Keelah and Harry Helwig lived on a dirt road in Far Rockaway, New York. When Hurricane Sandy struck, and their house broke away from its foundation, and the waters of Jamaica Bay sloshed against the living room windows, they decided they would have to swim. Harry’s mother, Dora, was in a two-story house nearby. The upper story was above the water. But then, fortunately, the boat in their driveway detached from its trailer and drifted close enough to their house that they could climb into the rocking hull. They survived the storm, but their home and all their belongings were destroyed.
“There’s our house,” Helwig said one evening in August. He was pointing at a square on a giant satellite map taped to a wall in a brightly lit school gymnasium. “Or what’s left of it.” The square was on a nub of land that stuck into Jamaica Bay, which separates the Rockaway Peninsula from the rest of the borough of Queens. “Now we’re waiting for demolition,” Helwig said. He and Keelah planned to rebuild, and they were hoping the city would help them.
The Helwigs had come to the gym for an information session about the city’s flood recovery program, run by Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, which was established after Hurricane Sandy. Morgan Jones ’04 is the senior adviser for outreach for Housing Recovery in Queens and was one of the event’s organizers. He helped launch the program, Build It Back, on June 3. Its $648 million budget was allocated from the $61 billion federal Sandy recovery bill that Congress passed in January.
“The idea tonight is for people to meet with developers and find out their rebuild options,” Jones told me. A big part of Jones’s job is to make sure that people like the Helwigs apply to Build It Back. He publicizes the program citywide, mainly through social media, e-mail blasts, and events. More than 17,000 people have already applied. His work never ends. “I have a Blackberry that follows me everywhere I go,” he said. “And my wife loves that.”
Over the last year, Jones has helped hundreds of people navigate the aftermath of the violent flood. Immediately after the storm, 150,000 New Yorkers had to find temporary housing or get immediate home repairs. More than 20,000 households still need help—whether they need to rebuild entirely, make repairs, or get reimbursed for work already done. Some homeowners will be able to sell their property to the government, particularly those in the worst flood-hazard areas. So far, such buyouts have been sought only in Staten Island.
Recovery work is not for the one-dimensional. Jones became a mold expert. He learned how to start a generator. He arranged with a real-estate developer to move a wheelchair-bound boy trapped for months in his fourth-floor apartment (the elevator was broken) to a ground-floor unit. He read the fine print contained in flood insurance plans.
Sandy was the largest hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, with tropical storm-force winds spanning 1,100 miles, roughly the distance from Manhattan to Miami. It was the second costliest storm in American history, after Katrina. A storm of such magnitude has countless impacts and meanings. For Jones, its impact is redefined daily by its human toll. For many people, Sandy has become a historic event, a natural disaster, and a regional tragedy whose details slowly fade.
But for some people, Sandy has been a stark illustration of the changing climate and a call to arms. They believe there must be new coastal-development policies, new measures to slow greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptations to protect people from the next storm. Mark Mauriello ’79, the former commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is among those inspired to rethink priorities. He has been a vocal critic of Governor Chris Christie’s approach to Sandy recovery. “There are two sides to the Sandy story. One is technical, and the other is human,” Mauriello explained. “And the human side is always compelling. Listening to testimony of the trauma and misery that storm victims experienced really highlights the importance of considering the increasing coastal-hazard vulnerability that we face. Shame on us if we fail to learn the lessons of Sandy and repeat past mistakes as we rebuild.”