Gotham Gazette

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Climate Change and Disaster Recovery: The Soul of Our Work Together


The author participating in clean-up efforts

On the evening of October 29th, 2012 Superstorm Sandy struck the New York Metro area with unbridled ferocity and though city planners were aware of the risks, the infrastructure was not at all prepared to deal with the immediate effects or the aftermath of such a massive natural disaster.

Superstorm Sandy proved to be the intersection of climate change and a compassionate response to disasters in a way that I could never have envisioned before. I had been stewing over our society's lackadaisical response to climate change, and what the potential consequences could be. But in my role as Disaster Response Coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Association (a grant-funded role specifically created for post-Sandy needs), I began to really see how all the social justice work I am called to do matters little if we continue to ignore what we are doing to the earth.

At the moment, faith groups are preparing to join thousands of others who will be coming to New York City at the same time as a UN Climate Summit at which world leaders will be discussing a global deal on climate change. While all these discussions continue at a global scale, it is crucial that we show that communities are coming together to say that we are committed to climate action. That being said, our responsibilities do not begin or end on this day. Metro New York's capacity to respond to climate change was, of course, tested long before we began organizing for this march.

After Superstorm Sandy, a number of community organizations demonstrated that low-income renters—mostly people of color and immigrants—were disproportionately impacted by the wrath of Sandy. But they had another strike against them: recovery assistance available to them was paltry in comparison to that of Sandy-pummeled homeowners. Obviously this was not a first time occurrence. Renters on the Gulf Coast were also hit hard by Katrina and assistance to renters there also was minimal (see "Treading Water: Renters in Post Sandy New York City" by Make the Road New York).

I am still working with congregations of volunteers coming to Metro New York to assist with Sandy relief, particularly for the most marginalized homeowners. But the issue that keeps me up at night is the slow and dispassionate response to the needs of low-income renters, many of whom are fearful to sign up for the few benefits available to them. Many undocumented renters are fearful that they might be deported or be profiled. Some immigrants do not understand the materials written in English and translation services are unavailable in many cases. Renters also have to go into Manhattan to apply for some forms of assistance while homeowners often can simply go to nearby local offices.

Two years is too long to respond to any massive disaster. Storms such as Sandy or Katrina, both of which we are still recovering from, will keep testing us. We need to respond with compassion and care to find homes, housing, food, and other services for people. Above all, we need to plan and understand our holistic relationship to this earth, to the skies, and to the seas that surround us. We need to look at climate change head on, not avert our eyes any longer because the pain and sorrow will not go away.

Like Katrina, Sandy was amplified by the changing climate: warmer oceans, jet stream weakening, and a wetter atmosphere. Climate Change is here. And we, the people of this planet, with brains and hearts to creatively deal with this climate crisis turn the other way.

Every faith asks that we respond in solidarity with those with the greatest needs. Our prayers, our actions, our community gatherings all must be centered in responding to climate change. There is plenty we can do. Most certainly, turning away will not ameliorate the climate crisis brewing in our universe.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, a beautiful acapella African-American singing group, put Gandhi's words rousingly to music: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Indeed, we are. Let us join one million strong in New York City for the People's Climate March on September 21. Let us share this earth and join in solidarity to show the leaders of the UN Summit that we will not turn away. We are one and we are marching with one voice.

The Rev. Susan Karlson is a Unitarian Universalist community minister currently working on Superstorm Sandy Recovery throughout the Metro NY area. She is also the co-chair of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an interfaith organization that supports, empowers and witnesses with immigrants, and she is a 2015 Green Faith Fellow.