Interfaith Efforts and Hurricane Sandy Recovery in New York City (2015)

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated areas in the Northeastern United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. In New York City, at least 43 people died and thousands of homes were destroyed.[1] The city experienced $19 billion in damages and it was weeks before power and train lines were restored in most parts of the city.[2] While New York was largely able to bounce back, the recovery process is not complete for many residents. Some are now frustrated, years later, with the inefficiency and lack of resources to rebuild properly.[3] Coastal neighborhoods that experienced great amounts of damage have been especially slow to recover. Throughout the recovery process, collaboration—among communities, organizations, and government agencies—became essential. Groups that otherwise might not have had anything to do with one another came together in the face of disaster. The necessity of these collaborations, and the sheer diversity of the city, revealed several ways in which interfaith work and interfaith interactions can occur at, and offer benefit to, nearly every level of disaster recovery.

Staten Island was one of the areas most severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and it provides an example of the potential connections between interfaith dialogue and disaster recovery. Staten Island experienced more deaths than any borough in New York City and, as of early 2016, there are many residents who have not yet been able to return to their homes.[4] Yet Staten Island was also the first New York City borough to form a Long Term Recovery Organization. They built upon an existing network of clergy—Staten Island Clergy Leadership—that was already meeting monthly. Following Hurricane Sandy, the Reverend Karen Jackson called a meeting of Clergy Leadership and they began to meet on a weekly basis in order to share information. As secular social service organizations began coming to these meetings, this became a centralized place for a Hurricane Sandy response. Interfaith dialogue taking place on Staten Island before the storm hit provided a space for collaboration at a time when it was also necessary. Beyond simply rebuilding, Jackson is keen to add that understanding the economic and social issues that Staten Island faces is also essential for a proper recovery process. “As clergy, we see how all these things are interconnected. They’re all broader justice issues with a political-moral component.”[5]

At a city-level, New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) played a major role in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As “a 501(c)(3) faith-based federation of service providers and charitable organizations who work in partnership to provide disaster readiness, response, and recovery services to New York City,” NYDIS promotes both religious literacy and an interfaith mindset as part of disaster recovery.[6] NYDIS was formed in the wake of September 11th when organizations—many faith-based—came to New York to assist after the attack. There was a lot of disorganization and duplication of services so a number of heads of faith-based recovery organizations got together and realized that in order to organize and streamline the work of faith-based groups, they would need to form a “disaster interfaith,” shorthand for an interfaith disaster recovery organization. Among the founders was Peter Gudaitis, who currently serves as Chief Response Officer for NYDIS and President & CEO of National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN). Before 9/11 there were only three organizations like NYDIS nationally, but in the years since there has been a rise in interfaith disaster response efforts across the country. NDIN, working on a national level, supports the work of the local initiatives, such as NYDIS, and creates a platform for collaboration among the various disaster interfaiths.

When Sandy hit in 2012, NYDIS was prepared to coordinate both the efforts of many faith-based federations that do disaster relief work and the raising of funds for disaster recovery. NYDIS organizes the Unmet Needs Roundtable, convening a coalition of donors and case management agencies to allocate funds to those that need it. Through this effort, NYDIS works on both the philanthropic side and the case management side to ensure that there is a proper awareness of religious and cultural needs in the process. Having a disaster interfaith in the mix, explained Gudaitis, ensures that the diverse needs of families and communities are not ignored. For example, some Orthodox Jewish families whose homes in Brooklyn were damaged during Sandy requested funds for two sinks in their kitchens. While some donors may have thought this request was unreasonable, NYDIS understood that they needed separate sinks for meat and dairy dishes, in accordance with Jewish law. In another instance, federations made an exception to their general policy of only giving aid if there are two working adults in a family when they realized that the family structure of many West African Muslim families on Staten Island was such that the women did not work.

NYDIS’s work highlights why it is important for both donors and case managers to have a certain level of religious literacy and a working understanding of the communities that they are helping. To that end, NYDIS provides resources and trainings for a range of people working in disaster recovery. While this need is evident in a city as large and as diverse as New York City, Gudaitis thinks that religious competency should be a part of recovery efforts everywhere, particularly where the needs of numerically small minority religious communities could be ignored without repercussions.

While NYDIS was prepared for Hurricane Sandy recovery due to their work after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Sandy posed some unique and unexpected challenges. Typically, NYDIS works predominantly with national federations that are denominational organizations, such as United Methodist Committee on Relief and Catholic Charities, among others. However, recovering from Sandy, more so than previous disasters, required NYDIS to work on the ground with individual congregations. Gudaitis estimated that there are about 1,300 congregations in New York City’s coastal flood zone and nearly all of them were affected by the hurricane. As he put it, Hurricane Sandy was an “equal opportunity destructor.”[7] Unlike some other disasters that largely affected particular communities or populations, Sandy affected a wide range of people. While coordinating between congregations proved to be a challenge, the experience strengthened NYDIS’s work and they learned how to best work and partner at the congregational level.

In addition to the interfaith work facilitated by organizations like Staten Island Clergy Leadership and NYDIS, there is also interfaith interaction occurring in the actual rebuilding. Some organizations promote interfaith dialogue as part of a volunteer experience, such as efforts to bring college students of different backgrounds together to volunteer. These experiences are often considered “worldview-changing,” said Gudaitis, since students take the time to learn about those who are different from them. But not all the interfaith interactions that occur during disaster recovery are intentional. A group of Muslim volunteers might be hosted in a Unitarian Universalist church and volunteer with Evangelical Christian rebuild organizations with none of these groups explicitly intending to do “interfaith.” Furthermore, homeowners do not get to choose what type of people are volunteering in their home or providing funding for them to rebuild. “You get what you get,” said Gudaitis. “And how much you engage with them is certainly up to you, but you still have to come to terms with what it means that you’re getting charity from people you didn’t think you signed up to get charity from.”[8]

Effectively incorporating interfaith work into the recovery process can have a long-term impact in New York. The relationships formed through the recovery effort and the increased knowledge and competency gained by various individuals and institutions can be utilized towards building resilience. Creating relationships and partnerships between communities may actually be the most effective way to prepare for the next crisis. High levels of social capital and strong social networks are often correlated with a city or community’s ability to rebuild and recover following a disaster.[9] As such, interfaith work that occurs on all levels of the recovery process can be the backbone for building greater resilience within a community or city. While the practical impact of interfaith work can sometimes be hard to see, the interfaith networks formed through Hurricane Sandy recovery will likely leave the city better prepared to effectively respond to future disasters. The monthly meetings of the Staten Island Clergy Leadership, for example, did not anticipate disaster recovery, but that network ended up having a practical impact as it became vital to Staten Island’s communication and organization after Hurricane Sandy hit. Gudaitis is certain that the interfaith work that is occurring during the Sandy recovery can have a long-term positive impact for New York City. This work, he said, “builds core resilient relationships in this city that are essential to the city’s general resilience as a whole community. That’s a worthy strategy.”[10]

— Avi Rothfeld, Pluralism Project Research Intern


[1] “Sandy and Its Impacts.” New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. http://www.nyc.gov/html/sirr/downloads/pdf/final_report/Ch_1_SandyImpacts_FINAL_singles.pdf. Accessed 11 March 2016.↩︎

[2] Ibid.↩︎

[3] Matt A.V. Chaban. “Staten Island Homes Finally Go Up, and Up for Auction, in Hurricane’s Wake,” The New York Times. 7 March 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/08/nyregion/staten-island-homes-finally-go-up-and-up-for-auction-in-hurricanes-wake.html?_r=0. Accessed April 2016.↩︎

[4] Ibid.↩︎

[5] Karen Jackson. Interview with Author. 13 July 2015.↩︎

[6] http://www.nydis.org/nydis/nydis/nydis_about.php. Accessed 11 March 2016.↩︎

[7] Peter Gudaitis. Interview with author. 27 July 2015.↩︎

[8] Ibid.↩︎

[9] Daniel Aldrich, Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 15.↩︎

[10] Peter Gudaitis. Interview with author. 27 July 2015.↩︎