Residents in the New Dorp Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, November 1.
The days after hurricane Sandy have already exposed a deep divide between those who can stay in hotels or get help from friends and those with far fewer resources at their disposal. It’s a class-based rift familiar to students of past disasters, and one that particularly shaped the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, and which offers a sort of cautionary tale as the East Coast rebuilds from Hurricane Sandy.
Katrina was a more dangerous hurricane than Sandy. Classified as Category 3 (Sandy was Category 1), it killed over 1,800 people [PDF] (so far the death toll for Sandy stands at 74). But Katrina was also a prime example of ineffective government response to a disaster and of the worsening of class divisions in an already divided city. In the case of Sandy, the former has been less of a problem, but cities across the East Coast may have to work to avoid the latter.
“In any event like this, the folks who rely on the safety net of the city, whether that be public housing or food assistance, become even more vulnerable,” says Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, a nonprofit that’s helping to coordinate post-Sandy relief efforts. “I look at my friends, and people who live south of 30th Street have found a way to migrate uptown and stay with friends, but not everybody has that option.” Homeless people are especially at risk — some living in the affected area have moved to overcrowded shelters uptown, while others have gone to the evacuation shelters. But emergency shelters set up for the hurricane may not have the hygiene, social work, and mental health services that homeless people need.
In Katrina too, the poor were more vulnerable, and the effect of that difference lasts to this day. “Post-Katrina New Orleans is striking because it’s gotten much whiter,” says Jacob Remes, a public affairs professor specializing in urban disaster, “because middle-class and rich people, and white people, have been able to move back much more easily.” Poorer residents, often black, often couldn’t afford to return and rebuild their homes and lives post-evacuation. And some neighborhoods in New York City could face the same problem — says Remes, “I would not be surprised if the gentrification we’re already seeing on the Lower East Side or in Red Hook picks up the pace.”
A church damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, MS, September 2005.
Remes says that “one general rule about disasters is that the chronic after-effects are shaped by whatever ‘pre-disasters’ society was dealing with, and in the U.S. that tends to be about class and race.” But other divisions, too, are emerging in the wake of Sandy. Staten Island isn’t the poorest part of New York, but it’s been one of the hardest-hit, and, some charge, ignored by relief efforts. Staten Island’s borough president urged residents not to donate to the Red Cross Thursday, calling their lack of response in his borough “an absolute disgrace.” Red Cross vehicles did arrive in Staten Island Thursday night, but the borough may have been a victim of its location and the difficulty of transporting supplies in a city temporarily without subways or ferries — a Red Cross spokesperson told BuzzFeed Shift, “Part of the problem there was we were dealing with the same traffic conditions as everybody else.” And with media attention focused on Manhattan, Staten Island may have been forgotten.
But the residents there, and in the Rockaways, Red Hook, New Jersey, and elsewhere, will have to rebuild. And in aiding that effort, government and relief agencies may have a lot to learn from Katrina. Jed Horne, former metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and author of a book about Katrina, doesn’t think the area affected by Sandy will suffer the same population losses as New Orleans did. But he notes that in post-Katrina New Orleans, “the poor were doubly penalized.” Their houses were more likely to be poorly constructed and so to be damaged or destroyed by the storm, but when FEMA made its disaster relief payouts, it judged their houses to be less valuable and gave them less money than those with larger, sturdier homes — even though they had to rebuild from scratch. And since they had less disposable income to start out with, they often needed more help to rebuild than wealthier people may have. For Sandy and future disasters, says Horne, FEMA needs “a more progressive support system, one that recognizes the greater needs of the poor.”
And, adds Horne, Katrina revealed the importance of involving affected communities in their recovery efforts, rather than simply dictating to them. “The old top-down thing didn’t work well in New Orleans,” he says. “We lost many months as people tried to impose solutions that turned out to be ill-advised or unwelcome or unacceptable.” On the other hand, “if you get people involved you’re going to learn more quickly what they do need, and you can cut more quickly to the chase and get services restored.”
Another lesson of Katrina is infrastructural. Gary Yohe, an economics professor and coauthor of a New York City report on climate change, notes that although New Orleans had years of warning that a category 3 hurricane could devastate the city, it wasn’t able to adequately prepare. But New York is a wealthier city, and it has started to make some provisions for severe storms. They weren’t enough, though, to stop Sandy from causing serious damage and loss of life: “One lesson that we’ve learned,” says Yohe, “is even in a developed country and even in the richest city, Mother Nature can overwhelm anything we’ve tried to do.” New York and other cities are going to have to keep working to adapt to a constantly changing climate. “There is no new normal,” says Yohe. “The old normal is broken, and all new development plans will have to take the future into account.”