The Advocate

The Public Advocate and Kashif Hussain speak to residents after Hurricane Ida

Post-storm Recovery Part II: Organizing

April 11th, 2023

Search for “post-storm recovery resources,” and you’ll find programs provided across federal, city, and state agencies, and from charities and nonprofits. Look closely, however, and you’ll find most of these resources are only unlocked with a presidential disaster declaration.

Search bar pre-written with the text "Post-Storm Recovery Resources".

The presidential declaration is a golden ticket; it recognizes emergency conditions and orders federal assistance (i.e. FEMA) to supplement state and local response. The disaster declaration also makes you eligible for other government and nonprofit programs. If you have this special ticket, home and business owners can apply for emergency grants from nonprofit funds, get free help to fix their homes, sometimes even sell their homes to the government at pre-disaster market pricesobtain legal assistance, potentially eliminate excessive bank fees, and get extensions on mortgages and taxes (and speed up IRS refunds). So what can a community not covered by FEMA do to demand action?

A Case Study in Organizing

In September 2021, after Hurricane Ida devastated South East Queens, Amit Shivprasad found himself organizing a diverse coalition of homeowners in South East Queens. His parents’ tenants had drowned in their basement and for more than a year, his parents haven’t been able to move back in. He represents a community (Hollis, Queens) that is nowhere near a coast line (the typical areas designated as flood risks), so it is often neglected when it comes to rescue efforts and financial assistance. But his rallies have gained statewide attention, right down to his block, a street that was recently re-discovered as being built over a pond.

Advocacy from Shivprasad and others has likely contributed to Mayor Eric Adams recently announcing $390 million in city and federal funds for the expansion of the Cloudburst program in Southeast Queens and the South Bronx. The Cloudburst program installs infrastructure that absorbs, stores, and transfers stormwater to prevent flooding during extreme rainfall in a short period of time, an important step for long-neglected non-coastal areas.

Amit Shivprasad is just one example of coordinated efforts led by impacted communities. Low-income communities might not have as much in their wallets as Wall Street does. By forming large, diverse coalitions with local community groups and nonprofits, though, we have the power to hold officials accountable to the needs of their communities.

Where to start? Emergency management always begins on the local level. City Council members and appointed officials help influence budgets and disaster relief policies and can apply further pressure if more help is needed. In the wake of last December’s snowstorm in Western New York, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative Brian Higgins called on Governor Hochul and the president to approve a presidential disaster declaration. This was because local officials were emphasizing the need for federal support to rebuild after the disaster. Bottom-up advocacy is how communities can get support. Here are some tips for organizing your community to advocate for post-storm recovery.

Engage the Community

  • Identify community leaders, local business owners, and other key players in the community. Once these individuals have been identified, they can be tapped to spread the message and rally the community.
  • Forming coalitions is an effective way for communities to organize for action, pool their resources, and use their collective power to pressure elected officials to take action. This can be done by organizing protests, holding rallies, and writing letters to elected officials.

Reach out to Local and State Officials

  • Get to know your representatives, the issues they care about, and their history in advocating for environmental justice policies. Urge them to host town hall meetings and virtual forums, where community members can share stories, concerns, and priorities. Find your City Council member. You can also look up your New York State Senator, and look up your State Assemblymember.
  • Create a petition or letter-writing campaign to demand elected officials take action on storm recovery in Southeast Queens and other impacted areas.
  • For most legislators, the best way to communicate with them is a personal visit, so review their office policies and make an appointment. Collaborate with community groups to form a list of concerns and demands. It’s powerful to have a few constituents prepare to tell personal stories, providing background for why these demands are essential.
    • You can find the numbers of these legislators online. Be persistent. If their staff tells you they’ll have to call back, make sure to follow up in a week or two.

Engage the Media

  • Communities can utilize the media to make their demands known to a wider audience and can put pressure on elected officials to act. This can be done by writing letters to the editor and organizing press conferences.
  • Set up a website to provide information about storm recovery to provide an easy way for people to contact their local elected officials, with information on how to contact your coalition.
  • Use social media to spread the message! Journalists pay attention to trending hashtags. Come up with a memorable hashtag and encourage the community to post using that hashtag. Your coalition can host social media storms or a digital day of action.
  • Keep the media and the public updated on campaign progress.

Gather Support from State and Federal Organizations

  • Reach out to organizations such as the Red Cross. Following Winter Storm Elliot, the Red Cross responded and provided assistance in the form of shelters (such as hotels), financial assistance, and clean up kits. Those who are able can also volunteer with them to help with recovery efforts.

Organizing a campaign to pressure local City Council members and the Governor to request federal disaster assistance is a difficult and time-consuming task. However, it is an important step for communities affected by a natural disaster in order to ensure that they receive the assistance they need to recover and rebuild. By following these steps, you can effectively pressure your local and state leaders to take action.

And, of course, you can always contact the Office of the New York City Public Advocate to get help.

In case you missed it, check out Part I of this two-part series, where we go over resources you can use after a disaster.

By David Kahn, Infrastructure & Environmental Justice Community Organizer

Related Posts

Post-storm Recovery Part I: Resources
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