Recent reporting about Hurricane Sandy centers on the $60.4 billion aid package Congress enacted at the end of January, fully 90 days after the super storm devastated coastal areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This unprecedented delay was caused by unprecedented and unfathomable opposition from Republicans in the House of Representatives, many of whom represent districts that benefited from billions in federal aid when natural disasters struck.
Some of the coverage implies that now all is well. Beleaguered New Yorkers — particularly my constituents on the Rockaway Peninsula, one of the areas Sandy hit hardest — should not allow themselves to believe our collective ordeal has come to an end or that no future federal aid will be needed.
It is useful to recap what we went through, what we’re going through and what challenges remain, to see why I say this.
Sandy’s 14-foot storm surge and 75 MPH winds ripped across the length and breadth of the Rockaway Peninsula. Not a single community or neighborhood was spared extensive damage.
Unless you experienced something comparable, it is hard to grasp the scale and scope of the destruction. Even the people directly affected tend to only see their own immediate circumstance and that of their neighbors. It is much harder to get a full picture — let alone comprehend the full implications — of thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses damaged or destroyed, of thousands of trees uprooted, of streets ruined by millions of gallons of raging water, of downed power lines, of flooded generators that provide power to entire complexes, of disrupted or destroyed underground electrical grids that must be repaired or replaced.
Most of us have a hard time picturing tens of thousands of residents in high-rise buildings, public housing developments, assisted living facilities and private homes going without lights, heat, running water, or fresh food for several days, let alone understand why electricity still has not been restored for 10,000 Rockaway residents. Few of us can imagine the anguish of employers and their employees when the enterprise in which they invested their money, time, energy, hopes and dreams, is wiped out in minutes.
How can it be that in America’s greatest metropolis people who had to vote for president and Congress as well as “celebrate” Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s in the dark and cold, must now face the full brunt of winter without heat or lights? This is why, after he canceled the vote in early January on the bill that provided the initial $9 billion of the $60 billion assistance package, I called on Speaker John Boehner and other House Republican leaders to come to the Rockaways and “walk in our shoes.”
If they walked in our shoes they would see the enormity and complexity of the daily struggle the 130,000 Rockaway residents are waging to collect flood insurance; to get a FEMA or SBA loan; to cover the gap between an insurance settlement, a FEMA grant or SBA loan and the actual cost of rebuilding; to get emergency unemployment benefits; to find a contractor; to get the “rapid response” task force to rapidly remediate mold; to overcome bureaucratic double-speak and mixed messages; to compel ill-prepared utility companies to provide the service their charter requires.
I am quite familiar with these struggles. These are my constituents. From the beginning, my staff and I have been deeply engaged with relief and recovery. Several of my staff lives on the Peninsula and endured flooding and displacement. We are fighting alongside families, clergy, nonprofits, a host of volunteers, relief organizations, administrators, and other elected officials to get federal, state and city agencies to respond.
Now we face another battle — over how much aid will be allocated to New York, and how, where and on what it is spent. The needs of homeowners and small businesses must be prioritized. Money should quickly go to rebuilding. This will help stabilize families and communities, revive services, restore employment and create jobs.
This experience has taught me that from Breezy Point to Neponsit to Belle Harbor to Rockaway Beach to Rockaway Park to Hammels to Arverne to Edgemere to Redfern to Far Rockaway, I represent fighters. These constituents won’t give up or give out. Across race, religion, place of residence, ideology, and party affiliation, they are fighting together to recover and rebuild anew.
Indeed, the great inspiration to draw from all this is that New Yorkers and their elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, are fighting together. This is supremely important because it is only by sticking together that we will be able to push government and the private sector to do what needs to be done — things like repositioning generators, pushing the Army Corps of Engineer to redesign our shores, wetlands, and coastal infrastructure, taking a new look at where homes are built and demanding more effective evacuation and restoration procedures — not only to rebuild in Sandy’s aftermath but also to fortify our region against the super storms that are sure to come.
Gregory Meeks is United States Congressman for the Fifth District, in South and Southeast Queens.