Saturday, April 13, 2013


Re-establishment of the built or natural “place” is more important to disaster-affected people than the areas emphasized by the government, i.e., mitigating damages and fostering resilience.  This point was clearly made by residents of the Rockaways in New York, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. In a meeting with federal, state, and local politicians, these residents voiced their desire to be heard. Moreover, last month, John Corri,[2] the co-founder of Friends of Rockaway Beach, was emphatic and clear when he indicated that his neighbors have expressed their concerns that they simply want their voices to be heard.  “We are talking about the future of Rockaway, and this is not the time for outside agencies to be dictating what’s best for us. This is our town and we want a seat at the table when it’s time to plan out our future.”[3]

Moreover, other New York residents are seemingly at greater peril. Make the Road New York (MRNY) a New York community-based umbrella organization conducted a study of Staten Island and Long Island amongst “non-qualified aliens,” i.e., non-qualified immigrants that have been barred from receiving monetary assistance from FEMA or unemployment benefits. Some within this group have children who are US citizens, but they are afraid to apply for services because they fear the possibility of deportation.[4] The umbrella organization has been able to document that thousands of families have lost their safety nets and community networks and are currently relying solely on their own emotional strength. Their needs include but are not limited to the following: (1) housing and the ability to re-establish their “place,” (2) supplemental nutritional assistance, (3) opportunities to become engaged in the reconstruction of their communities in a “cash for work” program or other type of labor reform, and (4) inclusion by FEMA and partner agencies (i.e., to actively seek out the people in need and provide psychosocial support for all those in this cohort).[5]

Interestingly, the federal government tends to agree with this community and its members. A report released by FEMA (2011) indicates “recovery can be successful only when it is locally driven, and the community [place] takes ownership of the process. The visioning process should be inclusive, reaching out to all stakeholders in the community for input [emphasis added].”[6]

In this instance, we have the following stakeholders: (1) a disaster-affected people from the Rockways clamoring to be heard regarding their thoughts about the future of their own built and natural place amidst the plans presented by external stakeholders for the recovery of that place; (2) a population of disaster-affected people from Long Island and Staten Island who have not received the full complement of services because of their immigrant status but still need to re-establish their places and four identified steps to improve their recovery process, and (3) a government agency and their respective partners who seem to agree that disaster-affected people must take ownership of their recovery and their place and be given the opportunity to provide input on the visioning for the future of their respective place.

However, the situation is missing a schematic of service delivery. The International Convention of the Protection of the Rights of Migrants and their Families and the International Standards proposed by the SPHERE Project propose a path that could resolve the existing situation. A gestation period during which disaster-affected people are given opportunities to express their frustration and share their dreams for the future is necessary; this is important in the immediate future due to the efforts to develop action steps moving forward, and it is necessary as a preventive method to reduce mental health issues that could arise a year from now.

Using psychosocial support as a platform, a non-governmental agency (NGO) would become responsible for meeting disaster-affected people in their respective places to identify their geographical space and outline their needs, hopes, and aspirations related to re-establishing their place. Community people would then be trained to weave pre-existing networks, develop new ones, and provide psychological first aid (i.e., provide an opportunity for people to voice their experiences and desires, thus generating calmness and contributing to visioning for the future). The NGO would then identify protective factors and challenges, prioritize potential projects to improve place (e.g., clean-up campaigns for the natural and built spaces and neighbor to neighbor projects focused on reconstructing housing) provide funding for these work projects, and provide children with emotional and educational assistance through after-school programs. 

Every activity focused on recovery is possible by maintaining a nimble posture; encouraging wide participation by the disaster-affected people in their own recovery process; becoming partners with the residents in their visions, dreams, and aspiration; and promoting the goal of enhancing resilience and well-being.

[1] Dr. Prewitt Diaz is the recipient of the 2008 APA International Humanitarian Award and the CEO of the Center on Psychosocial Support in Disaster in Alexandria, VA.
[2] CNN iReport (March 13, 2013). Rockaway residents demand say in Sandy recovery plans. (
[3] Ibid, p. 2
[4] Make the Road New York (MRNY) (December 2012). Unmet needs: Superstorm Sandy and immigrant communities in the metro New York area. p. 5
[5] Ibid, p. 10
[6] FEMA (2011). Lessons in community recovery. Washington, D.C.: Department of Homeland Security. p. 2. 

1 comment: