Sandy and the Fire Hydrant: Why We Need A Human Rights Based Response to Natural Disaster

The morning after the storm, it was no surprise when a large truck pulled up in front of the only luxury doorman building on our street in the lower east side with six workers, a generator and a pump. The building was soon dry and functioning fullyIf you walked east a few more buildings down, you would have come to my working to middle class building where several neighbors were looking a bit dazed from having carried buckets of water out of the basement until three in the morning trying to save the boiler and heater.Their backs were worse for wear, but they were feeling nonetheless lucky that the first floor didn’t flood. ‘No electric, but at least we have water and gas’, they would have been saying to one another.

Another few minutes and you would find yourself at public housing complexes – where there was no water, no gas, and of course no electricity. Nearby, batteries were selling for four times the normal price. You might have run into my friend Ayesha, who lives in those projects, and came by my house to borrow batteries because she was incensed at the price gouging.  You would have seen this 46 year old single mother hauling two huge jugs of water to take up dark flights of stairs to get home to her children, where the toilets weren’t working and because there was no gas she couldn’t even cook. Still, she was glad she had a few dollars in her pocket from her last paycheck despite it being the end of the month so she could avoid using the fire hydrants upon which her neighbors were relying for water.

Welcome to our world class city where suddenly the question of who was expected to use fire hydrants to get drinking water became a new divider. No matter how much of an effort I made, I simply could not visualize the residents of Battery Park City — where I also have close friends — hauling buckets of water from fire hydrants to meet their families’ basic needs. And then there are the forgotten areas such as Far Rockaway. On Saturday, with our electricity back and the growing realization that my family had narrowly escaped any serious impact from the disaster, I finally had the wherewithal to take note that other New Yorkers were not faring nearly as well. Lucky enough to have a full tank of gas and a vehicle, I looked at the Occupy site that directed volunteers to churches that were coordinating centers for assistance to Red Hook, Far Rockaway and Staten Island. I chose to go to Far Rockaway with six strangers in my car who had shown up to volunteer as well.

It was cold, desolate and devastated when we arrived. Houses were destroyed, cars inoperable, and people were clearly in a daze. I have no idea who was running the center for volunteers.  It did not seem to be the city, state or federal government; nor did it appear to be the Red Cross or any other well known charity. It seemed to be a guy named Chris. Later I discovered it was Occupy Sandy, part of the OWS movement that had been organizing the effort.  But they had little interest in "branding" while I was there and did not promote themselves.  Rather, they just helped. The National Guard was there with vehicles and helicopters, and it felt like a militarized zone. We set out to helping an older resident named Pete clean up his garage. He didn’t have reliable cell access, a radio, or any real form of communication available. I knew the city was asking residents to go to the shelters because of the coming colder weather, but I wondered how the residents would even find out where they were being asked to go. It was profoundly unclear what people were supposed to do to recover and the despair was thick. The minute we arrived the coordinator said, just make sure you get out before dark. We didn’t even ask why, but it was a disturbing set of initial instructions. The residents did, however, have water. At least there were no open fire hydrants in sight.

To be fair, the city, state and federal response to the storm, given its magnitude, was from all accounts impressive — at least as much as is possible in our inequitable world. And, at least for the moment, it only demonstrated the existing inequities rather than deepening them. In Sandy’s immediate aftermath, we have well-cared for neighborhoods (even though they were the places where more people were able to leave and stay elsewhere), we have working class neighborhoods (that are out of sight and now out of service), and we have enclaves of poverty amongst the well-off, (where living conditions are made so difficult it is a challenge to stay). This is not unique to the disaster or its aftermath; this is New York City.

In the recovery phase, we must strongly guard against policies and re-development that deepen disparities or create additional harm to the lives of New Yorkers (as well as those in New Jersey and other affected areas).  We must, instead, put in place policies that take up the opportunity to improve equitable access to basic needs and the protection of basic rights, such as housing, healthcare, transportation, access to jobs etc….  My neighbor on the third floor is a social worker who works for homeless services. She is stationed in the Bronx where many people were sent to weather the storm. I sympathetically told her that her job must be very difficult now. She surprised me with her answer: “We have never had so many resources! We have a nurse available 24/7, which is never usually the case. But we need these resources every day. It will be hard to go back next week and see them gone.”  Another reminder that for many in our city, every day is an emergency and daily life involves fighting disaster.

Having to deal with Sandy, like Katrina in New Orleans, provides us with an opportunity to determine what kind of city we are and want to be. How we respond to the crisis will provide a profoundly important answer to that question. The response in New Orleans has been permanent displacement for the poorest and primarily African-American communities. It was a ruthlessly racist and class based response –  a scorched earth policy carried out through bulldozers in public housing and blatant abandonment in the Lower 9th Ward. The response to Katrina separated families, ruptured communities, and stripped those who had lived and worked in New Orleans for generations of their history. It wasn’t the hurricane that did this – it was the response. Many communities in New Orleans termed the aftermath of Katrina ‘the dry storm’, both storms wreaking their own brand of havoc, but only one of which was directly in ‘our’ control.

Authorities in New York, New Jersey and other areas affected by Sandy have an opportunity to respond differently. We can begin by working from two primary principles of human rights: 1) we ensure the most impacted and most vulnerable in our communities are our first priority; and 2) we recover and rebuild relying on not only the consultation of impacted communities, but their participation and leadership in decision-making and in designing our recovery efforts. The cancelling of the NYC Marathon was a painful but good start. The Mayor heard the growing calls to use everything we have to help those still suffering, and many who came to this city to enjoy the marathon are helping in the recovery effort.

We also have an opportunity to generate a human rights based response to the crisis by recognizing that every person and family in the region has a right to safe, decent and secure housing– whether they were in a flood zone or not. I have lived in the Lower East Side of New York City now for almost twenty years. This is my home, and as our city decides how to protect us from natural disasters and fortify our infrastructure, I hope as a resident to be part of that solution. But I hope that those in public housing, in Far Rockaway, in Coney Island, in Red Hook, in Staten Island and all over New York will be so as well. And that we resolve as a City that no child, woman or man ever be forced to drink from our fire hydrants to meet their basic needs again, nor that anyone be forgotten or abandoned no matter where they live. This is the human rights response our city and region deserves and that we — as was demonstrated during and after the storm as we helped one another — are more than capable of creating.