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Disasters ● Displacement ● Human Rights

NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.

Property owners and other qualifying individuals in New York City will be given additional time following a disaster to repair and clear their property, without incurring penalties for certain municipal code violations.  New disaster legislation passed by the City Council takes effect August 8, 2016, and applies retroactively to fines imposed after Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy - homes destroyedI’ve posted a detailed summary of new developments here.  In this post, I’ll explain why the scope of protection under one of those laws, Int. 1037, depends on how quickly and effectively the City implements a recovery program following the next major disaster.  The record from Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging, but perhaps the benefit of that experience will produce better results in the future.



A Quick Review of Int. 1037

Continue reading “NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.”

After Hurricane Sandy: Disaster Recovery Laws Shield NYC Property Owners From Municipal Penalties

Property owners and other qualifying individuals will be given additional time following a disaster to make repairs and clear their property, without incurring penalties for certain municipal violations.  Two new disaster recovery laws adopted by the New York City Council take effect August 8, 2016, and apply retroactively to situations that arose following Hurricane Sandy.

Building Code Violations: Exceptions

Int. 1037-A adds provisions to the city’s Construction and Sanitation Codes that apply for a period of time following a disaster, or while property is covered by a city disaster recovery program.

For 90 days following a “natural or man-made disaster,” penalties arising from a Construction Code violation will not be enforced against covered individuals, provided the violation is corrected within 40 days of the disaster period.  Penalties are waived for 6 months following a “major” disaster, also provided that the violation is corrected within the next 40 days.  The Building Commissioner may grant additional time on a case by case basis.

The law does not create a blanket exception to violations issued during the disaster period, however.  The exception applies only to violations connected to the disaster.  For example, Continue reading “After Hurricane Sandy: Disaster Recovery Laws Shield NYC Property Owners From Municipal Penalties”

What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?

I get this question a lot.  For me, it’s someone who uses the law to empower people whose rights are overlooked or outright violated in a disaster.  We advocate for people who were socially vulnerable and politically marginalized even before the disaster, and therefore especially susceptible to human rights abuse after a disaster.

Hurricane Katrina was my first direct experience with a mega-disaster, and it’s important to be clear about what happened. The strength of the storm and where it landed are accepted as reasons so many people died, or struggled to stay afloat in the drawn-out aftermath. But life was fated for people across the Gulf Coast long before Katrina, by government policies that determined who lived where; whether and when they could escape; and if those who made it out were encouraged to return home.  I saw the same thing play out in Haiti, and witnessed it from a distance in the Philippines, Nepal, and virtually everywhere else an earthquake hit, a hurricane struck, or a drought crept in.  The most important thing I learned from Katrina and these other events is that disasters do the most damage along political fault-lines that already exist.

I also learned something else from Katrina.  Continue reading “What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?”

Nepal Earthquake: One Year Later

A massive 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015. The government effectively shut down just weeks later after lawmakers couldn’t agree on the provisions of a new national constitution. The National Reconstruction Authority disbanded as a result, and was recommissioned just recently after the new constitution was adopted.

Meanwhile, India, Nepal’s neighbor and strongest trading partner, blocked aid convoys from crossing into Nepal. Depending who you ask, that move was India’s attempt to flex some muscle against Nepal for constitutional proposals it disapproved of, or to protect drivers from confrontations with violent protesters across the border. Either way, the embargo lasted for four months, during which truckloads of food, and fuel, and building supplies languished on a highway while people inside Nepal slept in the rain without knowing when they would get their next meal.

Finally, the government says, a national reconstruction program is getting out of the gate. Let’s hope that’s true, because a lot of catch up is needed before any appreciable progress can be measured. One year later, here’s where things stand:

The toll:

  • 9000: people killed;
  • 1,000,000: homes destroyed;
  • 4,000,000: people still living under substandard temporary conditions.

The “progress”:

The money flow:

Reports also say that villagers in the hardest hit remote areas have yet to receive ANY governmental assistance, and still have not been reached by aid groups.

-Kathleen Bergin

Predatory Peacekeepers: The UN’s Failed Response to Rape and Sexual Exploitation in CAR

In March, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272 in response to ongoing revelations that French and west-African peacekeepers raped and sexually exploited civilians they were deployed to protect in the Central African Republic.  The Resolution endorses a proposal by the Secretary General to return home the peacekeeping contingent of a country whose peacekeepers sexually abuse civilians.

Hold your applause.

The problem of predatory peacekeepers is decades old, having plagued operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Cambodia, Haiti, the DRC, and Liberia – to name just a few countries.  More than a thousand accusations have surfaced since 2007 alone.  It’s easy then, to shrug off the Resolution as a last-minute attempt to restore the UN’s damaged reputation – at least until it delivers concrete results.

And whether that will happen, is doubtful. The Secretary General is in the process of formulating the procedures that would trigger repatriation, but the individuals he chose to lead that effort are the same high-ranking UN officials, as described by the Code Blue campaign, whose “negligence, indifference and subsequent cover-ups compounded the horrors” in CAR.

The Code Blue campaign is a special project of Aids-Free World, the advocacy group that uncovered the scandal in CAR.  The group derides the current proposal as “the fox guarding the hen house,” and calls for an independent oversight board that reports directly to member states and operates entirely separate from the UN.  Nothing in the current proposal, they say, “suggests the kind of change that needs to happen, to extirpate peacekeeping sexual abuse, once and for all.”

The potential for corruption and mismanagement may be the most problematic concern with Resolution 2272, but it’s not the only one.  Let’s take a look at some additional problems, Continue reading “Predatory Peacekeepers: The UN’s Failed Response to Rape and Sexual Exploitation in CAR”

Lead and Legionnaires’: Involuntary Manslaughter on the Table in Flint

If you want to know more about “involuntary manslaughter” charges that investigators are discussing in Flint, then read on.  This post doesn’t present all of the evidence that could support criminal charges, or try to prove someone guilty of a crime.  But it does tell you what involuntary manslaughter actually means, and highlights some important findings from a recent Task Force report.  It also identifies a few things standing in the way of criminal charges.

The attorney investigating the water crisis in Flint announced in February that he would consider involuntary manslaughter charges against anyone who was grossly negligent in handling an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that sickened 87 people over a 17 month period, and has so far killed 11.

Legionnaires’ causes flu-like symptoms, and can be deadly to people with suppressed immune symptoms. Continue reading “Lead and Legionnaires’: Involuntary Manslaughter on the Table in Flint”

Flint: Why It’s Not A “Federal” Disaster

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked the federal government to declare Flint a major disaster on account of the city’s lead water crisis. That would make $96 million in sorely needed federal aid available to clean the water, fix the broken infrastructure, and provide health care to people who will suffer the life-long consequences of lead poisoning.  But the Obama Administration said no, prompting an appeal from state and local lawmakers who are desperate for extra cash.

So what gives?

Federal disaster declarations are governed by the Stafford Act, which limits when the President, through executive agencies, can declare a disaster.  The law provides for two types of declarations: an “Emergency” or a “Major Disaster.”  Some federal aid is allocated in an Emergency, but much more is allocated in a Major Disaster.

An “Emergency” is defined as “any occasion or instance” that requires federal assistance to supplement state and local efforts and capacities to save lives, protect property, or avert a catastrophe. Continue reading “Flint: Why It’s Not A “Federal” Disaster”

Flint Water Crisis: A Human Rights Failure

The US Human Rights Network’s National Human Rights To Water and Sanitation Coalition calls attention to the Flint water crisis as a human rights violation that disproportionately impacts people in marginalized communities. From the press release:

[A]ccess to safe, affordable, and clean water is an internationally recognized universal human right. Just this past October, members of our coalition testified at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing on the Human Right to Water in the Americas. In Flint and across the country, the water crisis in the U.S. is also a crisis of economic class and racially-based discrimination that disproportionately impacts poor people, communities of color, Indigenous Peoples, migrants, women, people with disabilities, elders, children, the chronically ill, and other groups that have historically faced discrimination. Continue reading “Flint Water Crisis: A Human Rights Failure”

Nepal: What if Saving My Boys Means We Don’t Save Yours?

Everest RescueLet me be clear: if my boys are caught on Everest when the avalanche hits, I want the full thrust of the world’s resources put toward their rescue.

But what if saving my boys means to a mother down below that we won’t save hers?

This is why talk about “how to allocate resources” in the search and rescue phase of an emergency is so frustrating.  The discussion is so administrative, so technical, so mundane.  In reality, however, resource allocation decisions result in gut-wrenching consequences that need to be acknowledged and debated front and center.  We can sanitize it all we want, but the people who decide where the money goes (both before and after a disaster) also decide who lives and who dies.

Ben Wisner raised some thoughtful points on this issue in an exchange on the Gender and Disaster Online list-serve.  His comments are posted below, with permission: Continue reading “Nepal: What if Saving My Boys Means We Don’t Save Yours?”

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