In the Eye of the Storm: Remembering the Most Vulnerable

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As with most natural disasters, the attention of the media was initially centered on the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. We were drawn to its most dramatic images – the dangling crane at the construction site of a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan; the New York City building whose façade collapsed, resembling the open side of a dollhouse; the half-submerged roller coaster, all that remained of an amusement park on the Jersey shore; the river of water running through the narrow streets of Hoboken; and the weeping mother who lost two toddlers amidst the flooding on Staten Island.

We watched cable news. We texted REDCROSS to 90999.  We donated canned goods and batteries.

Yet, consistent with human nature, our interest soon faded. As we resumed our regular activities, the media began another news cycle – focusing on the election results, the next nor’easter, a celebrity marriage or the latest grisly murder. It is unfortunate but inevitable.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are left to pick up the pieces – just as they have after previous natural disasters, whether hurricanes, tornados, wildfires or earthquakes. They grieve for those who have died. They attempt to document the damage, file insurance claims and make repairs.  They grapple with shock, depression and post-traumatic stress. They try to move on.

What is absent from the narrative, however, is the particularly severe impact that such disasters have on those who are already among our most vulnerable – the poor, infirm, elderly and mentally ill, many of whom fit into more than one of these categories.

New York City’s “Zone A” was the first to be evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy. It includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan and has 26 public housing developments and tens of thousands of residents. City officials turned off elevators, heat and hot water to these multi-story buildings on the Sunday evening before the storm, giving residents less than 24 hours to find a public shelter or another place to stay.

One 87 year-old woman, Margaret Maynard, was alone in her 16-story building for several days.  Unable to reach family or friends by phone after the electricity went out, she wore layers of robes and wrapped a scarf around her head to keep warm. She said she’d been surviving on crackers and juice. Only after an NPR reporter shared a working cell phone was she able to arrange for someone to help her down the many flights of stairs and take her to her nephew’s home in Queens.

In the wake of Sandy, people remained in public housing units, doing their best to cope with the precarious conditions. Tall buildings without emergency lighting presented a particular challenge for the aged and disabled, who were unable to negotiate the dark hallways and stairwells. Phone lines were not operating or were continually disrupted. Toilets wouldn’t flush without water.   Subway and bus lines were shut down and took many days to resume service.

In addition, thousands of low-income residents were unable to buy basic necessities – including groceries, paper goods and toiletries. Because power outages left vast swaths of the New York metropolitan area without electricity, many stores only accepted payment in cash. Yet those families and individuals who receive supplemental nutritional assistance (a.k.a. food stamps) do so electronically via debit cards, meaning that they lost the ability to make purchases.

It is undeniable that Hurricane Sandy has had a devastating impact on millions of people in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and beyond. It is counterproductive to try to calculate who suffered more, who lost more, or who needs the most help in the months to come.

Yet the extreme disparities in income that already exist in the United States are even more stark during times of disaster. Before Hurricane Sandy touched ground, most people of means could leave – whether by car, train or plane. In addressing its impact, they can turn to their insurance agents and lawyers. If they or their loved ones need physical or psychological treatment, they have private health insurance. If their homes are destroyed, they have options and choices – stay in a motel or with family and rebuild, or request a job transfer, relocate and make a fresh start.  None of this is easy, but it is easier with resources.

The media will soon direct its attention elsewhere, but let’s not forget those among us for whom the effects of the storm will continue to reverberate. For the most vulnerable, Sandy not only took away everything, but they have no means to get it back.

Professor Birckhead’s commentary is also posted at the Huffington Post

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