It’s Not Over: What’s Not Being Said About Long Term Recovery and Natural Disasters

Jewish Disaster Response Corps volunteers - Hurricane Sandy relief; photo courtesy.
Jewish Disaster Response Corps volunteers – Hurricane Sandy relief; photo courtesy.

We show up to volunteer when the chaos first touches down, but we disappear when the opportunity to truly help arises.

By Samantha Kanofsky

It’s been two years since I moved to New York, and two years since Hurricane Sandy hit – marking my initiation to East Coast weather and to the inspiring (and sometimes frustrating) world of long term recovery. The first event my roommates and I ever ran as a Brooklyn Moishe House was a cleanup day in Red Hook, bailing water out of washing machines and hauling unbelievable amounts of debris out of sodden backyards.

I began working for the Jewish Disaster Response Corps (JDRC) a year later. Since then, I’ve learned several valuable lessons about our response to natural disasters – and the ways in which we as Jews too often fall short of the mark in upholding our tradition’s ethical commandment to care for those in need. Now that we are nearing the Two Year Anniversary of Sandy and in the midst of another Hurricane season that could (G-d forbid) bring about another superstorm, it feels imperative that we as a community understand the missed opportunities for bringing about better preparedness and more comprehensive disaster response on both a local and national level.

First, I’ve learned that we show up to volunteer when the chaos first touches down, but we disappear when the opportunity to truly help arises and a path to rebuilding finally emerges. Our friends in Long Term Recovery tell us that volunteer efforts frequently drop off by more than 90% a mere two weeks after a natural disaster occurs. This trend mirrors the same flightiness of our national mainstream media: sending helicopters in droves to cover the breaking news and (in)conveniently moving on to the next big story before the first phase of recovery even has a chance to begin.

The problem is that immediately following a disaster, it’s not unskilled volunteers that are needed – but rather trained first responders. These professionals can only conduct proper search and rescues, and infrastructure repairs once roads have been cleared – an impossible feat if hundreds of volunteers are clogging a disaster zone with car traffic and an altruistic desire to be on-scene. For instance, one tornado survivor in Moore, Oklahoma told us about abandoning his car and proceeding on foot after a horrible gridlock of well-intentioned volunteers prevented him from entering his neighborhood to make sure that his 2nd grade son had not been harmed in the infamous collapse of Plaza Towers Elementary.

This is not to say that we are bad people, with bad intentions. The desire to help others in need almost always depends upon an emotional stimulus. Most often with natural disasters, this is delivered via a barrage of media coverage and human interest stories that evoke in us a “good” (albeit misguided) urge to drop whatever we’re doing and drive to the nearest disaster zone, volunteer reception center, or place of worship to offer help in whatever shape or form we are able. By responding, we are doing what is most human: acting from a place of love and concern for our neighbors and their suffering.

The disconnect exists not in the intentions but in the timing. The Rule of 10 in disaster relief states that however many days it takes for an emergency “search and rescue” period to complete, it will take ten times that number of days for relief, and one-hundred times that for long term recovery. This exponential relationship unfortunately translates to a chronological gap between outside volunteer presence and the local community’s readiness for rebuilding. When disaster-stricken communities and families are finally ready to rebuild – after what is frequently an incredibly long and difficult struggle with insurance and government relief programs, grappling with PTSD, and the realities of a life and home that will never be the same – it’s often pointed out by Long Term Recovery experts that volunteers have long-since forgotten about said disaster and are “nowhere to be found.”

Organizations like United Methodist Committee on Relief, Mennonite Disaster Services, All Hands Volunteers, and a number of others make up a network of faith-based long term recovery service providers, and their work cannot be overlooked. But the surge of everyday volunteers that crosses class lines and unifies entire cities, countries, and continents? Gone. Dispersed and regathered, manipulated to focus on the most recent tragedy in the form of rubbernecking and hand-wringing that more can’t be done amidst the rubble because nobody knows where to even start.

The lost opportunity here is that our capacity to turn out in power and numbers – to come together and collaborate to get entire communities back on their feet by plugging into a strategic game-plan set up by the long term recovery committees – is thwarted by short attention spans. Post-disaster communities are thus left to fend for themselves during a period where money runs out, spirits flag, and emotional trauma starts to rear its ugly head.

The second lesson is that even the best of volunteer intentions may actually exacerbate the post-traumatic stress and confusion already faced by disaster survivors. My own experience volunteering in Red Hook led us well-meaning volunteers to show up to houses where work orders had already been completed – or worse – whose owners never wanted or asked for volunteer labor in the first place and were not ready to accept a group of well-meaning strangers to show up on their lawn gawking at the aftermath of 50 years worth of memories washed away in the flood. My supervisor reported a similar experience in Staten Island, where she and other volunteers who showed up to help would arrive on-scene to find the work had already been done.

The third lesson from Long Term Recovery is that targeted giving, commonly referred to as “earmarking” donations, severely limits long term recovery organizations from achieving their goals in a timely and efficient manner. The issue with earmarking donations is once again related to imperfect timing. It’s never clear what the long term recovery will look like immediately after a natural disaster strikes, and every disaster is different. The most challenging curveballs are often thrown when rebuilding groups and homeowners are farther along in the recovery process… and realize that while they have plenty of money left for building materials, what they really need is funding for a construction manager, or a volunteer coordinator to connect the labor to the task at hand.

Of course, we as donors want to see our dollars put to good use on initiatives that bring about tangible, measurable results. It’s only natural, and shows that we are responsible and discerning philanthropists. Our Jewish tradition actually requires us to be thoughtful about how we give, and provides excellent outlines for evaluating the merits of charitable giving, perhaps most famously Maimonides Eight Levels of Tzedakah.

But what we as nonprofit professionals know to be all too true is that it is the unglamorous overhead costs that allow us to provide the services we exist to provide. That it’s not possible to rebuild houses if we can’t get to a work-site, or pay our construction managers and volunteer coordinators to keep them on-staff for the long haul, to make decisions that factor in the complexities of our industry and the specialized needs of the populations we serve. Donors need to be flexible enough to trust that recovery groups will use good judgment in getting disaster survivors the specialized help they really need when they need it, and avoid wasting precious time going back to ask for permission to re-allocate.

Consider the firefighter, for instance, who was 19 when Hurricane Sandy caused an explosion in Breezy Point that burned down his house and most of his neighborhood. He had reported for duty at the local firehouse, and when he arrived, he watched from the roof as the fire claimed his home and the home of his family. Now, two years later, he is suffering from severe PTSD and is struggling financially. He needs therapy and medication to treat the PTSD, but his insurance doesn’t cover either. Our friends at the nonprofit rebuilding organization that is attempting to help this young firefighter and his family have their hands tied. They are only able to assist with construction materials rather than medical expenses because the money is earmarked. This on top of the financial struggles of rebuilding – according to an aunt, his whole family is currently living together under one small roof while they wait for their homes to be rebuilt – leaves him in a predicament that doesn’t have an end in sight.

Sadly, this young man is not alone in struggling to get his needs met via the established vessels set up by post Hurricane Sandy long term recovery groups. Thanks to the aforementioned challenges, coupled with the failures and bureaucratic inefficiencies of government assistance programs such as Build it Back and NY Rising, result in a long and drawn out process of recovery that shrinks the impact of our altruism and more often than not abandons disaster survivors when they need help most. According to Beth Henry, a Hurricane Sandy survivor from Massapequa, only 2,000 of the 15,000+ uninsured or underinsured families in Long Island that applied for assistance from NY Rising have completed their repairs. Another 5,000 households have not even heard back as to whether or not they’re eligible for a grant. According to Beth, not a single family has received their promised grant money from Build it Back.

What can we do about this dismal situation? Redirect.

  1. Don’t earmark funds, and make sure to consider organizations that will prioritize long term recovery. JDRC, amongst other faith-based organizations, are committed to helping communities recover from natural disasters through long term volunteering and support, but aren’t necessarily at the top of the list that national media puts out immediately following a disaster.
  2. Offer your time as a volunteer 6 months-1 year after a disaster, asking what can be done. In the meantime, obey requests to stay away from disaster zones and donate money or supplies instead. Note: It’s important to make sure to check which supplies are being requested by the local community, so that relief groups don’t have to waste valuable time and resources disposing of unwanted items.
  3. Pressure your local politicians to cut through bureaucracy and stick to their promises about prioritizing returning families to their homes.

How can we evaluate whether our response as volunteers is really making an impact? When we show up in a community a year after a disaster has destroyed all sense of normalcy in the lives of everyday people, and hear “What are you all doing here? God Bless you. We thought everyone had forgotten about us.”

Together, we can change the way America responds to natural disasters, while opening our own eyes to the incredible interconnectedness that holds us together in times of need.

Samantha Kanofsky is a Brooklyn Moishe House resident and the Program Director at the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that assists all communities in domestic disaster recovery while exhibiting Jewish values and promoting broad and visible Jewish participation. To learn more, please visit www.jdrcorps.org.