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A Year After Sandy Much Is Still To Be Done

By Patrick Sullivan - October 1, 2013

The American Red Cross’s $307 million hasn’t fixed it yet, and neither has the Robin Hood Foundation’s $73 million. The New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, devastated by Super Storm Sandy one year ago this month took lifetimes to build and “was destroyed in hours, and will take months and years to rebuild,” said Roger Lowe, senior vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based American Red Cross.

Sandy cost the region an estimated $65 billion when it slammed into the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. Days after the storm made landfall in Brigantine, N.J., the American Red Cross (ARC) had operations in an area roughly the size of Europe: 11 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The storm affected approximately one-fifth of the U.S. population from the East Coast all the way to Ohio. It did everything from turn out their lights to destroy their homes. It killed 147, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service (NWS).

“There have been some tremendous wins in Sandy,” said Zack Rosenburg, co-founder of St. Bernard Project in Chalmette, La., launched after Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed large swathes of the Gulf Coast and killed about 1,800 people in 2005.

“But, there’s a tremendous amount of work to do. I’m fearful that the country will quickly move on because it doesn’t look as bad,” he said. “Houses from the outside look better (than Katrina), but it’s a mirage. Someone opens the door (to their house), and it’s gutted.”

St. Bernard Project is working in New York on Staten Island and in the Rockaway Peninsula section of Queens, two of the areas hardest hit by Sandy. More than half of the deaths in New York City — 23 of 43 — were on Staten Island. The organization is working with partners on Staten Island to build and repair houses. In Queens, it has absorbed a local organization and is doing construction directly.

The organization has completed builds or repairs of 32 homes in Staten Island (with 15 in progress), and 18 in the Rockaways, with five in progress. St. Bernard Project has a waiting list of more than 250 homeowners.

Of the Red Cross’s $307 million raised, it spent about 85 percent, or $260 million. The bulk of what’s left, according to Lowe, will be used in the organization’s Move-in Assistance Pro­gram, set up in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Assistance might be in the form of checks for rent, repairs, mold remediation and household wares.

Lowe said one of the biggest differences between Sandy and most other disasters to which the ARC has responded was the urban nature of Sandy. “If there is a tornado in the Midwest, people can see our emergency response vehicles for miles,” he said. “When you’re in an urban environment, we can have emergency response vehicles around the corner and some people won’t know they’re there.”

The urban nature of the response made getting equipment and personnel into affected areas difficult, said Lowe. “We’re not going to put equipment and volunteers right where the storm hits, because chances are they’ll be impacted and we don’t want to put them in harm’s way,” said Lowe.

Sandy’s high winds felled trees and power lines, making many roads impassable, and massive fuel shortages because gasoline stations didn’t have electricity to pump further hampered logistics. “We had supplies prepositioned outside the affected areas and we had to try to get them in,” said Lowe. “Getting those people right outside the area in takes time, and when you’re in need of help, every minute feels like a long time.”

Members of afflicted communities might have seen one of 24 Habitat for Humanity branded vans roll through about two months after the storm. “When Habitat comes in, it gets the word out,” said Sue Henderson, vice president of U.S. and Canada for the Atlanta, Ga.-based Habitat for Humanity International. General Motors donated the vans, and Bosch loaded them up with tools and clothing. “It’s a great way to raise awareness that Habitat is there and ready to help,” she said.

Some 13 of Habitat’s local chapters, called affiliates, are working directly on Sandy-affected areas: eight in New Jersey and five in New York. Habitat was in affected communities from the outset. The organization has completed approximately 135 repair jobs so far and will continue “for the foreseeable future,” said Henderson.

“I think we have learned how important it is to have systems in place to reach affiliates, communicate with affiliates and coordinate our team at headquarters so we all work together,” said Henderson. “It helped us reinforce the value of being prepared and the need to maintain good partnerships with other organizations.”

Occupy Sandy, an ad-hoc network of Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs, saw that its decentralized organization made for a nimble response to Sandy.

“It was overwhelming and amazing how much support came in from all over the place,” said organizer Dylana Dillon. “Occupy Sandy was a really important channel for that and was faster than the official response, especially in the most marginalized places.”

Dillon said that when the storm first hit, the network — which has fiscal sponsorship from the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Global Justice — was focused mostly on getting in-kind donations of food, clothing and supplies to the affected areas. “Now we have all these connections — and mind you there are still a lot of emergency needs, people displaced and getting denied compensation — but it’s really transitioned to focusing more on the advocacy side of things,” she said.

Even organizations whose missions do not involve disaster relief mobilized to help. The mission of the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City is to fight poverty in the five boroughs. It raised about $73 million for Sandy relief. Robin Hood was the organization behind the 12.12.12 concert, which raised $55 million through ticket, DVD and merchandise sales.

“One of the key things we learned was not to wait to be asked,” said Patty Smith, Robin Hood’s managing director of marketing and communications. “When we realized how bad (Sandy) was going to be, we immediately reached out to our network of grantees in New York and provided them with funds without them asking.” Robin Hood made initial grants of $25,000 each, totaling about $3 million.

Though Sandy affected much more than the area where Robin Hood traditionally operates, that didn’t deter the organization from jumping in. “Sandy devastated New Jersey, Westchester (County, N.Y.), other areas where we don’t have anything in place. Just because we hadn’t worked in these areas before was not a reason not to engage,” said Smith. The biggest chunk of Robin Hood’s grants, 44 percent, went to organizations in New Jersey, with another 38 percent in New York City.

Any money that trickles into Robin Hood’s Sandy relief fund is granted out as soon as possible. Smith said that 67 percent of the funds have gone to housing-related assistance such as temporary housing, home repairs and mold remediation. Another 12 percent went to benefits counseling: help with FEMA and insurance forms, and legal assistance. Health and mental health screenings are also a large part of Robin Hood’s relief efforts.

That $55 million raised during the concert could have been higher, contends Robin Hood. The organization filed a $5 million lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Patriot Communications in August, alleging that Patriot’s IT infrastructure problems cost Sandy victims additional donations.

Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on the night of the concert, the website of Patriot, which was processing online donations, locked up. According to the complaint, Patriot processed less than $15,000 in donations. In the previous hour, it processed about $2 million.

The complaint alleges that Patriot breached its contract with Robin Hood and fraudulently received the contract in the first place by promising services it could not deliver. “Every penny recovered by Robin Hood in this action will be committed to the Sandy relief efforts that were denied donations as a result of Patriot’s misconduct,” according to the complaint.

Both Robin Hood and Patriot Communications declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing active litigation.

Whenever there’s a disaster, there’s this huge outflowing of dollars and volunteers. “We’re trying to get donors to think less ad hoc and more long-term, thinking about the full life cycle of disasters,” said Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) in Washington, D.C.

Sandy was CDP’s trial by fire, having been formed shortly before the storm. But like St. Bernard Project, CDP’s founders were influenced heavily by Katrina. Ottenhoff said there wasn’t enough collaboration among foundations and high net worth donors after Katrina, and CDP’s mission is to foster more collaboration among funders in the face of disaster.

“Philanthropists need to not think of their gifts as a one-time thing,” said Ottenhoff. “They need to think about planning, preparing their communities, becoming more resilient and recognizing that when disaster hits, it’s going to take a very long time for communities to recover.”

Ottenhoff believes philanthropists should take a cue from the Robin Hood Foundation: “Even if they’re not a disaster funding organization, the programs that matter most to them are affected by disasters,” he said. CDP got about 25 donors to pool their resources into a fund of just under $500,000. It has distributed about $400,000, said Ottenhoff.

The biggest challenge might be making the public aware that there’s still work to be done so many months later. “Not surprisingly, the vast majority (of donations) came in the early days and months, and we haven’t seen much of an increase in receipts in the last couple of months. People are motivated to donate closer to the time of disaster,” said Lowe. The ARC had raised about $202 million at seven weeks after the storm, and $254 million at the three-month mark. By six months, that number had climbed to only $302 million, and it increased just $5 million between six and nine months.

“I think that the American people, to a person, will help when they know that needs still occur, that the people in need are good folks, and when they understand that their support will have a direct correlation with impact,” said Rosenburg. “That’s the trick, getting the rest of the country to understand that.”  NPT

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