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A Rockaway survivor looks at a “new normal”


As we hit the one month mark after Hurricane Sandy, Mike Byrne, the Federal Coordinating Officer here in New York and my boss, reflected on the work that has been done and the work that remains.  In his blog, he made a note that we would be sharing stories and updates, and I wanted to share this story from Rita M., a disaster survivor in Rockaway, Queens:

A lot of us in Rockaway evacuated during Hurricane Irene last year. And then nothing happened. So of course when we heard about Sandy, we stayed home.

Never again. We learned that each storm is different – with a different outcome.

At about 6 p.m., before the storm, I walked down to the beach with my three children and saw how huge the waves were – water was pouring over the boardwalk into the streets, and it wasn’t even high tide yet. We passed  a man on the street who told us that he’s lived here over 50 years and he’s never seen anything like that before.

I think I slept about 20 minutes that whole night. Our power went out about 7:30, when the water reached about three feet, it must have started getting into the electronics of the cars, because car alarms were going off and trunks and windows were opening on the street. The sky was lit up pink from fires nearby. Later, I learned that homes were burning a few blocks away. One neighbor stood outside his home with a flashlight waving people inside who were fleeing their burning houses. When they got in his house, he realized he didn’t know any of them! Some people were coming down the block with kayaks and boogie boards.

The next morning we had over five feet of water in our home. It filled up the basement, which was our son’s bedroom. All his books, clothes, furniture and our water heater and boiler were destroyed, covered in mud and sewage. When I opened our front door, there was debris and sand everywhere.

I automatically started shoveling, trying to create a path to get out.  I had to do something; my husband has pulmonary fibrosis and should not over exert himself. I could just have easily curled myself up into a ball and said, “I’m not going to deal with this.”  I chose to keep shoveling. When my kids saw me shoveling, they figured it was the thing to do, and joined in.

We really didn’t know what to do. There’s a lot of information about preparing for a storm, but not so much about what to do after.* Two days later, we started running out of food and information started trickling in – what churches and temples were open, where we could go for food. We contacted our insurance agent and we contacted FEMA.

We weren’t the only ones in our family affected three of my siblings were displaced. If just one of us got hit, we would have been able to help, but we were all going through the same thing. My husband and four children went to my sister’s house in Brooklyn where we stayed in her converted garage – all of us in one room with air mattresses.

With the exception of one family (who was going to move anyway), we all plan on returning to our homes in Rockaway. Our insurance only covers wind damage, not flooding. We received about $2,000 from FEMA for temporary housing and $7,700 to replace our water heater and boiler and other damaged property. We got our FEMA money the same day our insurance company denied us. Now we have to fax FEMA our insurance information to see if we’re eligible for other assistance.** We still have to clean out everything and replace a lot of sheetrock – and our cars.

Almost every day it seems we’re at Lowe’s or Home Depot. My husband and I are looking into ways of building back to protect ourselves if this happens again.

My kids ask when things will go back to normal. I tell them I’m not sure if it will go back. We’ll definitely have a new outlook – we’ll be taking any future storm threats a lot more seriously. And we’re no longer going to keep so much stuff in the basement. We’re not going to be able to drive the kids everywhere like we used to for a while. I think it’s going to be a long time before things are normal again. We’ll just have a new normal.


disaster survivors in front of their house

CAPTION: Coney Island, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Rita and her family pose in front of the house they are restoring after major storm damage.

* For reference, this page on has information on how to recover after a disaster.  There is also great information there on making a family communication plan and building an emergency kit.

** FEMA encourages all survivors, both with or without insurance, to get into the assistance pipeline by registering with FEMA as soon as possible. While FEMA cannot duplicate benefits, those affected may be eligible for some types of assistance while waiting for an insurance settlement.


From a warm bed to a ship, a firsthand account of surge team member


Because of the magnitude of the population affected by Hurricane Sandy, the Department of Homeland Security activated its Surge Capacity Force for the first time on Nov. 1. Created by the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform act, this surge includes employees from every agency throughout DHS, from the Transportation Security Administration to the Coast Guard to Secret Service, who are willing to take time out of their normal jobs to help survivors. They are out pounding the pavement with our Community Relations teams and working in disaster recovery centers, assisting survivors with disaster assistance questions.

Right now in New York, some 800 of these surge members are staying on three ships, which are serving as floating hotels for our recovery workers. Because of the shortage of hotels rooms in the city, Maritime Administration vessels were brought in – not exactly luxury cruise liners.

Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Mike Byrne meets with DHS volunteers berthing on the TS Kennedy

Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) Mike Byrne meets with DHS volunteers berthing on the TS Kennedy, a maritime academy training ship.

On November 7, I visited the surge force with Deputy Administrator Serino to extend our heartfelt thanks to these workers for their hard work, service and dedication because I know it’s not easy to spend a long period of time away from home and loved ones.

The following is a first-person account from Melinda K. McDonough, who is of one of these surge workers who is staying on the T.S. Kennedy docked in Staten Island. She is one of some 1,000 of FEMA’s Community Relations teams canvassing the damaged areas.

Melinda McDonough, a team leader for community relations, in front of the TS Kennedy,

Staten Island, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2012 -- Melinda McDonough in front of the TS Kennedy.

It's a pleasure to be on the T.S. Kennedy. It's just me and 600+ new best friends.

In my normal life, I have a day job in Washington DC as a Deputy Chief Diversity Officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a large comfortable office and a view. On the ship, privacy is limited and consists only of a curtain that divides our bunk beds stacked three high (don’t let anybody tell you that women don’t snore as loud as men). In our particular berthing area, we share six toilets along with four urinals, which, of course, are useless (except in dire situations). If you're super modest, you set your alarm for 3:00 a.m. hoping to shower and dress with more privacy.

The ship is drafty, easy to get lost in, and incredibly loud.  Sounds echo off the steel (especially in the mess hall).

But I’m not complaining. I am excited to be doing what we can for those affected by hurricane Sandy. With limited hotel space in New York, the idea for us to stay on a ship is brilliant.

I’m the team lead for a group of eight, who come from all parts of the country with a broad range of background. We are privileged to have a war hero working with us, Sergeant First Class Robert Staats, member of the U.S. Army Shooting team. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Meritorious service medal for his valiant efforts in Iraq. Here in NY, we rely on Robert's situational awareness to help keep us safe. He takes pride in keeping us well provisioned with supplies and gear in the field.

Melinda McDonough, team leader of Community Relations Team31, with her team in  front the training ship TS Kennedy. From left, Robert Staat, Allen Avery, Mishana Egan, Melinda McDonough, Don Jacobson, Annette Ambrosio,and Bryan English.

Staten Island, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2012 -- Melinda McDonough, team leader of Community Relations Team31, with her team in  front the training ship TS Kennedy. From left, Robert Staats, Allen Avery, Mishana Egan, Melinda McDonough, Don Jacobson, Annette Ambrosio,and Bryan England.

We are a classic example of the team developmental process. Having worked through the stages of “forming, storming, and norming,” we are now “performing.”  The forming part was quick and arbitrary - we were told “here's your group.”

Next we figured out who was going to do what and when to accomplish the Community Relations mission, which translates to sorting the teams' skills and abilities. First, we needed a driver capable of driving a 15-person beast of a van. A former detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (now a TSA cargo inspector) volunteered for the daunting task, but is driving like a NYC native after only 16 days.  

We are fortunate to have a performance consultant for the Coast Guard as our “scribe.” Aside from the fact that no one else wanted the report writing job, we could not be successful without our Coastie's attention to complete and detailed documentation of our work efforts. Also contributing on our team is a marathon-running grass seed farmer from Oregon; an episcopal minister who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; a mother of three who happens to be a notoriously fun prankster; and our tech savvy  navigator (a.k.a. SatNav Allen).

The storming part was a lot about learning how to get along and working through personality quirks – in other words, the team had to learn how to not drive each other batty. Despite the 12-15 hour days we spend together, no one has been voted "off the island" (yet).

The "norming" part included establishing accountability and a reliable routine. We meet at a certain point every day, fold disaster assistance fliers, print our contact tally sheets, make finale report submittals, and re-stock our water supply and other resources. Upon reaching our assigned field site we go door-to-door assessing disaster impacted residences and businesses.  We take a break for lunch and we've got it down so we pretty much all agree on where to go. We've actually become a family - a fairly happy one.

As for our "performing," so far we've knocked on at least 1,500 doors. Many people behind them have been elderly and isolated in their apartments with no heat, electricity, food, water or medicines. We are making sure these survivors get what they need.   

In spite of the long hours and rustic accommodations, I would do this again in a heartbeat.  It's the crew on the ship I feel sorry for. They're used to having disciplined Navy cadets, not a bunch of unruly adults. They've been so nice to us. They even started making gluten-free cakes in the mess hall. And now that I have a strategy for rearranging everyone's boots away from my bunk - it was causing a bit of an aromatherapy problem - I can handle anything.


FEMA Deputy Administrator Meets with Volunteers on the TS Kennedy

Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino visits the sleeping quarters on the TS Kennedy.

FDNY saves their ship during Sandy and welcomes others


Driving toward the old Navy pier in the Stapleton area of Staten Island, you would never know that past the warehouses, graffiti and lonely steel fence are hundreds of disaster workers in a hub of activity, a prime example of how government agencies come together. It is also the home of New York City’s only marine unit on Staten Island, the guys who handle all emergency incidents in New York Harbor.

After 9/11, there was no water pressure in lower Manhattan, compromising the city’s ability to put out the fires. FDNY’s marine units came to the rescue, able to pump enough water to extinguish the blazes.

With a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the marine division was later able to replace their aging fleet with two state-of-the-art $27 million firefighting boats that can pump 50,000 gallons of water per minute, twice the capacity of the vessels used on 9/11. (One was named “Three Forty Three” for the number of firefighters who died that day and the other “Firefighter II.”)


fdny boat at port
(photo courtesy of FDNY)

But on the night Hurricane Sandy hit, Staten Island’s marine firefighters on duty not only had to worry about their homes, many of whom live in the affected areas, but their prize ship, Firefighter II, crashing into their stationhouse . “The wind shifted in the middle of the storm to where it was blowing the vessel into the building,” says firefighter Bob Senatore.

With only flashlights to guide them in pitch darkness and waist-deep water and braving 80 mph wind, driving rain and sea spray, the crew loosened the lines tied to the dock to allow the boat to move with the churning waves. But as the wind blew and the water rose, now with the lights of the boat guiding them, the crew had to keep readjusting the lines. “The ship is designed to operate during a storm – it would have been safer out in the water than by the pier,” says Senatore.

The crew made the decision to take the Firefighter II out into the bay for safety. Unfortunately, huge amounts of debris, including floating trees, filled the basin, keeping the ship from going out into the bay. “We had to do this ‘dance’ with the ship and the debris to keep the propellers from being damaged,” says Lt. Di Lorenzo. Four hours later, as the storm died down, the crew’s efforts kept the ship unscathed.

The Coast Guard station down the road did not fare as well. The storm made most of it uninhabitable and destroyed its sleeping quarters. But the Coast Guard crew still has a place to stay: they are bunking at the marine firehouse.

Staten Island’s marine unit also extended their hospitality to dozens of FEMA’s community relations teams, the folks who are canvasing the damaged neighborhoods nearby. “They were holding their meetings outside, huddled around their cars one morning,” says Senatore. “It was freezing. The nor’easter was coming. I said ‘come inside. Use the place as a support base.”

Some of the surge Community Relations teams are now staying on the T.S. Kennedy a 45-year-old Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship, brought in by the federal government as a place where disaster workers can stay.

“Since this happened, we’ve noticed a lot more people showing up in our fire house at meal times,” says Senatore. Firefighters are known for their culinary skills (I know, I used to be one).

In the meantime, many of the firefighters are cleaning out their homes, some without power, some living in one room, waiting and cleaning out. “We got some FEMA money,” says firefighter Paul Sarubbi, whose home was damaged.  “The federal money was nowhere near what we’re going to need to bring it back to the way it was, but every little bit helps.”

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Fire Fighter II and see it first hand:

inside ship

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2012 --Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, left, gets a tour of the pumps in Fire boat II, docked at Marine 9 station from Fire fighter Brian Masterson. The fire boat, which serves all of New York Harbor, is docked at the FDNY Marine 9 Barracks at the former Navy Homeport site in Stapleton, Staten Island. The fireboat received some damage from the storm surge following Hurricane Sandy. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

From North Dakota to New York, the long road for one Community Relations Specialist


At FEMA we’re in the business of customer service and my boss, Administrator Fugate, often refers to our Community Relations teams as the face of FEMA. And rightfully so, because they are the team who literally pound the pavement and talk with survivors at their homes, apartments or at shelters. 

Community Relations teams also do what we call AIR, which stands for Assess, Inform and Report. They report back what they’re seeing in the field, allowing those in the disaster field office to be alerted to specific issues. This information is critical for us to set priorities.

Community Relations take the lead from the local emergency managers and help out wherever they are needed, depending on the circumstance.  They can take calls in the local emergency manager office from survivors or work with the National Guard to organize supplies, or distribute food, water and blankets to those in need. And, of course, a large part of their job is to make sure everyone with disaster damage registers with FEMA.

fema employee looks out window

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Nov. 29, 2012 -- Community Relations specialist Jean Riendeau has been with FEMA since 1997 when she became a survivor of the Red River Floods in North Dakota. Since then she has worked at over 50 disasters sites, including most recently Hurricane Sandy in New York.

The following is a first-person account from Jean Riendeau, a veteran of our Community Relations program who is also a disaster survivor from the Red River Floods of North Dakota in 1997. She is one of more than 1,000 Community Relations specialists in New York.

For the last week I have been working in Coney Island and Brighton Beach as a Community Relations specialist and even though I have done this so many times, I still get emotional. When this happens, I follow an early mentor’s advice: “Cry in your hotel room at night, but not with a survivor.” I don’t want to feel sorry for them, I want to empower them. 

I know what it’s like to lose everything to a disaster. I started working for FEMA in 1997, the year I had to evacuate from my home during the Red River Flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. At the time, it was the largest evacuation to ever take place in the country; almost the entire city of about 50,000 people. I went to Fargo and slept on a loveseat in my son’s apartment for 10 days. I guess it was then that my instincts for community relations came out. A friend and I found a space at a college where all the evacuees could meet. We had computers set up and the Red Cross and other organizations came in. But it wasn’t a place for donations; it was place to connect and share information.

Since then I have worked more than 50 disasters all over the country, from California wildfires to tornadoes in Kentucky and Missouri to Florida Hurricanes. I discovered how resilient New Yorkers can be the last time I was here after 9/11. I was working with special needs cases on the pier. I was helping a woman who had just gotten out of the hospital with more than 80 percent burns on her body. She asked me to wheel her to the wall where photos of the missing were posted. She pointed to a few, saying “I know that person…I know that person.” I was so impressed with her strength. She was determined to get through the trauma, and was doing so by talking about what she experienced and what her future might hold. 

These days, in Brooklyn, we walk down pitch-dark hallways with flashlights, trying not to trip over the garbage put out by homebound residents. Most of the people are elderly. They’ve been living with no heat or electricity. They need food, water and medicine. We alert our FEMA contacts and our voluntary partners to make sure they get what they need. The nearby hospital was out of commission, so the American Medical Response units worked jointly with the National Guard to offer community wellness checks.

One of the toughest parts of this job is bearing the brunt of a lot of frustration:  “Why is help taking so long? Why is it so slow!” I know not to take it personally. I know I’m talking with people who have been stripped of their security and sometimes their livelihoods. And I am the one standing in front of them wearing a FEMA shirt.

I understand the trauma, the loss of security, the feeling of powerlessness and at times hopelessness. But the grieving process must play its course.

After the evacuation to Fargo, I went back to Grand Forks where we had intermittent power and a porta potty on every corner. My father-in-law’s home was totally destroyed; it was one of the homes always shown on the news. We helped him move into a new home, and had a FEMA trailer on our property. My daughter moved out of town for a year with my grandchildren, our business was closed, friends died. I received FEMA assistance as well as an SBA loan [during disasters the U.S. Small Business Administration provides low-interest disaster loans to individuals and families] and I began to pick up the pieces. And that is why I do this work. 

When I tell people, “It will get better,” I am happy and most grateful to speak from experience.

One Month In: Jersey’s Road to Recovery from Sandy


It’s hard to believe I have been working alongside our disaster relief team in New Jersey for more than a month.  Thirty-five days have passed since Hurricane Sandy first made landfall on the New Jersey coast on October 29th.  This marked one of the most damaging disasters in state history – battering the coastline with greater than 14-foot waves and wind gusts up to 88 mph.  Even more unsettling were the 122,000 structures affected across 21 New Jersey counties – many of them damaged or destroyed.  I’ve traveled to these hardest hit neighborhoods, met with the heartbroken of those who lost their homes, talked to children who were out of school, and  committed to working with state and local officials to aid in the recovery efforts.  As we move past this one month milestone, my primary focus remains on these people – the survivors of the storm.

When families and businesses begin to recover, whole communities begin to recover, and that is how New Jersey will revive and become stronger than ever.  More than $730 million in federal disaster recovery money has been disbursed to start rebuilding the Garden State.  Today we have more than 2,600 federal specialists working to support recovery in New Jersey, and our work is far from done.

State and federal disaster response teams were standing by with supplies even before Hurricane Sandy hit.  As Sandy made its way up the east coast, FEMA and the Department of Defense established Incident Support Bases at Westover, Mass. and Lakehurst, New Jersey to position supplies and other resources close to areas in the hurricane’s path. Following the storm, more than 1.7 million meals and 2.6 million snacks have been served to survivors and first responders. 

The New Jersey National Guard responded with a force of over 2,200 guardsmen.  In addition, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) facilitated the deployment of 440 personnel and equipment from 12 states to support New Jersey. This included law enforcement teams who provided security and emergency medical services, partnering with us and other agencies to carry out critical life-saving and sustaining operations in the immediate aftermath.  The National Weather Service was vital in predicting and tracking the storm, the U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue, the U.S. Public Health Service to support shelter operations, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for emergency generators, among others.  Our operations to the response of the storm began aggressive and dynamic, and we will continue this same posture throughout the recovery process.

american flag

CAPTION: Seaside Heights, N.J., Nov. 28, 2012 -- The American Flag raised by Seaside Heights resident in New Jersey.

It was clear one of the first steps was to support power restoration efforts to over 2.6 million homes, businesses and government customers.  For this we needed the whole community to come together.  The Department of Energy worked closely with the state Board of Public Utilities to bring together more than 23,000 utility professionals from New Jersey who, aided by companies across the country, worked to restore service across the state.  The Department of Defense actually airlifted crews and vehicles to New Jersey from the west coast.  The weather didn’t wait on our behalf to bring cold temperatures or wintry conditions to the region.  A week after Sandy, the nor’easter deposited enough wet snow to break more trees, and down more power lines to delay cleanup efforts for another day.  This meant that tens of thousands of residents were still waiting for their lights to come back on.  By Nov. 14, electricity was restored to every home and business that was in condition to receive electrical power. 

Access to fuel presented another challenge, and early on President Obama authorized the release of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel from federal reserves to power government-owned and other vehicles being used in responding to the disaster.  We set up six fueling stations for first responders accordingly.

One of the most heartwarming parts of disaster work is the opportunity to work with our voluntary agencies.  These groups played a vital role in giving people needed shelter, a major lifeline for families displaced from their homes.

  • At the peak 107 shelters were open with 4,370 people.  Within three weeks, all shelters were able to close as displaced residents were assisted with finding lodging. 
  • By the time feeding sites were no longer needed, more than 1.7 million meals had been served, plus 2.6 million snacks.
  • More than 31,000 cleanup kits had been issued and more than 23,000 comfort kits. Voluntary organizations served thousands of households doing clean-up and muck-outs and provided goods and services to hundreds of thousands of people – and pets - in need. 
  • These Organizations have clocked in over 600,000 recorded hours valued at $12.8 million dollars. 

I extend my heartfelt thanks to them for their vital contributions to the Hurricane Sandy survivors.

american red cross volunteer
CAPTION: Ortley Beach, N.J., Nov. 28, 2012 -- Sharon Meyers, a Red Cross volunteer, offers a hot meal to a resident in Ortley Beach, NJ. The Red Cross is providing disaster relief, from hot meals to cleaning supplies and clothing to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Alongside our partners we plan to tackle the housing issues to provide options for individuals and families.  As survivors cope with the remains of their homes and belongings, we need to continue to help people find a safe place to stay.  FEMA employed its Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program to allow nearly 3,000 individuals and families to lodge in 340 hotels during the first four-week period.  We met this critical need in the short-term, but in the long-term I want folks back into their homes.  Last week Gov. Christie approved New Jersey’s five-point long-range housing solution.  It calls for the maximized use of existing rental properties; implementing our Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program to render habitable dwellings that lack only minor fixes; using state and federally-owned real property; using FEMA Direct Housing Assistance in the form of HUD-certified manufactured housing; and rehabilitation of existing structures.  Yet I know that these programs are only useful if people know about them.

FEMA’s Community Relations specialists and FEMA Corps members, totaling more than 650, met 86,000 people by going door-to-door to share vital information about applying for FEMA Disaster Assistance as well as other assistance programs.  More than 46,000 New Jersey families have benefitted from that assistance so far.

fema corps members talk with survivor

CAPTION: Sea Bright, N.J., Nov. 11, 2012 -- FEMA Corps team members Amy Butterfield and Sergio Tundo talked with volunteer Jason Young to ensure the owner of the residence was getting the needed assistance after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the island.

In addition, our 33 currently open Disaster Recovery Centers are located at convenient public locations in each county.  At these Centers you can get help registering for assistance and get answers to questions – nearly 25,000 have already visited.  The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Customer Service Representatives are there as well, receiving applications for low-interest disaster loans.  SBA Business Recovery Centers are also open at 10 locations throughout New Jersey to assist eligible business owners in applying for disaster business loans for their physical damage loss and disaster-related working capital needs.  Under SBA’s disaster assistance program, low-interest loans are available to homeowners, renters and businesses of all sizes. To date, the SBA has approved 321 disaster home and business loans totaling more than $21 million.

fema staff talks with disaster survivor

CAPTION: Jersey City, N.J., Nov. 21, 2012 -- At the Hudson County FEMA Disaster Recovery Center at the Jersey City Museum, a Hurricane Sandy survivor receives information from FEMA Mitigation Specialists Doris Maldonado and Tony Hathcock.

At the same time, our Public Assistance division is meeting with local government officials all over the state to receive their requests for money to cover their disaster costs.  That can include things from overtime costs all the way to the replacement of public buildings destroyed by the hurricane.  We’re partnering with the state of New Jersey to anticipate and help meet needs.  Moving forward, we have to work together closely as the situation changes and new challenges arise.  Not only has FEMA worked with our federal, state, local, and voluntary partners, we’ve also teamed up with the private sector and academia to get Jersey back on its feet after Sandy.  Look for our FEMA Mitigation staff at your local home repair stores for advice about rebuilding stronger, safer and smarter. 

fema staff at home depot

CAPTION: West Long Branch, N.J., Nov. 28, 2012 -- Hazard Mitigation Specialists are available at various Home Depot locations to answer questions regarding building techniques that reduce potential for damage from future disasters

To our “Jersey Strong” communities: You have weathered possibly the most devastating storm in your state’s history.  Yet the feeling of hope and restoration prevails in New Jersey.  You inspire me every day with your spirit of unity and pride, your hours donated to voluntary organizations, your donations to local survivors, and above all, your neighborliness.  Thank you for all that you do.  I am confident that you will recover, you will restore – and that together we will rebuild your communities stronger than ever.

This story isn’t over.  FEMA remains present to address the challenges that remain and to meet the challenges to come, but it will take the whole community to restore New Jersey. 

Together we are cleaning up neighborhoods and getting kids back to school.  New Jersey’s state and local leaders stand committed to the promise of a recovery for coastal New Jersey.

And I’m standing with you. 

Let us look back to remember what has been lost, but not forget what we’ve done together to restore New Jersey.  Stay Jersey Strong.



New York, One Month After Sandy


I am a native New Yorker. 

I was born in New York City.  I grew up in the city’s Public Housing developments in East Harlem and my Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters still live here.  I worked for the New York Fire Department for 20 years, eventually serving as a Captain.  I worked at the New York Office of Emergency Management and then I joined FEMA. 

I’m a proud New Yorker and today, I’m honored to be part of the federal team that is working hard to assist my home city and state. 

Coney Island, N.Y., Nov. 12, 2012 -- Aerial view of damage and debris on Coney Island, New York. Storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused flooding ...

Coney Island, N.Y., Nov. 12, 2012 -- Aerial view of damage and debris on Coney Island, New York. Storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused flooding and power outages throughout the island.

Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- Cars were buried in sand from Hurricane Sandy. The storm surge created widespread flooding, power outages and devastation on Long Beach, New York. FEMA is working with state and local officials to assist residents who were affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 7, 2012 -- Cars were buried in sand from Hurricane Sandy. The storm surge created widespread flooding, power outages and devastation on Long Beach, New York. FEMA is working with state and local officials to assist residents who were affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Even before the storm, FEMA was preparing. We prepositioned food, water and blankets at two incident support bases in New York. FEMA Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT), trained to quickly coordinate federal resources to support the state were on the ground days before landfall.  We also started calling in the cavalry, everyone from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We even had the Marines land on the beach in the Rockaways.

In the response phase of a disaster like this, it is critical that we focus on what I like to call the “four Ps” – “People, Power, Pumping and Pick-it-up.”

People always come first. The very first thing we did was get life-saving commodities out to the people.  Within 24 hours we supplied more than a million liters of water and more than a million shelf ready meals  to the New York National Guard and Voluntary Agencies throughout the city - who quickly distributed them to the New Yorkers in need.  The third day after the storm, we were set up in all the affected areas. 

New York is an amazing place, made up of different people from all over the world. Every neighborhood is distinctly unique, with different traditions, dialects and sense of community. But most of all, New York is made up of neighborhoods.

For example, you look on a map and see the Rockaways.  But there are really four different Rockaways.  You have Far Rock, Rockaway Beach, Belle Harbor and Breezy Point.  Each neighborhood is different.

We set up Disaster Recovery Centers, where people can meet and talk about assistance face-to-face.  I was out at the center in Rockaway Beach and there were tons of people waiting to be seen.  Everyone had a number and I talked to a guy that had number 245.  The center was on number 150.  I told him we had heated buses that would take people to the Breezy Point center, but he wanted to stay with his neighbors and wait.  That’s New York.

Today, we have 34 centers throughout damaged areas, covering the neighborhoods that have had the most damage.  Over 56,000 New Yorkers have visited these centers.  And we plan to open more.

Far Rockaway, N.Y., Nov. 10, 2012 --FEMA Corps personnel assist disaster survivors at a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Far Rockaway, New York. FEMA and the State set up the center to assist the needs of hurricane survivors.

Far Rockaway, N.Y., Nov. 10, 2012 --FEMA Corps personnel assist disaster survivors at a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Far Rockaway, New York. FEMA and the State set up the center to assist the needs of hurricane survivors.

Far Rockaway, N.Y., Nov. 10, 2012 -- FEMA Community Relations specialist, Teisha Jeeter draws pictures with young disaster survivor, Luna Natalia Voss at a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Far Rockaway, New York. The center was set up to assist the needs of Hurricane Sandy survivors.

Far Rockaway, N.Y., Nov. 10, 2012 -- FEMA Community Relations specialist, Teisha Jeeter draws pictures with young disaster survivor, Luna Natalia Voss at a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Far Rockaway, New York. The center was set up to assist the needs of Hurricane Sandy survivors.

The New York metropolitan area has over 15 million people and this is a city that is built vertically.  We knew immediately that having enough people would be a huge challenge. We had over 1200 people out in the field, going door-to-door in the damaged areas.  We had to activate the Department of Homeland Security surge capacity force to have enough people to do these sweeps.   This “surge force” consisted of over 1,100 employees from the agencies that make up DHS, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard.   They are spending the nights on Merchant Marine training ships so we don’t take hotel rooms from survivors. I have been out to the ships and the sleeping conditions are austere, but the food is good.

A little over a week after the storm, on Nov. 6th, FEMA had received over 135,000 applications and approved almost $185 million in housing assistance to disaster survivors. We also had over 1,000 housing inspectors in the field who had completed over 17,000 inspections.

 Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 9, 2012 -- FEMA Housing Inspector, Bill Gay inspects a home in Long Beach for Hurricane Sandy related damages. The FEMA Individual Assistance program provides financial assistance for temporary housing and minor housing repairs.

Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 9, 2012 -- FEMA Housing Inspector, Bill Gay inspects a home in Long Beach for Hurricane Sandy related damages. The FEMA Individual Assistance program provides financial assistance for temporary housing and minor housing repairs.

In addition, we have employed a diverse outreach approach to make sure the word gets out amidst New York’s multicultural mosaic. When our community relations members come in contact with people who are have limited English proficiency, we have translators and materials in 21 different languages to ensure they get assistance.

Coney Island, N.Y., Nov. 25, 2012 -- FEMA Community Relations Limited English Proficiency (LEP) specialists, Eric Phillipson and Rossy Rey assist Russian hurricane survivor, Knana Letner with her special disaster related needs. The LEP strategic strike team was assigned to the Russian community in Coney Island, New York in response to Hurricane Sandy.

Coney Island, N.Y., Nov. 25, 2012 -- FEMA Community Relations Limited English Proficiency (LEP) specialists, Eric Phillipson and Rossy Rey assist Russian hurricane survivor, Knana Letner with her special disaster related needs. The LEP strategic strike team was assigned to the Russian community in Coney Island, New York in response to Hurricane Sandy.

As for power, FEMA established a National Power Restoration Taskforce to cut through the red tape, increase federal, state, tribal, local and private sector coordination and restore power and fuel to people as quickly as possible.  The Defense Logistics Agency delivered more than 2.3 million gallons of fuel to distribution points in New York and New Jersey. The U.S. Air Force transported equipment and supplies for power restoration efforts, including 69 vehicles belonging to the Southern California Edison utility company. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed 177 generators to sites throughout New York including apartment buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority.

Pumping was a modern technological miracle.  We had subway tunnels full of water.  The Hugh Carey Tunnel (it will always be the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to me) was full to the roof.  I was there and saw it, and I will tell you, I thought it would take months to get those tunnels pumped out.   The Army Corps pumped out over 470 million gallons of water in less than two weeks. 

The final P is “pick-it-up”.  I’m talking about debris.  A storm like this one generates a ton of debris and picking it up is always a challenge.  The President signed an order saying we could pay for straight time for 30 days for debris pickup. Normally, we just pay for overtime, but being able to pay for all of the hours worked is a huge incentive to get the debris picked up and puts much needed money back into jurisdictions.  It also incentivizes them to pick up the debris fast, because we only do this for 30 days.  So far, we have picked up over 1.4 million cubic yards of debris.

We’ve done a lot, but, as long as there are people without power and in need of shelter, I am not satisfied. That’s why we came up with an innovative housing program called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP).  This program is designed for people who have power to the street, but cannot connect it to their houses.  These are temporary repairs that are designed to let a family “shelter-in-place” while permanent repairs are made to their homes.  We do this by making minor repairs to meters and panels to restore temporary power. The program also pays for other temporary housing repairs, such as covering windows, roofs and exterior doors. These repairs are meant to allow residents to return to safe and livable homes. 

If you live in the five boroughs of New York City, call 311 to access information about the program. For those in Nassau County, call 1-888-684-4267 and if you live in Suffolk County, call 2-11. Your county or city will decide what elements of the STEP Program are available for your residence.

Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 24, 2012 -- Electricians installing a heat register as part of the FEMA STEP Program. FEMA in conjunction with state, local and tribal partners, is implementing a Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program to help people get back into their homes quickly and safely. STEP assists State, local and tribal governments in performing work and services essential to saving lives, protecting public health and safety, and protecting property. The program funds certain necessary and essential measures to help restore power, heat and hot water to primary residences that could regain power through necessary and essential repairs. STEP can help residents safely shelter-in-place in their homes pending more permanent repairs. FEMA is working with many partners including federal, state, local and tribal governments, voluntary faith-based and community-based organizations along with the private sector to assist residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Long Beach, N.Y., Nov. 24, 2012 -- Electricians installing a heat register as part of the FEMA STEP Program. FEMA in conjunction with state, local and tribal partners, is implementing a Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program to help people get back into their homes quickly and safely. STEP assists State, local and tribal governments in performing work and services essential to saving lives, protecting public health and safety, and protecting property. The program funds certain necessary and essential measures to help restore power, heat and hot water to primary residences that could regain power through necessary and essential repairs. STEP can help residents safely shelter-in-place in their homes pending more permanent repairs. FEMA is working with many partners including federal, state, local and tribal governments, voluntary faith-based and community-based organizations along with the private sector to assist residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

We have more work to do. When President Obama visited New York and toured the damaged areas, he looked directly in my eyes and said “stay on it.”

We’d like the New York Hurricane Sandy page to inform survivors of our future plans. I have over 3,000 staff here and I am working hard to hire locals – New Yorkers – to help with the recovery.  

We plan to share stories and updates as the rebuilding process continues. And, of course, you will hear from me.  I love to tell stories and I think this recovery might be one of the greatest stories of our time.

Telling the Recovery Story with Crayons and Construction Paper


Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Official Blog.

A month after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, hundreds of families continue their daily struggle to put their lives back together. Many of their homes destroyed, these families face living in temporary dwellings like area hotels and relatives’ homes. Their children are staying far away from their schools and some families are facing a decision whether they can move back to their old neighborhoods or whether they may have to relocate permanently.

Children's letters at a Disaster Recovery Center in New Jersey.

Here at the Disaster Recovery Center in Union Beach, New Jersey, letters from school children adorn the walls as reminder that some families still need help.  These letters help raise the energy level, already running extremely high, as many of us are not only helping people, we’re helping our neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) continue to work tirelessly so that every one of these families has a roof over their heads during this transition. HUD and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) are cutting red tape in an effort to help families by:

  1. Instructing all FHA-approved lenders to release insurance proceeds to homeowners as quickly as possible to accelerate the rebuilding process;
  2. Granting a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and forbearance on foreclosures for FHA-insured households whose homes were damaged or destroyed; and
  3. Issuing guidance to help families with FHA-insured mortgages struggling to repair or rebuild their homes in the wake of a major disaster, plus directing lenders to release insurance proceeds to borrowing rather than to apply those payments to bring delinquent mortgages current.

Pennsylvania Recovery Continues, One Month Out


It’s been one month since President Obama issued an emergency declaration on Oct. 29 for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to support those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Here’s an update on FEMA and the state’s efforts in Pennsylvania thus far:

Assessing damages

During the damage assessment process, 11 teams conducted boots-on-the-ground assessments in eight counties. In Franklin County, the Civil Air Patrol provided officials with a bird’s eye view of damages, flying over Hurricane Sandy-impacted homes and businesses there.

assessing damages

CAPTION: FEMA Individual Assistance Specialist Cynthia Lavigne and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Project Specialist Diane Nestler assess Hurricane Sandy damage in Lehigh County. Photo by FEMA/Elizabeth Stands

Ensuring power in critical facilities

Additionally, at the request of the Commonwealth, FEMA began coordinating the installation of generators before Hurricane Sandy swept through. FEMA tasked a specialized U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Emergency Power Planning and Response Team to install generators in locations such as medical facilities, emergency operation centers and emergency shelters.

fema generator awaits use

CAPTION: In response to a critical power shortfall resulting from Hurricane Sandy, FEMA tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Emergency Planning and Response Team to install a 365-kilowatt generator at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa. Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

One example was at St. Luke’s Hospital where personnel feared the main generator was in danger of failing. The team installed an additional generator and planned to switch to backup power when they were asked to stand down until a critical brain surgery operation could be completed without the possibility of a power interruption.  Once the operation was complete, the additional generator was installed to ensure a constant supply of power to the hospital.


Reaching out to disaster survivors

FEMA community relations specialists, at the request of the Commonwealth, assisted storm-impacted residents at an American Red Cross shelter in Bucks County at Palisades High School in Kintnersville. For three days, five FEMA specialists helped to distribute water, meals and other necessary supplies at the shelter, where hundreds of Hurricane Sandy-impacted residents sought assistance.

They worked with about 50 local volunteers, ranging in age from 10 to 88 years old, and helped more than 600 residents on the first day (Nov. 1), more than 900 residents the next day, and more than 1,000 on the third day.

FEMA community relations specialists also loaded clean-up kits, rakes, shovels, gloves, flashlights, blue tarps and other items into the American Red Cross emergency response vehicle to distribute to residents impacted by the hurricane who were not physically able to access the emergency shelter.


red cross meals distributed

CAPTION: FEMA Community Relations team member Mary Dawson, American Red Cross Volunteer Stan Dunn, and school volunteer Tony Weiss load a Red Cross emergency response vehicle at the Bucks County Red Cross Shelter in Palisades High School in Kintnersville, Pa. Photo by FEMA/George Armstrong

In comparison to the full-scale recovery efforts happening in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island – the amount of work in Pennsylvania may seem small.  However, I’m proud of FEMA’s work and close partnership with other members of the emergency management team in Pennsylvania, and we will continue to support the state as needed.

An Important Part of the Team and Sandy Recovery: the Department of Housing and Urban Development


secretary donovan press conference
CAPTION: Lincroft, N.J., Nov. 16, 2012 -- Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan speaks at a press conference concerning Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Senator stand in the background.

As we often say at FEMA, successful emergency management requires a team effort.  Without question, the importance of teamwork has never been more evident as the recovery to Hurricane Sandy continues.  At the direction of President Obama, FEMA continues to coordinate the federal government’s efforts in a coordinated way that reaches disaster survivors.  Whether it’s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helping with debris removal, the Environmental Protection Agency advising survivors on mold removal, or the Small Business Administration helping affected business owners get their doors open quickly – FEMA continues to leverage the expertise of our federal partners to make a lasting impact.

Another important partner on the team is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  After many disasters, FEMA works closely with HUD to ensure those impacted by the disaster have safe housing options if their residence was damaged or destroyed.

Last week, President Obama announced that he asked Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to continue to work closely with Governors, mayors and local officials of New Jersey and New York as they begin the process of identifying redevelopment plans for affected communities.  This announcement further links FEMA’s role in disaster recovery with HUD’s role in redevelopment, ensuring the two agencies will continue to work closely together.  As long term recovery needs are identified, HUD will lend expertise in translating those needs into solutions that work for disaster survivors. 

If you’re a disaster survivor, the President’s announcement does not change the process of applying for assistance from the federal government.  FEMA will continue to administer federal disaster assistance, so it’s important to apply through FEMA if you have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  You can apply for assistance by visiting or by calling 1-800-621-3362 (FEMA). 

Again, FEMA will continue to lead the federal government’s recovery efforts in response to Hurricane Sandy, and a great way to keep up with the progress is through this blog, the FEMA Sandy Facebook and Twitter accounts, or at  You can also follow HUD’s Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts on their website.

meeting at FEMA office in new jersey
CAPTION: Lincroft, N.J., Nov. 16, 2012 -- Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with members of Congress, greet FEMA employees at the Joint Field Office where Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts are coordinated.

What to Expect During the FEMA Housing Inspection Process


fema inspector
Hoboken, N.J., Nov. 1, 2012 -- FEMA Inspector Richard Martin inspects a basement apartment in Hoboken two days after the residents applied for FEMA assistance. FEMA is working with many partners and organizations to provide assistance to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy.

So far, more than 444,100 Hurricane Sandy survivors from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have applied for federal disaster assistance and more than $782 million in assistance has been approved.  As Sandy survivors continue to apply for assistance, many may find themselves asking what’s next after registering with FEMA. Often times, a housing inspection is needed to verify and assess damage claims made during registration, which is normal after any disaster.

After you register, one of the more than 2,000 FEMA Housing Inspectors on the ground will contact you to schedule an appointment to come see the damaged property if it is accessible. The inspection generally takes 30-40 minutes but can be shorter, and consists of a general inspection of damaged areas of your home and a review of your records. This is important: there is no fee for the inspection.

When a FEMA housing inspector comes to visit your home, be sure they show you proper identification. If they do not show you photo identification, then do not proceed with the inspection. Unfortunately, disasters often bring out criminals who prey on the needs of disaster survivors – so beware of scams and scam artists. 

It’s important to note that throughout the recovery process, applicants may receive a visit from more than one inspector. In addition to FEMA housing inspectors, representatives from the Small Business Administration (SBA), as well as state and local officials could also visit neighborhoods in affected areas, so don’t be alarmed if you receive a visit from more than one inspector.

If you suspect someone of posing as a FEMA inspector, call our toll-free Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721, or your local law enforcement officials.

When a FEMA Housing Inspector visits your home, someone 18 years of age or older who lived in the household prior to the disaster must be present for the scheduled appointment. The inspector will ask to see:

  • Photo Identification.
  • Proof of Ownership/Occupancy of damaged residence (Structural Insurance, Tax Bill, Mortgage Payment Book/Utility Bill).
  • Insurance documents: Home and/or Auto (Structural Insurance/Auto Declaration Sheet).
  • List of household occupants living in residence at time of disaster.
  • All disaster related damages to both real and personal property.

Once the inspection process is complete, your case will be reviewed by FEMA and you will receive a letter, or email if you signed up for E-Correspondence, outlining the decision:

  • If you qualify for a FEMA grant, FEMA will send you a check by mail or deposit it directly into your bank account. You will also receive a letter describing how you are to use the money.  You should only use the money given to you as explained in the letter and save receipts on how you spent the money.
  • If you do not qualify for a FEMA grant, you will receive a letter explaining why you were turned down and will be given a chance to appeal the decision. Your appeal rights will be described in this letter. Appeals must be in writing and mailed within 60 days of FEMA’s decision.
  • If you’re referred to the Small Business Administration, you will receive a SBA application. The application must be completed and returned in order to be considered for a loan as well as certain types of grant assistance. SBA representatives are available to help you with the application at local Disaster Recovery Centers. Completing and returning the loan application does not mean that you must accept the loan.

Again, the first step in receiving assistance is registering for assistance with FEMA.  So if you’re a Hurricane Sandy survivor and you haven’t registered yet, we encourage you to take advantage of our many ways to register for assistance:

  • Over the phone by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Disaster assistance applicants, who have a speech disability or hearing loss and use TTY, should call 1-800-462-7585 directly; for those who use 711 or Video Relay Service (VRS), call 1-800-621-3362. 
  • Online at
  • On your mobile device at
  • Or by visiting a disaster recovery center

If you’re a disaster survivor or know someone affected by Hurricane Sandy, please share this information with them.

For Hurricane Sandy recovery updates, visit and follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @FEMASandy &

fema inspector
Monmouth Beach, N.J., Nov. 12, 2012 -- A FEMA housing inspector records damages to a home in Monmouth Beach, NJ that was impacted by Hurricane Sandy. FEMA is providing housing inspection to residents who have registered and are seeking assistance in rebuilding their homes.


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