As we pass through Thanksgiving weekend our hearts, prayers, and hopes go out to those who have suffered so severely from Hurricane Sandy. The amount of property devastation has recently become even more apparent as we watch television scenes of damaged beach areas which had been temporarily closed to residents and the press. For some of us the worst problem was a few days without power. For others it was the loss of loved ones, possessions, homes, jobs and businesses.
Governor Chris Christie provided a preliminary estimate yesterday indicating Hurricane Sandy caused $29.4 billion in damages to New Jersey, including personal property, businesses, transportation, utilities, infrastructure, and the state’s $38 billion tourism industry. He cautioned that this estimate may rise.
The emotional toll for those affected is incalculable. Mary Pat Christie on NJTV last week cited the rise in domestic violence and suicide rates after a disaster. She said she expects that Hurricane Sandy NJ Relief Fund (HSNJRF), for which she serves as Chair, will prioritize the creation of mental-health assistance.
The Red Cross and other emergency relief groups moved rapidly to provide immediate help. Insurance companies are already making payouts, but they typically leave many costs uncovered. Individuals without separate flood insurance face a separate problem. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) so far has received 221,000 storm-related claims from New Jersey individuals and families and doled out $217 million. As the Star-Ledger points out, FEMA currently holds only $12 billion in disaster aid funds – insufficient for all the east coast states affected. Lawmakers will be asked to provide billions of dollars to meet the needs of the governors, not an easy task in a politically divided capital.
Foundations have also sprung into action – some with an emphasis on the emotional toll. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation employees will spend the next six months studying the capacity of major institutional mental healthcare providers across the state before making determinations about where to allocate the $4.5 million in long-term funding it has pledged. The hastily put together HSNJRF on its web page has now moved to clarify its tax status, explain its independence from State government, and promise transparency. In an email to potential donors it lists key objectives: 1) Gap Funding (what FEMA and insurance doesn’t cover for rebuilding). 2) Mental health initiatives. 3) Financial counseling and assistance for those who have lost homes and jobs. 4) Rebuilding non-profit facilities (they are not eligible for aid from FEMA).
The recovery efforts are only just beginning and require immediate and long-term actions and planning. Ultimately the amount of monies paid to NJ by FEMA and insurers will be a huge factor. Coping with the emotional trauma will be particularly difficult. Filling in the remaining gaps will be up to all of us – those impacted, foundations, state/local government, corporations, non profit agencies, volunteers, and donors.