Upon arriving together at the Red Cross operations center, Paula Clamurro, a regional disaster services human resources coordinator, was working diligently to help volunteers register, find temporary housing and otherwise meet the needs of local survivors. She also made sure the needs of volunteers, who came from all parts of the country, were being met. Meanwhile, the operations center was busy with volunteers and employees coming in and out. Baggage from those who just arrived and of others who would soon return home was stacked along the walls.
I registered myself to volunteer later that week at a bulk distribution center to pass out food to survivors. Later, Clamurro showed me around the operations center. The fourth floor was the heart of the American Red Cross response in New York. Different teams clustered together with their laptops, phones and maps, to coordinate their separate areas of response. These areas ranged from logistics, technology, food distribution and chaplains, to consolation of survivors, and much more. While touring, it became clear to me that without the Red Cross employees and volunteers from all over the United States coming together, the response would be much more limited. These folks had spent countless hours, day in and day out, living out of hotels and eating whatever food was around, sacrificing their normalcy to help others.
That evening, I participated in a CLE program on disaster recovery hosted by the NYSBA in Albany, N.Y. The three-hour program included New York attorneys who helped survivors after Hurricane Irene, representatives from relevant state and federal agencies, and staff attorneys from different legal aid organizations. It was a very well-organized and comprehensive CLE program arranged by Gloria Herron Arthur, director of pro bono affairs. The program touched on the variety of information lawyers need to know in order to help, such as how to counsel disaster survivors, what legal issues are most prominent, and what benefits and services are available.
Through the CLE program, I met with many lawyers and representatives who work work frequently in disaster response. More specifically, I connected with Eva Valentin-Espinal, coordinator of lawyer referral and information service at NYSBA, who leads the Disaster Legal Services hotline effort in New York. I also met with Stephen Becker, a FEMA DLS specialist. Meeting in person allowed us to flesh out existing issues, address challenges and plan for future responses. We were able to find better ways to collaborate and work together, to maximize positive outcomes for disaster survivors and plan for additional outreach.
From Albany, N.Y., I went on to New Haven, Conn., where I met with the folks charged with implementing the Connecticut response. Dana Hrelic, the Connecticut and Rhode Island district representative and associate at Horton, Shields & Knox, P.C.; Joe Paretti, Ed.D., FEMA DLS specialist; Tanya Stevenson, FEMA program specialist; and I met to review the DLS program in Connecticut and plan for the upcoming implementation in Rhode Island. This was the first time that all of us had met in person. We all have exchanged emails extensively for years and spoken on the phone, but had not had an opportunity for us all to meet until now. It was a great pleasure to put faces to the communications.
Disaster Recovery Center, Bridgeport, Conn.
On the way back to New York City, I visited the Disaster Recovery Center in Bridgeport, Conn., and toured the disaster areas in southern Connecticut. Disaster Recovery Centers are locations set up by both the state and FEMA, for survivor assistance. Representatives from the Small Business Administration, Disaster Unemployment Assistance, and housing and other agencies gather there to direct survivors to the help they need to get back on their feet.
Connecticut was affected by Sandy, but the damage was not as widespread as in New York and New Jersey.
The morning after my visit to Bridgeport, I made it to Staten Island, N.Y., shortly after dawn. The area around Cedar Grove Avenue is one of the worst hit areas. Houses were taken off their foundations and slammed into their neighbors’; collapsed walls left only roofs lying on the ground with no support; houses sat wide open and empty with blown-out windows and personal belongings missing; cars and boats were strewn on streets, yards and porches — resting places after the powerful storm threw them in the air. Houses no longer housed families and restaurants were no longer occupied with patrons.
Crews were working hard early in the day to get the recovery efforts going, but there were signs that more workers were needed to rebuild this destroyed neighborhood.
Nearby where I toured, there is an American Red Cross distribution center, and the Boy Scouts of America were out distributing hot food to survivors and workers.
After being involved with DLS for so many years, hearing stories and seeing pictures of devastated areas, nothing does justice to the understanding of a disaster’s impact as experiencing the destruction firsthand.
Seeing the devastation motivated me to volunteer at the American Red Cross distribution site in Queens. Volunteers gathered to help distribute food and supplies to survivors. You can feel the spirit in people’s faces and voices. They were upbeat, encouraged and excited to lend a helping hand.
The numerous rows of disaster relief trucks, each from a different city, illustrated a nation coming together to help their fellow neighbor, whether close or distant.
FEMA Joint Field Office, Queens, N.Y.
Thereafter, I met Becker to tour the FEMA Joint Field Office in Queens, N.Y. This is where the FEMA response and recovery efforts for the state of New York are organized. These federal employees work seven days a week, around the clock, and are mostly from other states. Becker, retired from the U.S. Department of Labor in Atlanta, gave up a family vacation in Charleston, S.C., to respond to the needs in New York.
After touring the JFO and finally meeting Bob Hammaker and other folks with whom I have exchanged emails previously, Becker and I hit the road to tour recovery centers in the area.
On the way to Rockaway Beach, we came across a mobile DRC site being staged at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Office. The DRC was housed in a temporary trailer and a FEMA RV, and it was full of applicants.
Inside the VFW office, students from Fordham University were loading up their van with food and supplies to be distributed in the hardest hit neighborhoods. Fordham Law students and faculty also set up a legal aid site to assist survivors with their legal needs. Many of the questions ranged from landlord-tenant issues, to reapplying for lost identification cards, such as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and work IDs.
Becker and I spoke with survivors and the law students to inform them of the additional legal assistance provided through DLS. Currently, DLS is collaborating with Touro Law Center and Fordham Law in New York and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in New Jersey for a more extensive outreach program.
We also visited a DRC in Rockaway Beach set up under tents in a parking lot of a local grocery store.
Becker, who worked in the recovery efforts of Hurricane Katrina, stated that the destruction of Hurricane Sandy is “much worse.”