Rebuilding After Sandy: Lessons from the Gulf Coast

Posted by Tom Wooten

This year, thousands of families from Long Island, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the Jersey Shore were not able to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. For these people, whose houses and apartments were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, the long recovery journey is just beginning. Rebuilding poses an array of daunting challenges: insurance proceeds rarely cover costs, destruction lays bare the risk of building anew, and doubt lingers over whether neighbors will return. To make matters worse, national attention moves on quickly after a disaster.

Gulf Coast residents can relate. In the more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina washed away the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flooded much of New Orleans, recovery has been a slow and uneven process. Parts of St. Bernard Parish, the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, Waveland, Miss., and other Gulf communities remain as empty as the charred blocks of Breezy Point, Queens. Katrina permanently displaced hundreds of thousands of people. For those who have been able to return, restoring life to flooded neighborhoods has been a trying, all-consuming endeavor. Much of their work remains unheralded; the slow work of reconstituting a community rarely makes for snappy evening news stories.

Lessons from the long Gulf Coast recovery can inform the work that lies ahead for Sandy’s displaced survivors. The most important such lesson is that context matters. What works in one place will not necessarily work in another, and local knowledge is vastly more important than outside expertise or prior disaster recovery experience. New Orleans resident Hal Roark, who worked on recovery efforts with hundreds of his neighbors in the Broadmoor neighborhood, puts it best when he says, “We are the world’s leading experts on Broadmoor.”

Because of a vacuum of city, state, and federal government leadership in Katrina’s wake, New Orleans neighborhood-based organizations carried out much of the city’s recovery work. Their diverse recoveries reflect the importance of tailoring efforts to match physical and social context. Hal’s neighborhood of Broadmoor, a racially and socioeconomically diverse community, based its rebuilding effort on the recovery plan drafted by dozens of resident-led committees and democratically ratified by the neighborhood. In Hollygrove, a predominantly poor and black neighborhood, churches and religious nonprofits drove recovery efforts. Lakeview, a white, upper middle class community, drew on a longstanding neighborhood civic tradition to organize its recovery. Village de l’Est, a far-flung Vietnamese-American neighborhood, coordinated recovery efforts through its 6,000-member Catholic parish. The Lower Ninth Ward, which sustained the most damage of any neighborhood in the city, relied on close coordination between resident-led organizations and massive teams of outside volunteers.

Even counting the inevitable missteps, it is clear that the response to Hurricane Sandy from all levels of government has been vastly better than the response to Hurricane Katrina. However, although mid-Atlantic communities will not have to “go it alone” to the same extent as Gulf Coast communities, much of the onus for post-Sandy recovery will nevertheless fall to the most local level. Residents and community leaders bear most of the responsibility for leading recovery. Government agencies, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations can be valuable partners to flooded neighborhoods, but they will not do most of the heavy lifting.

What kinds of partnerships should residents form with outside groups? In New Orleans, the best partnerships augmented neighborhood capacity, providing a hand up instead of a handout. These partnerships emerged when residents had a firm sense of what they needed in order to drive recovery forward and when outside groups had the good sense to listen to residents instead of dictating assistance on their own terms. Strong neighborhood partners emerged across the organizational and political spectrum, from the anarchist-founded Common Ground Collective to the Shell Oil Corporation.

Strong community partners are also appearing in Sandy’s wake. Volunteers for Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, noticed that returning residents needed bleach to disinfect their flooded homes. They launched a trick or treating initiative for supplies across New York City, collecting thousands of half-used Clorox jugs to distribute in Queens and on Staten Island. The tech community has also jumped into the fray. Recovers.org, a web platform that allows communities to host recovery websites matching goods and volunteers to resident needs, has created websites serving Hoboken; Staten Island; Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Astoria in Queens. More neighborhoods hoped to use the service, but the organization reached capacity.

For recovers.org co-founder Caitria O’Neill, the biggest lesson to come out of Sandy is the importance of prior organization. Recovers.org works with communities to set up web portals before disasters occur, so that residents can immediately coordinate recovery work and solicit donations in a disaster’s wake. Caitria and her staff spent sleepless weeks after Sandy setting up the four web pages, all the while aware the communities would be far better served if the portals had been created in advance. “A disaster is like an inverse political campaign,” she explained. “Attention peaks right after it happens, and wanes after that.” A short delay in web presence can mean losing out on the bulk of potential public giving.

New Orleans residents also sing the praises of prior organizing. Neighborhoods with strong pre-Katrina organizations—namely churches and residents’ associations—had a much easier time launching coordinated recovery efforts than did comparatively disorganized neighborhoods. To be sure, though, although a number of less-organized communities faced a longer and bumpier road to recovery, many such neighborhoods have since caught up. No matter how long or hard the process, few in New Orleans who were fortunate enough to rebuild regret their decision.

In the days after Sandy, a touching blog popped up featuring photos of New Orleans residents holding hand-written notes to Sandy survivors. “Believe in your N’hood,” begins one message. “Take it day-by-day. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep believing in the rebuild. You & your neighbors are what will bring your n’hood back.... It’s a long haul for those who are committed, but the emotional payoff is huge.”

Tom Wooten is the author of "We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina."

Photo via the U.S. Department of Labor.