On Friday, February 21st I broke from my normal office routine and headed up to Fordham Law School for the annual Fordham Environmental Law Review Symposium, which this year was titled “Eye of the Storm: Hurricane Sandy Response and Rebuilding Strategies.” The panels at the Symposium demonstrated an emphasis on addressing the systemic problems Sandy illuminated with long-term policy changes that will lessen the level of inequality in the response to future disasters.
I expected the forum would be too legal and technical for me to fully understand, but was pleasantly surprised to find much of the discussion practical and relatable to anyone with an interest or background in Sandy issues. Three panels – on the community vulnerabilities Sandy exposed, governance and compensation, and reducing vulnerability while increasing resilience – followed a keynote address by Bruch College adjunct professor and New York State Assembly candidate Cory Evans.
Evans focused his address on the tension between recognizing the need to immediately respond to a disaster with the desire to establish a proper process for relief administration. In the first panel, attorneys and advocates highlighted how Sandy was particularly damaging to groups such as the disabled and public housing residents and how decision-making failed to include community input, while Loyola University and Tulane University professor Robert Verchick demonstrated the large body of evidence showing patterns in how disasters disproportionally affect certain groups.
The second panel focused on how present taxation, disaster management, and insurance systems could be modified to allow for a more equal response to disasters on behalf of all populations. In the third panel, attorneys and academics involved with Sandy response proposed deeper information sharing by non-profits, a series of improvements to New York City’s Build It Back program, a program to subsidize home elevations, modifications to federal disaster programs, and the inclusion of more alternative dispute resolutions.
Unsurprisingly, many of the same issues were also addressed at the Disaster Lawyering Post-Sandy Conference co-hosted by Pro Bono Net, The Legal Aid Society and the City Bar Justice Center this past October. In October, I was just familiarizing myself with the myriad legal issues clients, pro bono, and legal services attorneys have faced related to Sandy. Thus, I was surprised when panelists at that conference highlighted inequalities in Sandy’s impact and with the effects of recovery programs. I was also first learning about insurance complications, the different recovery programs, and all of the various bureaucratic difficulties Sandy survivors faced in rebuilding. At Fordham, I noticed many of the same themes outlined and the same continuing problems that the attorneys and advocates were working to address.
However, I did notice a glaring difference between what I heard in October at the New York City Bar Association and the panels at the Symposium. While much of October’s discussion focused on service delivery and how lawyers could better respond to disasters, the speakers now proposed policy and programmatic responses. The speakers were not ignoring the continuing problems and need for services, and many are working full-time on cases and advocacy related to more immediate responses, but there was also an increasing recognition that now is the time to start thinking about addressing the underlying problems that led to the disproportionate effects of Sandy.
Cory Evans, the keynote speaker at the Fordham Symposium, noted that the serious, vexing, and fundamental policy questions about disaster response should not be asked during a disaster but rather in advance. At Fordham, the Sandy legal responders demonstrated that they are not only thinking about Sandy response but also about the fundamental policy questions regarding the inevitable next disaster. Similarly, at Pro Bono Net we are preparing for the future by institutionalizing the knowledge and collaborative processes developed in the legal services and pro bono community during Sandy relief, without ignoring continuing needs. Hopefully, together we can make long-term progress.