Partnerships for Preparedness: Shake Hands Across the Table Well Before Disaster Strikes

Jan 4, 2013, 1:40 PM

Volunteers help clean a house on Staten Island Volunteers help clean a house on Staten Island

Preparing for disasters like Hurricane Sandy is critical, even more so because of the massive devastation this storm has brought to Staten Island, New York, where hundreds are still without power, and thousands must rebuild their homes and businesses. Thanks to some critical partnerships that have developed among non-profits and businesses in Staten Island in the last few years, some vital relationships that help to facilitate rapid response were already in place when the super storm hit.

NewPublicHealth spoke with David Sorkin, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island, who is a also a founding board member and past president of the Staten Island Not-For-Profit Association and former chairman of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation Business Council.

NewPublicHealth: How did prior relationships help you serve the community when the hurricane hit?

David Sorkin: The Staten Island Not-For-Profit Association is a collective of about 150 not-for-profits on Staten Island who have been networking, training, and learning together over the past four or five years. We already had relationships and interconnections, which allowed us all to react very, very quickly to issues and concerns as well as emergencies because we have emergencies almost every day, though different from a super storm.

A “normal” emergency not related to a storm is when we have a family or an individual who’s in crisis and needs a variety of support such as economic, legal, financial, counseling or a combination of all of them. So, we work together on a regular basis. The other avenue we work through is the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, which is a coalition of businesses on Staten Island. Because we’re a part of that, I was able to access quality services from businesses and corporations on Staten Island with good relationships already built in. So, I don’t have to worry about vetting these companies and organizations during an emergency and I know that they can come to our assistance very, very quickly.

A good example is a company we’re working with that does a whole variety of services including grounds keeping, janitorial maintenance, repair and renovations. They came to our rescue very quickly to help homeowners who were having a difficult time understanding what their needs were in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. I was also able to quickly access some construction and other kinds of companies about whom I felt very comfortable saying to homeowners, if you talk to this company, they’re going to give you a good deal, not just take your money.

Our last disaster was the economic downturn in 2008. We already had close to 800 clients in that system of all races and religions and the JCC was already structured to deal with a whole variety of needs. And, it almost doesn’t make a difference what kind of disaster it is. Typically, personal needs after a crisis run the spectrum of mental health counseling, financial counseling, legal resources and cash assistance. And that’s the same variety of resources needed to be put in place for all emergencies. So we were prepared to begin to offer direct service to clients when the storm hit.

NPH: And which relationships are key when building community ties that will also kick in during an emergency?

David Sorkin: The relationships both in the for-profit sector and the not-for-profit sector, as well as the government sector were all very important. We have a direct line to every elected official on Staten Island from our congress people through our city council. We are funded through them on a regular basis, and they work with us on projects and activities and provide us with earmark funding when possible. The JCC works very, very closely not only to get the funding, but to do the programs that are necessary for the benefit of all in our community.

NPH: What would you say to communities that right now aren’t facing a disaster at this moment, about building relationships for future needs?

David Sorkin: Well, I guess I’ll use the old adage; one man is not an island. We find it very important that when one is working at a community table—involving a number of different players—to listen to people’s opinions and ideas. We know those are very diverse, especially in the kind of communities that we live in here in New York, and you need to be able to reach your hand across the aisle. And, I feel very strongly that our ability to work with each other regardless of disability, regardless of race, and religion, is so critical when we’re trying to build community and we’re trying to create community. And, that’s something that we do on a regular basis.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.