The Recovery Begins From Jersey Girl Sandy

October 31, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

“We started up an operation across a geographic area the size of Europe.”

Those are the words of American Red Cross Director of Media Relations Anne Marie Borrego. An estimated 60 million people in 16 states have felt the wrath of Hurricane Sandy throughout the northeast and as far west as Illinois. At least five million residences in the northeast are without power.

Disaster relief nonprofits were operational before Sandy made landfall Monday evening. The sheer size of the storm and the large number of people who could be affected will be one of responders’ biggest challenges. “It’s quite large, so there will be a large number of people affected, which will increase need no matter what the event,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokesperson for the federal agency the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

LCNCS has deployed over 765 volunteers, with 1,000 volunteers on standby and ready to go once the weather clears, according to Warfield. “We are moving quite a few resources around (on Wednesday),” she said. “People are in transit,” including 63 AmeriCorps members en route to New York, said Warfield. She said that Volunteers are from AmeriCorps state and national programs, AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), FEMA Corps and Senior Corps.

“A lot of work happens post-disaster,” said Warfield. “Our volunteers are not search and rescue, they’re helping people rebuild their lives. That’s where a lot of our work comes in.” Warfield said volunteers could be in the area for up to six weeks, but “if the power is out and people are still in shelters, AmeriCorps will be there,” she said.

About 3,200 people stayed in 112 American Red Cross shelters on Sunday night. On Monday night, that number was up to 11,000, and the Washington, D.C.-based organization has already provided approximately 230,000 meals, said spokesperson Jana Sweeny. About 9,000 people stayed in 171 shelters on Tuesday night. It has roughly 1,700 disaster workers deployed.

The Red Cross is currently operating shelters in 16 states: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and Michigan. Shelter counts are refreshed each midnight. Once the hurricane has moved on, Red Cross emergency vehicles will go through affected areas and provide hot meals.

The organization has 167 disaster vehicles in the field. “We’ll be there for as long as people need us,” Sweeny said. “With flooding and power outages, we’ll keep shelters open until people have a good, solid alternative of places to go.”

“Our biggest concern is that people have heeded evacuation orders, planned and done things to be safe,” said Sweeny. “We’ve marshaled our resources and we’re ready to meet needs, but it’s up to people to do the first steps to keep themselves safe.”

As of Wednesday, the Red Cross has had to cancel an estimated 300 blood drives due to Hurricane Sandy, resulting in the loss of about 9,000 blood and platelet products. Giving blood “is a way for people outside of affected areas to help,” said Sweeny. Additionally, the Red Cross’s Hurricane app has been downloaded more than 230,000 times since Friday. The app provides weather updates and a map of nearby shelters, as well as preparedness advice.

Maj. John Hodgson, community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army’s Easter Territory, based in West Nyack, N.Y, said his organization has mobile feeding units ready and waiting in the 11 states covered its the Eastern Territory. “We have all of our emergency disaster teams ready,” he said. “Mostly we’re in the staging, readiness arena awaiting direction.” He added that at least 100 employees and volunteers are already deployed at shelters and canteens in the Northeast, but “literally thousands of employees and volunteers are on standby,” he said.

Employees and volunteers of the Salvation Army, based nationally in Alexandria, Va., work for about two weeks at a time before they’re relieved, said Hodgson.

Hodgson said one of the Salvation Army’s biggest strengths is that they’re already in communities around the country. “We don’t have to mobilize people to different areas,” he said. “We’re in every town and city and we’re ready to go,” he said. Hodgson said he believes Hurricane Sandy will affect most of his region. “This thing is about 1,000 miles wide, so that covers our territory,” he said. “We have to be ready for wherever it hits and not concentrate on any one position.”

The Salvation Army has been put in charge of food distribution in New York City. Lt. Stephen Mayes said the Salvation Army has distributed about 1,500 meals so far, with many more to come. He said some of the organization’s mobile vehicles are already deployed and operating in the city. According to Mayes, they’re still in the assessment phase trying to determine where the food trucks will be needed most. Mays said his organization would have a better idea of the magnitude of response by Thursday afternoon.

“Some of the hardest hit areas are in lower Manhattan, from Battery Park to about 35th Street,” said Mayes. “There’s not a lot of building damage, but losing power in high rises is all kinds of complicated. The hardest hit areas structurally are Brooklyn and out in Long Island on the South Shore.”

The Salvation Army, which has a presence in about 45 different neighborhoods in New York City, will need more volunteers to distribute food, said Mayes. He added: “Once the surge of assistance is done, we’ll be there for the social services aspect. We’ll be here until the city tells us they don’t need our assistance.”

Elsewhere in New York City, DOROT is reaching out to its constituents, senior citizens on Manhattan’s East Side and Upper West Side, as well as southern Westchester County. DOROT, which is named for the Jewish word for “generation,” serves approximately 2,000 seniors. Some 20 staff members and 30 volunteers are making phone calls to constituents, many of whom live below 50th street in some of the hardest-hit areas of Manhattan, making sure they have enough medicine and food. Because some of those served don’t have power, DOROT is also reaching out to emergency contacts.

Executive Director Mark Meridy said that the phone calls could serve as much-needed psychological relief to seniors who are alone and frightened. “Today I heard from a social worker who said that one of our clients, Sarah in Manhattan, told her ‘I needed a hug, and your phone call gave it to me.’”

Other organizations can also provide succor in times of disaster. Steve Marr, logistics and finance officer for the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Christian Emergency Network (CEN), said his organization’s work is mostly done before a disaster strikes. CEN’s three initiatives, ReadyChristian, ReadyChurch and ReadyCity, are designed to prepare Christians to minister to the needy in times of disaster.

Marr said many of CEN’s ReadyChurch’s are operating in the Appalachian Mountains, where approximately 100,000 people are without power with two to three feet of snow on the ground. “It’s not as dramatic as cities washed away, but it’s still a disaster for them if they’re not ready,” said Marr.

CEN has an estimated 15 ReadyChurches areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, said Marr. Most of the network is concentrated in the western United States and the Midwest. Marr said he’s been fielding calls from concerned members asking if they can help. “Our encouragement is yes, if they’re trained,” said Marr. “My first question is what level of training do you have? If they’re not trained, my advice is they hold back and not respond immediately because they could be more of a hindrance.” Marr added that in the next two to three weeks, when the need for first responders has passed, “that’s when a church can have a lot of impact,” he said. “It may not be as exciting, but there’s a lot of people who can step up.”

As of Wednesday morning, there are 1,900 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel on the ground. The agency has staged nine federal urban search and rescue task forces along the east coast and they are being deployed as needed and as requested by states, with another six task forces on alert. Each task force has two 31-person teams and four rescue dogs.

Some 14 of FEMA’s Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMATs) and 12 liaisons have also been stationed up and down the East Coast. IMATs are full-time FEMA employees (as opposed to reservists) who help support state and local operations with situational awareness. Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) teams are helping states’ responses with communications and logistics support, and 10 disability integration advisors are deployed as well.

The Points of Light Institute, based in Atlanta, Ga., has mobilized its HandsOn Network to help coordinate volunteers. Director of Disaster Services Kelly Bentz, who is working from FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said many of the volunteers would be heading to Long Island, New York City, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Most of the volunteers, according to Bentz, are supporting Red Cross operations and helping staff 2-1-1 Call Centers, and more will help manage spontaneous volunteers as they flood affected areas in the coming days and weeks.

She said the HandsOn affiliates, of which 12 in the affected areas have been mobilized, will probably be managing projects for three to six months doing debris removal, chain-sawing trees, helping clean up flooded houses and possibly rebuilding homes. “There’s going to be a real need for recovery, and it’s going to be a long recover,” said Bentz.

Feed the Children (FTC) in Oklahoma, City, Okla., has spent the past couple of days reaching out to its corporate and individual donors for donations to help with its relief effort. The child hunger organization has already received responses from its corporate partners, including Office Depot. Tony Sellars, the FTC’s director of communications, said it could be a little while until it hears from individual donors.

“I think the individual donor response is going to be gradual,” he said. “Everyone sees it on the news and wants to do something, but it’s going to be something that is going to be slowly developing.” Sellars also indicated that many of FTC’s regular donors are individuals who are already being affected by the storm, making it difficult for them to get in touch.

FTC has seven distribution centers throughout the country, including one in New Brunswick, N.J. Since that center still does not have power, Sellars said the location in Nashville, Tenn., is being used as the hub for their relief efforts. Overall, the organization expects to send more than 20 truckloads of items — ready-to-eat meals, containers, diapers — to be distributed to disaster areas once they are able to get into those locations. In the meantime, FTC is seeking volunteers and more donations to help with their relief efforts.

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