Reflections on the Aftermath of Hurricane "Sandy":
Considering an Immigrant Perspective
Lear Matthews, DSW
The devastation caused by natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern coast of the U.S. has exposed the vulnerability of economically advanced and impoverished nations. The unprecedented havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy and the merciless "after strike" from a Nor’easter tested the will and faith of tens of thousands. The ability of survivors to cope is not only determined by their resilience, but intimately connected to the response of the community, and mitigating efforts by government and relief organizations. For many immigrants, this monster storm temporarily transformed the American Dream into an American nightmare. It is within this context, informed by research on the adaptation of immigrants, and work with survivors of natural disasters, the writer presents this perspective.
There has been escalating scrutiny of the policies and actions of public officials regarding disaster planning and response to the needs of survivors. The poignancy of lessons learned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is clear. The non-existence or collapse of water control systems, the questionable evacuation based on a particular zoning system, the capability of utility companies, the contentious debate about global warming, preferential treatment of certain communities, and the tacitly demeaning sentiment expressed by some overwhelmed victims and observers: "This is like a Third World country", all mark new realities in assessing cause and effect of a disaster of this magnitude.
As City and State officials grapple with explanations and possible solutions, geopolitics, socioeconomic exigencies, the influence of the media on public consciousness, and "the intersection of the disaster with existing inequities" (Miller, 2013), feature prominently in decisions about resource allocation for recovery and reconstruction. Some of the hardest hit communities, including those with sizeable immigrant populations, appeared not to have been given as much media coverage . Clearly this signals the importance of establishing media outlets in the Diaspora.
Likewise, there is an urgent need to respond to the social and psychological impact, particularly as it relates to losses incurred. Coming to North America to establish a ‘better life’, many immigrants relinquished prized possessions, including homes, land, and careers in the home country to start a new life. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy made that road unexpectedly treacherous
People build and sustain resources such as a home, job and other assets to enhance their life circumstances and for immigrants, as evidence that they have "made it" in America. Particularly as a result of a lifelong investment in these resources, in addition to abrupt disruption in routine life activities, psychological distress occurs when there is a threat of loss, damage, or destruction of possessions. The human cost manifested in death, displacement, and untold suffering, has given rise to multifaceted risks to the affected populations. Undoubtedly, this experience shatters common beliefs about safety and security, especially for immigrants from countries that have a history of natural disasters or spiraling social problems. Survivors were heard lamenting: "I can’t believe what I am seeing!" "What can we do, start over?" This experience for immigrants is like a second displacement from ‘home.’
The assistance provided by hometown associations (i.e., local cultural organizations typically found in immigrant communities) and the diplomatic corps, was creditable. The presence of volunteers of various ethnicities and backgrounds did not go un-noticed. Immigrants have bonded with their American counterparts to mourn,
reciprocate help, and reassure one another. Such interactions provided a source of immediate comfort and an opportunity to gain from cross-cultural perspectives of coping with stress. However, in some instances there are likely to be prolonged feelings of fear, anxiety, hyper vigilance, and depression, especially among those who do not have a strong supportive network of relatives in the U.S.
Feelings of helplessness are common, particularly among the undocumented and those awaiting adjustment of immigration status, who tend not to readily reach out for assistance, for fear of being identified and deported. Sanchez (2013) notes that immigrants with US-born children and grand children were denied federal disaster unemployment insurance or cash assistance for temporary housing and replacing damaged possessions. These situations exacerbate the trauma experienced after a disaster.
As is common following such disasters, some people may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many households with children, the elderly, and the differently-abled are likely to experience a significant level of distress. Such projections include a sizable immigrant population. However, amid sadness, frustration and anger, there was camaraderie and lasting friendships among diverse neighbors who shared the same fate.
Expressions of mental distress and the perceived role of helping professionals, including social workers, will determine the extent to which survivors benefit from or seek counseling. Both receiving and giving help can be therapeutic and central to coping and recovery. Some people exhibit stark fatalism, while others demonstrate complacency or deny the pain caused by personal loss. Among immigrants, such reactions tend to be congruent with culturally defined coping behaviors. Their value of privacy and immigration status may also account for hesitation in seeking assistance. Having relatively modest pre-migratory resources, immigrants develop an attitude of "making do with what we have," which can enhance or retard the recovery process. Proven resilience in crisis situations makes it less likely that many immigrants would experience long-term adverse psychological effects. Nevertheless, this depends on the level of community support.
An often ignored problem is the exposure to health hazards experienced by immigrant day laborers, many of whom are undocumented, hired as a major part of the clean-up crew. They are likely to be exposed to unhealthy conditions emanating from contaminated debris, mold, and sanitizing chemicals with minimum protection. This and other potentially exploitative post-disaster situations need to be closely monitored.
This essay highlights an important dimension of coping in the aftermath of natural disasters, particularly in diverse communities. Regardless of immigration status or citizenship, the human cost is as significant as the economic cost. Hopefully, this presentation will help to inform the way we prepare for, cope with, and come to understand the social, psychological, cross-cultural, and political dynamics of disasters. In developing coping strategies, designing preventive and mitigating programs, mutuality, and accountability in emergent relationships becomes essential to disaster planning. This is especially important in increasingly diverse communities.
Cultural protagonists, including hometown associations and educators must assess emerging problems and needs, and encourage dialogue on similar life changing events. Organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers have not only provided mental health and crisis counseling, but can be instrumental in disseminating information regarding post-storm benefits from FEMA and other recovery agencies. The provision of emergency outreach initiatives and legal services to better serve immigrant communities in crisis is essential (MRNY, 2013). Ultimately, survivors, first responders, immigration advocates, and policy makers can draw from research and analyses, as they reflect on the aftermath and prepare for the inevitability of future disasters.
One year later – is the bustling, diverse metropolis better prepared for natural disasters? Is "stronger than the storm" a reliable metaphor?
MRNY (Make the Road New York) Sandy Response Team (2013) Sandy Relief Snapshot.
Miller, M. (2013, June) Disaster Trauma Committee Meeting Notification. NYC-NASW.
Sanchez. R. (2013). Undocumented Immigrants Still In Post-Storm Limbo. City Limits. Retrieved from
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