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by Leila Rassi on
We are tired.
We are fighting every day for basic needs. We cope with uncertainty about the future of our houses and neighborhoods. We appeal to insurance companies, aid programs, charitable organizations, community foundations, and government agencies, begging for the assistance that will enable us to recover.
Those of us who experienced the most severe flooding and the most extensive structural damage to our homes rely on the kindness of family and friends, which wears our relationships down: after 15 months of staying in the guest room, or sleeping on the couch, or using the air mattress, the temporariness of displacement feels unending.
On October 29, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, my mother and I returned to our old neighborhood on Staten Island, having spent the previous twelve months rotating through dozens of temporary accommodations while waiting for our meeting with New York City to determine what options were available to us going forward (the meeting took place on January 9, 2014 and the outcome remains unknown today).
We wanted to be home that day to remember our neighbors who died in the storm, due to flooding, freezing, suicide, and stress-related illnesses. We sat in the half-rebuilt first floor of our neighbor’s house, next to the gutted shell of our home, and admitted our anger that had turned to numbness at the absurdities we now encountered on a daily basis as we interact with the maze of agencies and organizations which promise help but leave us on our own to rebuild. We attended a candlelight vigil on the beach, followed by a rally where those who have moved back home are celebrated. Yet it goes unspoken that these returned homeowners are the minority who had the cash to fund their own repairs, or had access to debt through the federal disaster loan program. Excluded now from the community are the former residents who did not have such resources available to them, and most excluded are renters who fall in a hellish limbo: left to navigate the historically tight rental market of a city that had been in a housing crisis for years before the Superstorm rendered thousands of units unlivable, or to wait for the limited assistance from the government, administered through a variety of agencies whose processes have been engineered to prevent fraud, but instead prevents assistance.
Considering the pressures we face each day, it becomes understandable that many of us so-called Sandy Survivors, myself among them, have little capacity to engage with the larger narrative of climate change, despite the bones-deep realization that climate change is precisely where we must focus our energies. This reality is what makes movements like Occupy Sandy and projects like Rethinking Home so very vital. We need those of you who have allied with us in this struggle to continue to call for accountability in the form of climate action. Given the unprecedented nature of Superstorm Sandy, and the frequency with which damaging weather events have occurred during the past year and a half, there can be little doubt that we are living with the consequences of climate change.
The devastation that resulted from Superstorm Sandy has been far-reaching, but the greatest unmet need is for housing. Grassroots activists filled many immediate needs after the storm and continue to help rebuild houses today. But the continued suffering of the many residents who remain displaced points to the need for government intervention in the form of a more comprehensive, citizen-focused set of policies and programs than those currently on offer.
To discuss the effects of Sandy without giving prominent consideration to the need for sustainable, fair and affordable housing in New York City would be to ignore the needs of the many low- and middle-income residents of the devastated neighborhoods. It would also ignore the reality that housing justice is a tangible and achievable outcome that is well within the capacity of governments to implement. Developing updated, flood-proof neighborhoods will mitigate the damage of future climate disasters. Access to affordable, safe housing for all residents must be a priority if we wish to preserve the heritage and character of our neighborhoods without putting the most vulnerable among us in the path of danger.
My purpose in sharing these concerns is to inform a wider audience of the ongoing man-made destruction of our communities. It may be inevitable that more and more communities will experience the kind of devastation wrought by Sandy. The destructive and long-lasting impact of long-term displacement and unjust redevelopment practices may be mitigated if we harness insights from communities that have experienced the worst consequences, and demand proactive policies and practices that seek a more just, inclusive, and sustainable recovery from future climate disasters.
Leila Rassi is a member of our "Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa" Museum Connect Project, which is sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museum. Click here to follow us on Twitter!