Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area

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Japanese Workers’ Co-operative Union & Recovery Challenges of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake

Nagato Yuzo (President JWCU), Takako Tsuchiya (translator), Wade, Toru Fujita (vice-preisdent), and Ken Yamazki (Japan Labor Institute)

Sendai   Sendai is the largest city in eastern Japan about 2-hours by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo central station.  A lot of the recovery efforts from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, as it is called here, and the tsunami are centered here along with the recovery office of the Japanese Workers’ Co-operative Union (JWCU).  Sendai seems in good shape.  Tomorrow we see some of the areas hard hit on March 11, 2011 when a Richter scale 9, worst earthquake ever, hit Japan.   As a reminder, the earthquake was so powerful it literally moved Japan more than 8 feet closer to the United States and changed the Earth’s mass enough to shorten the day by a bit of a second.  The tsunami was over 130 feet high at some points and move inland as much as 6-miles in places wrecking huge devastation, killing more than 15,000 with more than 20,000 still missing 18 months later and presumed dead.  This was a tragedy of literally world shaking, historic proportions!

Because of Hurricane Katrina and then the “Organizers’ Short Guide to the Lessons of Disaster” that I included as an appendix to my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, I was curious whether there were things that Japan had learned that the rest of us needed to know, and what the role of community-based organizations, like JWCU, and popular engagement might have been in the recovery efforts.  I jumped at the chance to string together some seminars and cadge a tour of the area and get a better feeling for all of this.

The JWCU is quite an operation (see long article in coming Social Policy) with a combined turnover of $338,000,000 if all of its member cooperatives are added together.  I met with their President, Vice-President, and members of their international bureau for several hours in Tokyo today to get a better grip on it.  Toru Fujital, the President, addressed the differences between the Kobe earthquake and fire recovery (which we visited in 2006) and the current crisis in a telling way:

  • This one is slower; since the Government ran the operation directly in Kobe and has slowed down to allow more citizens’ input this time.
  • The nuclear crisis in the area has created more uncertainty than Kobe about the future of the area and let to more disagreements nationally about the country’s direction.
  • The current financial crisis in Japan has meant less money and a weaker conviction about the future given depopulation and aging population in the areas as well.
  • The disaster is spread over a larger area and imperils entire industries (fishing, forestry, agriculture).
  • Coordination involves lots of municipalities and prefectures (states or provinces) rather than one city like Kobe.

Some things were common though.  Jobs and housing led the list as they did in New Orleans.  Housing seemed totally unsettled still because contamination will likely prevent any return ever for some, though nothing has been stated categorically, the truth seems perfectly clear.

JWCU had little base in this part of the country before the disaster, and it seemed was brought in largely by municipalities to help in training and operation of some services on a cooperative basis in the recovery.  The scale of their operations in the East has jumped to about $15 million USD.  They are searching for the right plan as well with 10 pilot projects this year and 20 pilots in different areas next year.  Their involvement is good medicine though and augurs well for the future.

Volunteers have been huge here as well.  The recovery director in Sendai told us a story about one guy who had 6000 folks help him in planting.  Most of the NGO’s in the area are based in Sendai and plan to stay for another 2 years to help.

The planning process seems to have hardly begun, but at least there is a strong commitment to community and in the frequent refrain of the JWCU to “building a new and different society in Japan” through the recovery work in this area.

recovery office in Sendai

Yoko, manager of recovery for JWCU from Sendai

Manager at a nearby cafe that is part of JWCU

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