the Columbia University School of Social Work when Hurricane Katrina made such a profound impact as the costliest hurricane - and one of the deadliest - in United States history. I was entering my second year, and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath shaped parts of my academic year. In addition to discussing the storm in class, I participated in a Hurricane Katrina working group and worked with my classmates to host fundraisers to help local nonprofit providers on the ground. I always regretted not being able to go down to New Orleans to help rebuild that year or in the years after, but eight years later I would have a chance to work directly on recovery services in New York City.
Municipal government has a unique role as a service provider before, during, and after natural disasters. In the case of Super Storm Sandy, residents responded to severe weather alerts and information about evacuating flood zones. Disaster-related emergency plans were activated by the NYC Office of Emergency Management and others. Immediately after Super Storm Sandy made landfall on October 29th, City employees were encouraged to work at the emergency shelters near their homes if their agencies were unable to be reopened. At the emergency shelters, evacuated residents received services such as food and a warm, dry place to sleep. I worked at the evacuation centers along with my colleagues from the Department of Consumer Affairs, and there were varying levels of need in the different geographic areas of the city. However, the evacuation centers were well-equipped and well-staffed in advance, and they were an important part of the recovery efforts. In a time of great uncertainty, the residents in the shelters appreciated knowing that there was somewhere for them, and even their pets, to go.
Within two weeks of the storm, the City launched a program called NYC Restore. Beginning on November 13, nine NYC Restoration Centers were the principal locations where individuals, property owners, and business owners impacted by Hurricane Sandy were able to communicate with the City and learn about recovery-related programs and services. The three second-year graduate students from Columbia University School of Social Work who were enjoying their first weeks in field placement at the Department of Consumer Affairs helped by covering shifts at the NYC Restoration Centers. One of the graduate students also served as a Mandarin-speaking translator at a Restoration Center. These Centers were co-located with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA). Over time a few of the physical locations changed, but they included sites in Staten Island, Red Hook, Gravesend, Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Arverne, Breezy Point, and Throggs Neck. The sites were often placed within converted retail space or churches, but some sites consisted of trailers. The NYC Restoration Centers were open approximately twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for fifteen weeks.
The NYC Restoration Centers were created in order to bring the City’s services to the people where they were needed most. A range of services were available such as food and nutrition assistance, temporary housing, health and medical benefits, financial counseling, business restoration services, and housing recovery services. Sandy survivors could apply for benefits and other programs at the Restoration Centers, ask questions, or receive referrals. In addition to the staff from the Department of Consumer Affairs, a sample of the City agencies present included: Human Resources Administration, Housing Preservation, and Development, Department of Buildings, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Small Business Services. State and federal agencies joined the Restoration Centers including: New York State Department of Labor, Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service just to name a few. There were also representatives from the private sector such as ConEdison, and nonprofits were there providing intake support, mental health services, and housing assistance. Over 36,000 visits were made to the NYC Restoration Centers for services. The majority of people were interested in accessing FEMA’s financial resources, SBA loans, and a program called NYC Rapid Repairs to help get funding and support to rebuild their flood-damaged homes.
My specific role was to train partners about the types of services and questions the Department of Consumer Affairs could address at the NYC Restoration Centers such as financial counseling and consumer protection referrals. I also worked with my colleagues to create resource materials, collect data, troubleshoot, and report to City agency leads. My fellow social workers and I took into consideration the person in environment and met people where they were, addressing immediate service needs first. Both at the evacuation centers and NYC Restoration Centers, we were able to ask what people needed or what services could wait. As a top priority, we all wanted to make sure residents were in safe living conditions. We also wanted to make sure income was restored through services such as food stamps and unemployment benefits. After we addressed the most pressing issues, we helped New Yorkers access services such as replacing lost documents or filing consumer complaints against those committing fraud or scams.
The Sandy survivors were treated with dignity, and we tried to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. There were times when the residents were frustrated, angry, or depressed, but we also encouraged them to be persistent. In turn, we didn’t become complacent; throughout the fifteen-week program we continued to promote the Centers and added new services such as tax information at the start of the tax season. We worked as problem solvers, listeners, and connectors even when the issues were not under our immediate purview. I learned valuable lessons about how quickly government can move and adapt to changing client needs in real time. Having this type of firsthand experience as a professional social worker providing City services to address the aftermath of a storm provided me with the experience of a lifetime. After the NYC Restoration Centers closed, the work continued with the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations (NYC Recovery Office). By creating a new office and offering long-term disaster case management for the next two years, the City and social workers at local nonprofits are demonstrating a commitment to helping residents fully recover following Hurricane Sandy.
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