While Pratt itself was largely spared the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, members of its community lost power, lost water, or had their homes damaged and made inhabitable. Elisabetta DiStefano, president of the Student Government Association (SGA), was one such person. Her home in Howard Beach, Queens, flooded causing considerable damage and lost electricity for over a week. Her family has yet to move back.
Pratt Graduate Communications Design student Maura M. Frana’s ground-floor apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was flooded, ruining many of her belongings. In a story the New York Times ran on November 7 on the exacerbated scarcity of affordable housing in light of the storm, she told the paper, “Everything is going within hours of becoming available.” The Office of Students Affairs ensured that Di Stefano, Frana, and four other displaced students were given housing in the residence halls and at the Pratt House, the president’s official residence.
By far, the worst damage in the New York area was in Coney Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook, Gowanus, and parts of New Jersey. The Pratt community quickly organized to share their skills, be they sandwich-making or long-term disaster planning. Within days of the hurricane, the Pratt Community Engagement Board had partnered with the Programs for Planning and Sustainable Development students to form a new relief organization called Pratt Disaster Resilience Network (PDRN).
The organization was created by students “in response to the disconnect between people who need help and those who can give help in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.” They organized multiple drop-off points on campus for donations for relief efforts and created a blog for the Pratt Community. So far they have delivered 20 carloads of donations and have had 40 volunteers working on-site in the Rockaways.
“I am proud of our students,” said Helen Matusow-Ayers, Vice President for Student Affairs. “I am impressed by how they care about the community and how organized they have been in putting this together.”
While PDRN members represent the range of disciplines on campus and, in turn, serve as liaisons to those programs, the group is led by a core of graduate students in the planning department. In addition to organizing donations and volunteers to help with cleaning up debris in the Rockaways, their long-term mission is to promote grassroots action and long-term planning for disaster resilience with a focus on equity and justice of response.
According to Alix Fellman, the group coordinator for PDRN, streamlining communication and understanding community need is a huge part of their mission. “We are trying to strategize about what resources Pratt can put towards the larger community. A lot of our work is about partnering with community organizations,” says Fellman. “We already had a relationship with the environmental group, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance."
The other goal of PDRN is to look to the future and look at how outside community groups can develop their capacities in preparation for disasters. “Small community groups aren’t in the disaster business but they end up being the first responders when it comes to things like food access or the environment,” says Fellman. “We want to make sure they have the resources they need."
PDRN is also looking at what kind of policy needs to be put in place from the city level on up to the national level. “What kind of policies do we need to put in place in terms of infrastructure, rebuilding, and the human component of getting through all of the bureaucracy just to get help?” asks Fellman. One great concern of PDRN is the interim housing challenge, particularly for the thousands of people displaced from public housing. “Where are they going to stay?,” says Fellman. “Will we construct prefab housing as they did after Katrina? Where will it be sited? If we put it near their former homes they risk being hit again."
SGA President DiStefano, who is completing her M.S. in Communications Design this semester and starting another M.S. in City and Regional Planning next semester, is helping with PDRN's communications efforts. With an already strong interest in the role of community boards in the city, she is creating an initiative to unify the disparate boards through social media, with her twitter account gaining the most traction thus far. "I know community boards are stretched thin," says DiStefano. "However I think they are capable of accomplishing more with better integrated communication."
While the storm was a disaster, the volunteers are having a very positive learning experience. “Everybody jumped in and worked together,” said Fellman. “It has been amazing, especially as we get toward the end of the semester and everyone is on edge already.” They hope to have a summer institute on disaster planning if they can’t integrate it into their classes in the spring. Through their volunteering thus far they have been making contacts with high-profile professionals in the field who have agreed to work with them in the classroom.
A number of Pratt faculty are lending their expertise to the rebuilding effort as well. Architect and Pratt faculty member Jim Garrison held a workshop in Red Hook for homeowners and business owners to share rebuilding resources, where he explained some of the more arcane FEMA guidelines, and advised regarding updated mechanical systems that are less expensive and less flood-prone.