The local 24-hour news coverage has ceased and regularly scheduled programming has resumed. Field reporters are back to their irregular but predictable sleep schedules. The discerning viewer will notice that reporter and reader’s roots have been touched up and in some cases; skin re-bronzed. Television is letting us know that the immediacy has ended. Soon the ads imploring people to give to a nationally recognized relief organization will ebb. The crisis of Hurricane Sandy will quickly become one that is long-term and far more complicated to remedy.
Soon people will have the first tier of their needs met (clothing, food, water, and some form of shelter.) In a few months, shuttered hospitals and schools will reopen, and the last of the storm damage refuse will be removed. Temporary housing will have to be erected or reconfigured out of empty space. Health issues, both mental and physical will arise and hopefully be addressed. Soon the long-term problems will be more than any well-organized and well-meaning band of traveling volunteers could possibly remedy.
After the sodden drywall and molded carpeting is hauled away what is there for a volunteer to do? Once people can cook and store food once again, the hot meal preparations and delivery will end. When the mud and sand have gone away, the cleaning supply donations will cease and the tired and dirty shovel wielding helpers will go home. And that is good.
But what of the people that did not have access to food (hot or cold) or shelter before the hurricane? One of the more (morally) troubling stories to be reported after the storm was that of the evacuation of Bellevue. The evacuation was long and arduous and two patients were left behind (intentionally; they weren’t able to make it down the stairs.) Many of the residents of the Men’s Shelter (located in the section of Bellevue previously used as a psychiatric facility) were now living in a high school with other storm evacuees. (You may have heard of this particular temporary shelter, as the sanitary conditions were horrific.) When it came time to reopen the school the sheltered were escorted out. It is not entirely clear where the former residents of the Bellevue Men’s Shelter went. Nor do we know where the couple, previously living in the evacuated Penn Station, went. But the issues raised are clear and difficult to ignore.
During the crisis period, it’s doubtful that anyone was turned away from food, water and clothing distribution. But as we move into the next phase, when housing must be found for as many as 30,000; not everyone will be welcome. It’s doubtful that those without benefit of housing prior to the storm will be offered housing after the storm. People who were in need of food, water, clothing and shelter prior to the storm will still be in need after the volunteers go home. If anything their access to scarce resources will be diminished, as no doubt those who were previously teetering on the edge of homelessness were pushed full force by the surge of the storm.
There are no easy solutions. We’ve witnessed the enormity of people’s generosity during what is packaged as a crisis. Living as if we are in perpetual crisis is neither sustainable nor desirable. But broadening our definition of crisis would help us channel the very best of humanity to help those most in need. Yes, it is simpler and far more manageable to restore people to their stasis after an external wallop. Perhaps if we shifted our focus from cause to solution, we would find it all less daunting. Why someone is residing in Penn Station is somewhat beside the point. If we agree that all people should have access to safe housing, food, mental and physical health care then back story is beside the point. No one is more or less worthy of stability and care. We know that and during our best moments we feel it.
We have seen an impressive (and functional) collaboration of; state, federal, local, private, public, religious and corporate efforts during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We now know it can be done. We are left wondering why it isn’t done everyday.