Hurricane Joaquin: Learning from Sandy’s Mistakes?

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By Kaley Beins

As Hurricane Joaquin moves up the East Coast , governors have declared states of emergency. While meteorologists say the storm’s path is difficult to predict, many states fear infrastructural damage, especially as they continue to address the destruction from Hurricane Sandy three years later.

Hurricane Sandy caused $50 billion worth of economic damage in New York and New Jersey and damaged or completely destroyed at least 650,000 homes. However, as much damage as Sandy wreaked, its effects on low income and otherwise marginalized communities were even more severe.

In November 2012 New Jersey Governor and current Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie reported that the total damages in New Jersey added up to $36.8 billion. The state received $6.9 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist in recovery.  Yet a January 2014 report by the Fair Share Housing Center found that the funds were distributed in ways that discriminated against Latinos and African Americans. The report asserted that documents they accessed during their legal dispute with the New Jersey government show that claims filed by Latino and African American applicants were rejected at higher rates than claims filed by whites. Governor Christie has disputed this allegation, calling the Fair Share Housing center a “hack group” making “outrageously false” statements.

In addition to criticizing the rejection rates, organizations have also claimed the Christie administration has failed to allocate sufficient funds for renters and has unfairly prioritized counties without enough consideration of damages. The Fair Share Housing Center report found that Latinos and African Americans affected by Sandy were more likely to be renters than owners.  Linda Steele, president of the Atlantic City NAACP, further highlighted the problem, explaining that renters were dependent on the property owners’ participation in order to get funds to rebuild. This means that if owners did not pursue claims, renters lost their homes. However, according to an analysis by New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, $2 million, almost half of the money that had been allotted at that time, was distributed to landlords in Essex County. Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, stated, “Not only are we allocating considerable funds to rental housing, we are doing so at a greater ratio than the damage assessment indicates.”

This contention over inequity of fund allotment in combination with a lack of timeliness in governmental response prompted New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney to introduce a “Sandy Bill of Rights” in February 2014. It sought to address issues from governmental opacity to a lack of accurate information for Spanish-speakers filing claims. Although the bill passed 34-0 in the Senate and 72-0 in the Assembly, Christie offered a conditional veto of the bill in May 2014. Despite previous bi-partisan support for the bill, Republicans were loath to challenge the veto.

As of March 2015, FEMA has decided to reopen over 140,000 homeowner claims, and in April a FEMA and congressional task force met to address issues with the administration of Hurricane Sandy relief. As we approach the 3-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, we hope that FEMA and the congressional committee will maintain their focus on ensuring equitable distribution of funds.

Over the past few days Hurricane Joaquin has caused some of the worst flooding in South Carolina’s history. As the state begins to address the damage, they will hopefully look at the situation in New Jersey and work to eliminate aid disparities.

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Hurricane Joaquin flooding in Columbia, North Carolina photo credit: Sean Rayford for NY Daily News


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