A year after Hurricane Sandy, life for some has returned to normal. But for many others, their children are terrified of the rain and behind in school because of distractions and displacement caused by the storm; their homes are riddled with mold and besieged by problems with contractors, insurers, and banks; and their minds are filled with anxiety, depression, and anger at the unfairness of it all.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, UJA-Federation of New York coordinated dozens of agencies, mobilized thousands of volunteers, and allocated millions of dollars. As time has passed, needs have changed and UJA-Federation of New York and its network of agencies, synagogues, and day schools have increasingly pivoted to address urgent new long-term issues for recovery.
“The needs in the beginning were all crisis-driven — heat, food, clothing, a roof over your head — but you have to be able to move from that into the next phases of this recovery,” says Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, a UJA-Federation network agency.
The Shorefront Y, with support from UJA-Federation, has been a major provider of disaster case management. This includes dealing with everything from job loss, finding a new place to live, accessing legal services, or finding the resources to cope with the emotional and psychological trauma.
On Long Island, UJA-Federation has also supported significant disaster case management services through FEGS Health & Human Services, another UJA-Federation network agency. “People have gotten insurance claims and are having to appeal them,” says Kathy Rosenthal, FEGS’ vice president of family services and Long Island regional operations. “There’s a huge gap in what people have been able to get from FEMA and what they still need in order to rebuild.”
Rosenthal feels that a key part of FEGS’ success in aiding so many people has been collaboration with other UJA-Federation network agencies, and teaming up to offer services in one location so residents can easily access them. For example, at the Barry and Florence Friedberg Jewish Community Center, the JCC offered counseling, while FEGS offered disaster case management, and New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) offered legal counseling, all at the same site.
“This has been such a stellar example of how community-based organizations within the UJA-Federation network and beyond have come together in a very collaborative, complementary way,” Rosenthal says.
Collaboration also played an important role in the hurricane recovery when it came to volunteers. In the months after the storm, UJA-Federation coordinated thousands of volunteers who distributed food and water, checked on elderly residents, and helped clean up the debris. As the anniversary approaches, a number of volunteer events are boosting the emergency preparedness of people in storm-affected areas.
Synagogues were major hubs for volunteer coordination, and in addition to connecting synagogue communities with helping hands, UJA-Federation also gave money to many synagogues for unrestricted purposes and the rabbis’ discretionary funds were able to allocate it to the people in their community whose needs were greatest. Since then, UJA-Federation has continued to connect damaged synagogues with informational resources, sources of additional funding, and donated books and ritual items.
A Sea of Legal Troubles
In the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, legal assistance is one of the most important, yet most overlooked needs, according to Yisroel Schulman, the president of NYLAG. With substantial support from UJA-Federation, NYLAG has been helping people navigate the intricacies of banks, government agencies, and private contractors.
“Initially, we mainly provided advice to address clients’ immediate crises, such as helping them file for FEMA assistance, documenting damage for insurance claims, and replacing lost documents,” he explains.
“But as the months passed, the legal needs escalated, and clients are now facing issues that require extended services and representation for problems that are increasingly complex,” he says. Now clients are dealing with insurance appeals, landlord-tenant disputes, and threats of foreclosure.
In response, NYLAG has built out their staff to include teams specializing in high-demand legal areas, and set up phone- and web-based hotlines and publicized them through community outreach events.
Another way that UJA-Federation has helped families financially and emotionally hurt by Hurricane Sandy is through funding scholarship programs that allow parents to continue to send their children to day schools and summer camps. At Yeshiva of South Shore, a Long Island day school where more than 75 families in the school community were seriously affected by the storm, parents told Rabbi Dovid Kramer, the executive director, that “the school was the only stability that the kids had.”
“I’ve been dealing with insurance, FEMA, the SBA, government grants, but that’s what I do for my job,” Kramer says. “Parents have had to do that in addition to their lives, and it’s very time consuming. People would come into the office and just cry, they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know where to start.”
Trauma Can Be Slow to Materialize
While people affected by the storm have had to wage battles for months already, such as those with the insurance companies, other struggles, particularly with some emotional and psychological effects of surviving the hurricane, are just beginning to emerge. Some long-term signs of traumatic stress from the storm can be anxiety, depression, substance abuse, other health issues, marital problems, and behavioral issues amongst children , according to mental health professionals.
“People’s sense of security and emotional and spiritual wellbeing has seriously been affected, and that kind of trauma goes on for much longer after the event, even when some of the physical comforts have returned,” says Allison Kestenbaum, a chaplain at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Center for Pastoral Education. In early October, the center placed rabbis and cantors in training at UJA-Federation network agencies to offer counseling and spiritual care to people impacted by the storm.
This fall, UJA-Federation will also be launching two other programs in response to the mental health needs in the community. The first initiative will involve the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) and FEGS, both network agencies, providing counseling and spiritual care services to hard-hit areas of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Long Island.
The second program, the Trauma Education Initiative, will provide training for staff at network agencies, day schools, and synagogues to increase their ability to address the mental health and spiritual needs of the communities they serve. The trainees will gain the ability to identify signs of post-traumatic stress and related issues for referral, and learn strategies to prevent burning themselves out.
“Communities told us six months ago, ‘we’re not ready for this yet,’” says Lisa Marcus, project manager of the Trauma Education Initiative. Community leaders “couldn’t be involved in the beginning because they were too busy helping their constituents. Now is when many of these issues start to show up.”
Jonathan Katz at JBFCS spoke about the importance of looking after people’s spiritual needs. “The added support of a spiritual care provider will help people gain whatever strength they can get from Jewish traditions and values, and from connections with their synagogue or community center,” he says.
“UJA-Federation been essential to making the recovery possible,” he adds. “I think it would have been much more difficult if UJA-Federation had not stepped in so strongly.”