02/14/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

Rethinking Relief

When disaster enveloped southern Manhattan four years ago, it devastated bank accounts, retirement funds, careers, and lives. The "Great Recession" of 2008 caused millions to suffer. Yet, during what was a crisis for many, a few in a privileged class actually benefited -- profiting from depressed stocks, short home sales, and other winning wagers that bet against the American economy and people. Corporations and the wealthy won, while many of our neighbors struggled to keep their jobs, their homes, and their families together.

More recently, roughly 100 days ago, another disaster, Hurricane Sandy, struck communities along the New York and New Jersey coastlines. Although Sandy was a "natural" disaster, its direct impact was as forceful and widespread as its financial cousin's. The outcomes from Sandy could be eerily similar, too, with the wealthy benefitting and our neighbors suffering. What happened during the Great Recession serves not only as a critical moment of reflection on the 1 percent, it provides a poignant insight into Sandy's aftermath.

Hurricane Sandy caused countless families to lose homes in working class, water-front areas, among them Breezy Point and the Rockaways in Queens. These are longtime enclaves of firemen and policemen, and first-responders -- people who live on public employee salaries. One hundred days after the storm, these families remain vulnerable.

While the depth of Sandy's impact may seem like an isolated incident, a "100-year storm," most experts agree that storms are growing more powerful and the weather increasingly unpredictable, particularly in the Atlantic. And with so many of America's oldest and most populous cities located on the East Coast, we may be facing similar events regularly.

I applaud Gov. Cuomo's initiative to restore ecological services along the coast by buying out homeowners at fair-market value. However, this initiative doesn't go far enough; money alone cannot solve the social problems caused by this natural disaster. Fair market value won't likely provide those displaced working-class families with the adequate buying power to purchase the same quality home at the same distance from their jobs, to say nothing of the impact that this initiative would have on family or community.

When disasters like Hurricane Sandy strike, it is crucial for the federal government to intervene. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is charged with organizing and providing care and support in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we need to ask what happens after FEMA leaves and community rebuilding begins?

Too often people and communities are left to the whims of the "free market." We need a new federal agency to help with the challenges of post-disaster redevelopment. It would address issues like community integrity, economic security, and even green design. Furthermore, this effort must be deliberate and driven with the goal of economic security and social justice; it cannot be left to free market principles.

A model to consider can be found in Christchurch, New Zealand, which has suffered a series of earthquakes over the last two years, killing hundreds and devastating the city center. I visited there recently, and following this disaster is a government-led redevelopment process that is driven by principles of sustainable development. For example, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority was established to assist the affected tens of thousands, helping them with insurance and financial matters. Through this effort the New Zealand government is also ensuring people don't lose out to predatory speculators.

We need a similar entity. Failing to establish one will almost certainly lead to the gentrification of vibrant, century-old working class neighborhoods, where owners will be forced to sell because of exorbitant reconstruction costs and insurance premiums. Make no mistake, Wall Street millionaires and other deep pockets will swoop into these oceanside enclaves to build homes for those same people who benefited from the Great Recession.

In his recent inaugural address, President Obama spoke about not debating the role of government, but rather ensuring we "act in our time." A hundred days after Sandy, as many are still struggling to put their lives back together, is certainly the time to act.

How we protect people and their well-being in the future will largely hinge upon the choices we make now. Our government, first and foremost, must protect the needs and security of those affected by such disasters, financial or "natural," especially the most vulnerable among us, and not the interests of a free market.