Housing Alone Won’t Heal New York: Sandy Survivors Need Healthcare, Too

On the second anniversary of the superstorm, access to healthcare is an essential but forgotten part of long-term recovery.

I gave birth to my second daughter in New York City just before Superstorm Sandy, and carried her home the afternoon it hit. We lay together in my bed, the baby oblivious to the noise, as the darkness fell. For hours I listened to the shrieking darkness, as the flood waters rose just one mile away.

Now my daughter is two years old, and I’m the executive director of a group,Doctors of the World USA, that runs a free medical clinic in the Rockaways, partly as a response to Superstorm Sandy. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of the contrast between my own healthcare experience amidst the storm, and the pervasive absence of quality healthcare Rockaways residents are still met with each day.

Of course, when we opened the doors of the Rockaways Free Clinic a year ago, we knew things were bad. Superstorm Sandy had devastated this isolated peninsula in Queens. Homes remained in shambles. Many doctors and clinics had yet to resume delivering care.

What’s surprised us over the last year is that people’s needs run even deeper than we’d first thought. The majority of our patients—uninsured and undocumented residents—haven’t seen doctors for ten, twenty, even thirty years. They have layer upon layer of untreated conditions, from diabetes and high blood pressure, to asthma and obesity.

Over the course of nearly 700 patient visits, we came to realize we were intervening in a serious health crisis, one years in the making, the result of protracted under-investment in healthcare and gaping social inequities.

The Rockaways is a largely forgotten, largely poor area of New York City. Though socioeconomically diverse, it is home to one of the most massive concentrations of public housing in the city, and has long had disproportionately high rates of unemployment and chronic disease.

And then came Sandy.

Last month, we released a health survey of nearly 400 Rockaways residents, conducted jointly with Columbia University. Our data showed a strong correlation between lingering material damages and post-storm stress, depression, and anxiety. Rockaways residents reported lower rates of access to primary care today than in 2012; in fact, it’s believed that many medical providers left the area after Sandy for good. Twenty-three percent of residents surveyed said their health declined after the storm. Local officials worry that the health disparities that existed before the storm continue to grow.

Today, access to healthcare is an essential but forgotten part of long-term recovery. Yes, housing and jobs matter, and physical infrastructure is key. But health infrastructure is equally needed. It is the foundation of a truly resilient community, enabling it to withstand the painful impact of disasters. Doctors of the World sees that in the Rockaways, we see it fighting Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone, we see it in the almost 300 other programs we run worldwide.

If recovery efforts in the Rockaways and other disaster-stricken areas are to succeed, we need to craft a holistic approach that places long-term access to high-quality, community-based healthcare on an equal footing with housing and jobs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made important strides in overhauling Sandy recovery efforts; for that he and his administration should be praised. We are all too aware, however, that the critical need to ensure access to healthcare and other essential community services remains.

It’s not academic. Healthier communities are stronger, more resilient communities, and more resilient communities will be more likely to survive natural disasters, and thrive in the meantime.

So on this second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy—and for me, my daughter’s second birthday—let’s recommit to ensuring a full recovery for Sandy survivors. By making quality, affordable healthcare a meaningful reality in the Rockaways and other areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change, we can set an important precedent for disaster recovery and preparedness nationwide. And by investing in care for those who are most marginalized to begin with, whether because of poverty or poor health, we can help ensure everyone has the best possible chance to weather the next storm.  

Miranda Sissons is executive director of Doctors of the World USA, part of the Medecins du Monde (MdM) international network. She has worked at Human Rights Watch and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and she has authored more than 20 publications in the field of human rights, the Middle East, gender and reproductive rights and international humanitarian law. 

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