T he mayor was annoyed. I had taken to Twitter 24 hours before to say that New York City was slow to prepare for the impending superstorm known as Sandy. Predictions are a risky business, but this one was spot on. So when the mayor’s assistant called me the night of Hurricane Sandy to let me know that they were “sheltering” survivors in the cafeteria of my local public high school, just down the block from where I lived, I thought she was joking. How in the world would a school lunchroom accommodate several hundred survivors who had literally been dragged out of their homes with just the clothes on their back? Yeah, that first night didn’t go quite as planned.

Two things are still stuck in my mind from that fateful evening:

1) The military-style prepackaged meals that they gave survivors in many local shelters were inedible. I quickly coordinated with Masbia — the kosher soup kitchen. They generously made fresh meals for survivors across Brooklyn.

2) The survivors at my local high school had nowhere to shower. The school refused to allow survivors to leave the cafeteria area due to security concerns. Never mind that there were men, women, and children who had to walk through sewage to get out of their neighborhoods alive. I called the Department of Education to demand that the school’s locker rooms, with dozens of shower stalls, be opened. It took 12 long hours, but by the next day we had clean survivors and full bellies.

The world watched as Sandy barreled down on New York City five years ago. They watched again last month as Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and Hurricane Irma battered Florida. We were also shocked to see 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico without electricity as a result of Hurricane Maria. It’s difficult, in the immediate aftermath, to get a clear count of the damage, but looking back Hurricane Sandy caused over $75 billion worth of damage and cost 233 people their lives.

Whether you believe it’s global warming or Divine retribution, certainly we can all agree that massive hurricanes are hitting more frequently than ever before. The once-in-a-hundred-year storms are literally hitting every year. How does government respond to the challenge? In a word: badly.

Think about it. Government struggles with basic tasks like repaving streets and picking up the garbage. Sure, government can handle “emergencies.” There are teams of government agencies that deal with emergencies, from your local police department and fire department to your emergency management agency. You’re likely to see the amazing rescues by any one of these wonderful organizations. But after the “survivor” is carried away by that brave hero, what you won’t see is the aftermath. That survivor may now be homeless, jobless, and even penniless, and the government has no idea how to help.



Why did I criticize the mayor the day before Sandy hit? Because he was slow to call for an evacuation of low-lying areas. The fact is that most of the damage caused by the storm doesn’t come from the scary sound of the howling wind — it’s from the elevated tide. Two-foot tide — no big deal. Twenty-two-foot tide — your home just got washed away, and your apartment may be uninhabitable.

I will never forget the scene at Coney Island, Brooklyn, the day after the storm. The area was closed to the public by emergency officials. However, as an elected official, I was able to get through. I watched as hundreds of elderly people were dragged from their apartments onto yellow buses. The city was now evacuating them after the storm. They had to. Those apartment buildings had no electricity, gas, or even running water as a result of the flooding. Even worse, the city wasn’t sure where the most vulnerable — the disabled and elderly — lived. So they had to send volunteers knocking on doors and hope that those in need would respond. Of course, some of them didn’t. Only later would they recover the bodies of those who died during the storm.

Lest you think it’s only about storm prep, sadly, storm response is even worse. Here in New York City, five years and $2.2 billion in government funding later, many survivors are still not back in their homes. New York City started a “Build It Back” program, and predictably, it was rife with fraud, abuse, and bureaucracy. The one thing it didn’t do well: rebuild people’s homes. As of today, 25 percent of homes are still in ruin. And most of the homes that have been rebuilt were only completed last year — a full four years after the hurricane.

Well, if government can’t do the job, surely the nonprofit sector can? Not quite. Just last month the American Red Cross announced that after raising $300 million for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, they have been unable to give out the $400 gift cards they promised to the victims. To be clear: Literally their only job is to help after disasters, and they can’t get even get step one done.



So what should you do if you want to make a difference in the lives of the countless hurricane survivors?

1. Give to local charities. They do a better job of getting money quickly out the door to those who need it most. Organizations like Achiezer in Far Rockaway were essential after Sandy. Every major Jewish organization from the Orthodox Union to Agudath Israel to the UJA-Federation is raising money now that is being disbursed by local organizations on the ground.

2. Demand that government do its job after the storm. As crazy as this may sound, many hurricane survivors say that the “recovery” is worse than the storm. That’s because there are a multitude of city, state, and federal “recovery” agencies that don’t work well together.

It’s 2017. It’s about time for a new intergovernmental hub that will help victims cut the needless red tape to rebuild their homes and their lives. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 680. David G. Greenfield is a lawyer, adjunct law professor, and senior member of the New York City Council. For the past 15 years he has worked at the highest levels of city, state, and federal government. In this column, he explores timely issues from the vantage point of “the Insider.”)