Why Superstorm Sandy is Still Wreaking Havoc on Poor Communities

One year later Sandy's disproportionate impact on historically marginalized communities continues in shocking ways.

By Imara Jones Oct 29, 2013

One year ago Superstorm Sandy slammed into the world’s financial capital and its surrounding region to devastating effect on people of color and the working poor. With a 250 mile-wide path of destruction across three states, the historic storm crippled New York City like never before. As its deadly waters receded, Sandy revealed many uncomfortable truths about the Big Apple, a metropolis where income inequality and its corresponding racial implications are more severe than almost any other place on the planet. Disturbingly there’s evidence that the critical environmental and climate justice issues revealed by Sandy remain unaddressed. One year later Sandy’s disproportionate impact on historically marginalized communities continues in shocking ways.

As local NPR station WNYC reports, none of the heating systems in public buildings that received temporary boilers after storm have been repaired. With winter just weeks away, more than 10,000 people will rely on these back-stop heating measures as temperatures drop. But the troubling news doesn’t end there. Out of the half billion dollars that the city has received in Community Development Block Grants, aimed at helping the working poor and lower middle class recover, only one homeowner has recieved a check, reports WNYC.

Across the river, the State of New Jersey hasn’t fared much better, so much so that The Star-Ledger newspaper has taken Governor Chris Christie, who’s up for reelection this year, directly to task. When it comes to distributing Sandy aid to renters in the state who are "largely African-American and Latino" the paper points out that Christie "has a persistent blind spot when it comes to the working poor."

On top of it all, just four weeks ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration ordered hundreds of Sandy evacuees still living in city-funded hotel rooms to leave.  The close to three hundred residents have sued the city to maintain their temporary housing. As Legal Aid’s Judith Goldliner told NPR, "A lot of these people are going to end up homeless. We did not focus our resources after Sandy on making sure the people who were most harmed by Sandy were taken care of." 

In order to understand just how arrived at such an unjust place, let’s take a quick journey back to the situation a year ago. 

By the time gray skies lifted the day after landfall, Sandy had wreaked more economic havoc on the United States than any other storm in the nation’s history, except Hurricane Katrina, with up to $70 billion in damage caused by it. Given that Sandy was the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded that’s not a surprise. But these broad economic statistics are only the beginning to understanding Sandy’s true toll. 

Seventy two people died as a direct result of the storm making it one of the deadliest weather events in U.S. history, according the federal government’s official report. Another 87 people died in the days after, mostly seniors who froze to death in homes and apartment towers which were without heat. 

Alongside these staggering human and financial costs, Sandy damaged or destroyed 650,000 housing units and knocked out power for weeks to 8.5 million people just on the cusp of winter.  

The nation’s largest public transit system, the New York City subway which moves over 4 million people a day, was crippled for the first time in its history. As fuel ran low at gas stations cut off from supplies, gas began to be rationed in New York and New Jersey as millions of customers waited for up to12 hours to receive whatever was available. Others simply did without. 

The truth is that the day after the storm hit the nation’s wealthiest region and the financial center of the world had been brought to its knees with more than 50 million people feeling the immediate impact of the storm directly.

But this initial equality of experience was worn away by the reality of economic inequity.  As I have written before, the problem is that while New York City and the surrounding region have an economic output larger than many of the world’s wealthiest countries its also home to the largest gap between rich and poor on a scale seen in few places outside of sub-Saharan Africa. This is one of the driving reasons that up to half of all of New York City’s residents are poor or close to poverty, with the majority holding down a job but unable to earn enough to live.

The bottom line is that while Sandy didn’t discriminate our economic system surely does.  That’s why the numbers show the toxic results of what can happen when an environmental catastrophe collides with economic inequity.  

According to a joint report by the Furman Center and Moelis Institute of New York University, Sandy’s impact on the housing availability of the working poor and people of color is dramatic (PDF). One out of five of the city’s public housing units is located in buildings damaged by the storm with people of color making up to 80 percent of those living in New York City public housing. Moreover, one out seven of the city’s rent-regulated apartments are in structures either damaged or knocked out of commission due to Sandy. All told, 100,000 out of 300,000 units damaged in the housing zone were occupied by New Yorkers struggling to get by.

But this clustering of the historically marginalized into Sandy-effected areas is no accident.

During the 1960s New York City decision-makers, including the famed public works-czar Robert Moses, decided to locate vast tracts of public housing in neighborhoods distant from the city core which were more likely to flood. More recently as Mayor Bloomberg has made way for luxury towers in order to, by his own admission, attract the world’s billionaires. New York has experienced a net lost of 400,000 affordable housing units.  This collapse in housing for the working poor and lower middle class across the city has pushed even more people into areas, such as those impacted by the storm, where affordable housing is available. 

The concentration of the working poor in Sandy-effected neighborhoods is why the majority of those who applied for post-hurricane federal aid are renters whose median income is $18,000 a year. The numbers are similar for badly battered New Jersey where the income of the mostly-renters applying for help is slightly higher at $30,000 a year. 

The good news is that this solemn one year anniversary provides the opportunity to take a hard look at where the recovery went awry.  There are many positive signs that this process is taking place amongst the eight million residents of New York City. The leading candidate to succeed Michael Bloomberg, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, has made the theme of a "Tale of Two Cities" as the centerpiece for his campaign.

De Blasio has pledged to use Sandy aid as a way to jumpstart "a new beginning" for those hardest hit by the hurricane. Although it would be up to the city that seems poised to elect him to make sure that he does make that change, given the less than stellar year, such a change would be an important step forward.