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History is a great teacher

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meeting with tornado survivor Washington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Rev. David Myers, left, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, speaks to First Baptist Church Pastor Joshua Monda who is helping some of his parishioners with cleanup in areas impacted by the recent tornadoes. Myers met with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster groups to discuss responses to the disaster and discuss coordination and collaboration between partners. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

History is a great teacher. 

Associate Pastor Ben Davidson of Bethany Community Church learned a valuable lesson during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that benefitted him and his congregation the morning of Nov. 17, 2013, when a powerful tornado tore through Washington IL. 

His quick thinking reminds me when disasters occur; having a plan can save lives and help pivot a community toward a strong recovery. I have learned this lesson many times through the faith leaders I’ve engaged as director of the DHS Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

On Sunday morning Pastor Davidson was preparing to begin his adult Sunday school class, when he received an emergency phone call.  A tornado had touched down and their church was in its path.

Immediately he and the staff worked to move the congregation --particularly the children -- to their designated shelter in the church location and they began to pray together as the storm passed through their community. 

The entire congregation comforted one another through what Pastor Davidson recalls as "the longest 45 minutes of my life." Once all congregants were accounted for and that families could leave the sheltered location Pastor Davidson immediately went home to confirm the safety of his children who were at home sick that morning.  

Immediately following the disaster, Bethany Community Church joined its fellow members of the Washington Ministerial Association, AmeriCorps and the Illinois Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to help coordinate the community’s recovery efforts. 

meeting with pastor in washington illinoisWashington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Associate Pastor Ben Davidson, right, of Bethany Community Church shows Rev. David Myers, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, supplies that have been donated to help local residents impacted by the recent tornadoes. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Since the devastating event, more than 4,000 community volunteers have registered with Bethany Community Church to help their loved ones and neighbors during disasters.  Their effort and commitment will help to increase the community’s resilience and ensure they are better prepared for emergencies.

The story of Washington, IL, and Bethany Community Church is a reminder of the care and compassion that faith-based organizations can provide all survivors in times of disaster. Their story reinforces the power of a whole community, “survivor centric” approach and the important role and responsibility of faith leaders in preparing their communities before disasters strike.

I encourage you to know what to do before disaster strikes by joining the thousands of faith-based and community members on the National Preparedness Coalition faith-based community of practice and connecting with faith and community leaders across the country working on preparedness.

Being prepared contributes to our national security, our nation’s resilience, and our personal readiness.

meeting volunteers around illinois tornado damageWashington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Rev. David Myers, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, center, speaks with NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster operations manager Dan Hoeft, left, and All Hands Volunteers director of US Disaster Response Sherry Buresh, second from left, as well as other volunteers in a neighborhood where the groups are helping with volunteer support for cleanup. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

A Groundhog Day Message from FEMA: Stay Prepared for Weather Changes Year-Round

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groundhog day groundhog

CAPTION: “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog with his official “handlers,” the residents of Punxsutawney who care for him year-round. (Photo courtesy of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Inc.)

It’s funny how a groundhog can make people think about being prepared for weather.

Here in Pennsylvania, where FEMA continues to partner with our Commonwealth and local partners on Hurricane Sandy recovery, a beloved American tradition will take place this weekend. On February 2, just a few minutes before 7:30 a.m., the world’s most famous groundhog, “Punxsutawney Phil,” will make his annual prognosis for spring. 

The belief is that if it is sunny when Phil emerges, he will see his shadow and retreat back to his hay bale. Supposedly, winter will last for six more weeks. If it is cloudy and Phil does not see his shadow, spring will arrive sooner.

This will be Phil’s 127th celebrated appearance from the burrow where he lives at the peak of Gobbler’s Knob, a hilly patch of land located in the countryside about two miles east of Punxsutawney. Some believe that Phil is the same groundhog that has appeared there every year since fans made the first trek up the hill to watch for him in 1887. That would make Phil the world’s oldest groundhog. 

Regardless of who subscribes to the legend of Phil, weather watchers around the globe look to him for his perennial prediction. Thousands of enthusiasts are expected to travel to Punxsutawney, where a variety of Groundhog Day activities are planned.  Groundhog Day folklore reminds us to be ready for weather changes not just on Feb. 2, but all year. Whoever you turn to for your weather forecast, it is important to monitor upcoming changes closely.  

Preparedness information is available online at www.Ready.gov. Ideas and reminders posted to the Ready website include:   

  • Learn how to send updates via text and Internet from your mobile phone to your contacts and social channels in case voice communications are not available;
  • Store your important documents, such as personal and financial records, in a secure and remote area, or put them on a flash or jump drive that you can keep readily available so they can be accessed from anywhere; and
  • Download the Emergency Family Readiness Plan to create an “Emergency Information Document.”

Additionally, PEMA and FEMA also provide helpful preparedness information online.

This year, Groundhog Day occurs at the end of two full weeks of Hurricane Sandy Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation applicant briefings in Pennsylvania. At the briefings, applicants met with specialists from FEMA and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to determine which recovery expenses are eligible for reimbursement under the Public Assistance program.

To be eligible for federal Public Assistance, applicants must show that their project is required as a direct result of Hurricane Sandy during the period from October 26 to November 8, 2012. Public Assistance funding may cover costs incurred to return elements of the infrastructure as close to their pre-disaster condition as possible. Expenses may include costs for work such as debris removal and repair or replacement of damaged roads, bridges and other public components. Applicants typically include such organizations as school districts; volunteer fire fighter organizations; sewer authorities; emergency management offices; and regional police departments.

public assistance consultation

CAPTION: Middletown Township, Penn. -- FEMA Public Assistance Specialist Jim Teats (left); PEMA Public Assistance Specialist Rick Weiberg (center); and Middletown Township Fire Marshall Jim McGuire assess Hurricane Sandy damage in Dauphin County on Nov. 7, 2012. Photo by George Armstrong/FEMA

PEMA and FEMA have been partnering on Hurricane Sandy-related activity since October 29, which is when President Obama signed a major emergency declaration for the Commonwealth.

I look forward to sharing more information in the coming months as we continue to work on Hurricane Sandy recovery here in Pennsylvania.

Saving $1 Million on the Waterfront

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Brian Robbins grandfather, Harry, started making paper bags with a folding machine in his garage in 1935. As a child, Robbins’ father would ride his bicycle to hand out flyers to promote business. In 1940, Harry had the good fortune to meet a wooden pail maker – someone who made wooden shipping crates – who introduced him to corrugated boxes.

Many years later, the family operation went on to become Cornell Paper & Box Company, a $14 million-a-year business located on Brooklyn’s historic waterfront in Red Hook. Even on a cloudy day, one can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance, raising her torch in the mist.

The company no longer manufactures paper products, but buys and distributes corrugated boxes throughout the U.S. Brian has been running the business for the last 15 years with his father and for much of that time has watched nervously as the water, which in some areas is about 15 feet from his 150-year-old brick warehouse, eroded the shoreline. In early 2000, the pier outside the warehouse finally collapsed.

Brian said he knew it was a matter of time before the erosion would make the building vulnerable to a huge storm, like a Nor’easter. He was concerned that one of the walls would easily be knocked right out with the force of a surge.

When Hurricane Sandy inundated Red Hook with floodwaters in October, Robbin’s warehouse took a huge hit – but not as bad as it might have been had he not initiated a major mitigation project. Four years earlier, trucking in 1,500 cubic yards of armored stone, Robbins spent half a million dollars to build riprap, an embankment of large stones to prevent erosion, and a retaining wall to protect his property. Even though the low-lying land was covered in about five feet of water after Sandy, flooding the warehouse, Robbins says things would have been a lot worse. He had no doubt the outer wall would have been knocked out had he not prevented the erosion from continuing.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Brian Robbins, owner of Cornell Paper and Box Company, Inc., stands next to his business which abuts Upper New York Bay. Robbins took the initiative to mitigate his property by building a bulk head wall to protect his property from storm surge. Although Robbins building was flooded due to Hurricane Sandy, he said that without the mitigation steps, he would have lost his whole building.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Brian Robbins, owner of Cornell Paper and Box Company, Inc., stands next to his business which abuts Upper New York Bay. Robbins took the initiative to mitigate his property by building a bulk head wall to protect his property from storm surge. Although Robbins building was flooded due to Hurricane Sandy, he said that without the mitigation steps, he would have lost his whole building.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Brian Robbins, owner of Cornell Paper and Box Company, Inc., stands next to his business which abuts Upper New York Bay. Robbins took the initiative to mitigate his property by building a stone wall to protect his property from storm surge. Although Robbins building was flooded due to Hurricane Sandy, he said that without the mitigation steps, he would have lost his whole building.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Brian Robbins, owner of Cornell Paper and Box Company, Inc., stands next to his business which abuts Upper New York Bay. Robbins took the initiative to mitigate his property by building a stone wall to protect his property from storm surge. Although Robbins building was flooded due to Hurricane Sandy, he said that without the mitigation steps, he would have lost his whole building.

Robbins started the project in early 2008 and finished by September of 2010. Robbins joked that he had to get approvals from every government agency in existence. In the middle of it, the financial markets crashed and he spoke with his father about whether it was the best time to go forward. But he decided it HAD to be done or he’d be in worse shape, if a major storm hit. 

Even with the mitigation effort, one wall of the warehouse sustained a huge crack that will cost about $270,000 to repair. Cleanup will run another $400,000. In addition, the flooding inundated about $900,000 worth of soggy boxes. His flood insurance will cover $500,000 to repair the building and another $500,000 for damaged inventory. (Flood insurance coverage for business is different than coverage for individual homeowners, which tops out at $250,000 for structures and $100,000 for contents).


Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Workers at local Red Hook business Cornell Paper and Box Company, continue cleanup of boxes inside the warehouse that was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Business impacted by the storm may contact the Small Business Administration (SBA) for low-interest disaster loans at all New York State/FEMA disaster recovery centers and 18 SBA business recovery centers.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Workers at local Red Hook business Cornell Paper and Box Company, continue cleanup of boxes inside the warehouse that was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Business impacted by the storm may contact the Small Business Administration (SBA) for low-interest disaster loans at all New York State/FEMA disaster recovery centers and 18 SBA business recovery centers.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Local Red Hook business, Cornell Paper and Box Company, continues cleanup of boxes at the warehouse that was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Business impacted by the storm may contact the Small Business Administration (SBA) for low-interest disaster loans at all New York State/FEMA disaster recovery centers and 18 SBA business recovery centers.

Brooklyn, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Local Red Hook business, Cornell Paper and Box Company, continues cleanup of boxes at the warehouse that was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Business impacted by the storm may contact the Small Business Administration (SBA) for low-interest disaster loans at all New York State/FEMA disaster recovery centers and 18 SBA business recovery centers.

To make up the difference, he will have to take out a half a million dollar low-interest disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (which also provides low-interest loans to homeowners to repair disaster damage). It will take a few months for Cornell to be able to house the paper inventory needed to bring business back to the way it was. In the meantime, Robbins is trying to make up the loss by renting out emptied areas of his warehouse for storage space, (one client is storing his motorcycles where stacks of cardboard usually sit). 

Even so, Robbins estimates that if he had not taken the mitigation measures, it would have cost him another million dollars out of pocket. Now the plan is to bring in another 400 tons of armored stone to replace what Sandy took away.

Robbins says that after making the repairs he’ll be even better protected for another storm. And save another million dollars – or more.

After a presidentially declared disaster, FEMA provides funding to the state for mitigation grants. For more information on applying for one, here is a link to HMGP FAQs.

Forkston Township, Pennsylvania Gets its Bridge Back

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A bridge is one of those things that can so easily be taken for granted. Even one that we may rely on to cut our day-to-day work commute in half, or allows us more frequent trips to the grocery store, after a while, can seem like an assumed part of life. But when these critical conduits are lost, as was the case when Hurricane Irene devastated parts of Forkston, a township near the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, the significance of these vital crossings is more fully realized.          

Recovery from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is still in process here in Pennsylvania, where residents of Forkston just learned that FEMA has approved nearly $7 million in federal Public Assistance funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to reconstruct a bridge and nearby roadside that was at the heart of the community until Irene devastated it in late August 2011.

Few of us will soon forget how, even two weeks after Irene, many Forkston residents could not get to their homes because the bridge was gone. What’s more, some residents who were at home when Irene hit were stranded, cut off from critical resources. Some of the trapped residents made dramatic efforts to cross the Mahoopany Creek so they could access food and other necessary items. At one point, individuals even used ropes to inch across the water. They strung two ropes across the creek at different levels and shimmied, placing their feet on the lower rope while gripping the higher rope with their hands. Two of those ropes are visible in this photo (below) of people walking along what was left of Windy Valley Road along Mahoopany Creek.    

residents look over damaged bridge

CAPTION: The remains of Windy Valley Road, along the Mehoopany Creek in Forkston after Hurricane Irene. Stranded residents extended two ropes across the creek at different levels to shimmy across the creek for supplies. Photo by Jake Danna Stevens (Photo courtesy of the Scranton Times Tribune)

A gravel crossing was installed to pinch-hit as a means of passage until a more substantial structure could be built. But two days later, Tropical Storm Lee hit. High velocity floodwaters, fueled by a swollen Susquehanna River, washed the hardscrabble expanse away.

temporary gravel bridge

CAPTION: PennDot installed a rough-hewn gravel crossing over Mahoopany Creek on State Route 3001 in Forkston Township, Pa. after Hurricane Irene destroyed the original bridge that stood there. Two days later, Tropical Storm Lee washed it out. Photo by FEMA/Liz Roll

In December 2011, $2.4 million in federal funding was obligated to PennDOT to restore the bridge in its original location on State Route 3001. The project included removal of the collapsed bridge and placement of a temporary “Acrow Panel Bridge” in the vacant spot. Commonwealth-owned asphalt road, guiderails, shoulder and road embankments were also included in the project.

temporary bridge in forkston

CAPTION: A temporary bridge now stands over Mahoopany Creek on State Route 3001 in Forkston Township, Pa. Nearly $7 million in federal PA funding was approved in December to replace the temporary bridge with a permanent structure. Photo by FEMA/William Lindsey, Jr. 

The temporary bridge was a significant improvement, but in mid-December, FEMA approved $6,924,799 for the Commonwealth to reconstruct the bridge and to rebuild portions of surrounding Windy Valley Road.

FEMA’s share is 75 percent of the total $9,233,065 estimated cost of the reconstruction project.  The remaining 25 percent share of the cost will be paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

This kind of project is made possible through FEMA’s Public Assistance program, with close coordination among our state and local counterparts.  FEMA manages the program, approves grants and provides technical assistance to the Commonwealth and applicants. The Commonwealth educates potential applicants, works with FEMA to manage the program and is responsible for implementing and monitoring the grants awarded under the program. Local officials are responsible for identifying damage, providing information necessary for FEMA to approve grants and managing each project funded under the program.

Through Public Assistance, FEMA is able to better the lives of those impacted by disasters like Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. An informative list of Frequently Asked Questions about the program, which is an interesting process, is posted on www.FEMA.gov.  I look forward to continuing to help Pennsylvania recover from these storms and sharing more stories like these in the future.

FEMA Corps, Expanding Opportunities for Young Adults

Last August FEMA rolled out a program with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) called FEMA Corps.  It’s made up of young people between the ages of 18-24, many of whom are interested in a career in emergency management. As part of our response to Hurricane Sandy, we deployed members of FEMA Corps to assist with our operation.  In the story below, 22-year-old Elizabeth McSherry shares her experience working in New York.

New York, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2012 -- Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, right, talks to FEMA Corps members aboard the Training Ship Empire State VI, docked on the East River at the foot of the Throgs Neck Bridge. The ship has provided accommodations for volunteers from FEMA Corps and Federal Surge groups who have come to assist in the recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy.

New York, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2012 -- Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, right, talks to FEMA Corps members aboard the Training Ship Empire State VI, docked on the East River at the foot of the Throgs Neck Bridge. The ship has provided accommodations for volunteers from FEMA Corps and Federal Surge groups who have come to assist in the recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to live a different experience than most. My parents were treasure hunters and I spent a majority of my childhood on their boat traveling in the Bahamas. Looking back, I almost feel as if I took those years a bit for granted; I never would have thought that the very boat I grew up on would be lifted and dropped in someone else’s yard. But when Hurricane George came through in 1998, that’s what happened. Little did I know, 14 years later, I would be on the other side of disaster recovery.

My FEMA Corps journey began in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Anniston, Alabama, where I completed my training for Americorps and FEMA, respectively. From there, my team and I were deployed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to support the Hurricane Isaac response.

In Baton Rouge, my assignment was to make a series of courtesy calls to let survivors know we were actively working to find resources for them. After dialing page after page of phone numbers, I ended up speaking with an older lady who suffered extensive damages as a result the storm. I was incredibly nervous that she would be frustrated, but rather than an angry tone on the other end of the line, a voice came through that was so appreciative to even hear someone was still working to help her. A simple phone call can make a difference.

Lincroft, N.J., Nov. 29, 2012 -- FEMA Corps members have been deployed in every department to support the recovery effort during Hurricane Sandy.

Lincroft, N.J., Nov. 29, 2012 -- FEMA Corps members have been deployed in every department to support the recovery effort during Hurricane Sandy.

In New York, on the Hurricane Sandy response, I continue to come across inspiring people. As an anthropology major, I love culture and I'm particularly enthralled with the diversity you find in New York. In the Rockaways, where I’ve spent most of my time, I’ve met people from all different geographic, economic, professional and religious backgrounds. Just by walking through the streets and knocking on their doors, I’ve become so much more aware of the incredible culture here in New York. And the way the different communities unite together as a city is unbelievable.

During my first few days, we were assigned to canvass neighborhoods in Broad Channel in Rockaway. We ran into a few survivors that told us about a man who lived nearby in a wheelchair. Upon reaching his house, we were shocked to find that not only was he safe and in good health, he had in fact been providing food, water and beds to his neighbors who had lost everything. Despite his own home being severely flooded and damaged, the fact that this man, clearly undeterred by his limited mobility, opened his own home so unselfishly and without any hesitation rendered us all completely speechless.

In Breezy Point, again, I felt a strong sense of community. Many were appreciative to see us and relieved to have someone just to talk to. One man I came across was this big, tough guy who was venting about what he and others in the community had been through, but when asked if he had applied for assistance, he insisted he wasn’t interested. I think a sense of pride was what may have discouraged him. But later that day, when we went to work at one of the Disaster Recovery Centers, I saw that same gentleman waiting. Not only was he there to get information for himself, but he had a list names of people in the community he was looking into potential assistance for as well.

In the month and a half my team was in New York, the progress I witnessed was absolutely incredible. Although we all were frequently exhausted by the various assignments we had been given each day, it truly makes it all worth it when you can step back and realize that you’ve played even a small part in such a huge recovery effort.

Silver Linings and Silver Bells, Paying it Forward

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Editor’s Note: FEMA does not endorse any non-government entities, organizations, or services.

The one silver lining of disasters is they can bring out the best in humanity. The world becomes connected – people in countries from across the oceans send food, money, blankets and other supplies. And neighbors help neighbors, paying it forward, and continuing to do so for as long as it takes. With the holidays approaching, the desire to pay it forward is even more heightened.

To me, nothing illustrates how kindness begets more kindness in times of crisis than the story of 87-year-old Patsy Roberts, someone who has been described as “the matriarch” of her block – a strong, faithful friend and neighbor in the Belle Harbor community of Rockaway. She never forgot the mailman’s birthday, passed by a tossed trashcan without returning it to its place, or hesitated to cook a meal for someone in need. She performed random acts of kindness as routinely as she walked along the beach each morning and went to church every Sunday.

After Hurricane Sandy, she was forced to leave her home of 50 years. Much of her personal property was destroyed, including thousands of cards she had saved over the years from friends and family. She told her daughter, Virginia, and son-in-law, Cristian, that she was saving them “to read when my time came to remember everyone I love.”

 

 N.Y., Nov. 4, 2012 -- Rockaway Sandy Survivor hugs her great grand niece Jasmine.

Patsy gave the family strength the night of the storm. “At first, she didn’t want to leave her home,” says Virginia. “But she agreed to come to our house, a few blocks away from the ocean.” At about 11:00 p.m., the Dobles home was surrounded by five feet of floodwater. “Telephone poles and cars were coursing through that water,” says Virginia. “I’m not being melodramatic when I say I have never been so scared in my life. My brother-in-law called and told us a fire was heading toward us. Then we saw flames leaping 13 feet high.”

When Virginia told her mother they would have to flee the house and go out into the water, she said, “Okay, if that’s what we have to do, we’ll do it.’”

“She went upstairs and put her slicker on – the one she’d wear for her morning walks – and was stoic,” says Virginia. “Living through WWII and the depression made her that way. Meanwhile, I was hysterical. But my mother’s calmness helped me.”

As Virginia’s husband was inflating trash bags to use as flotation devices, the family saw a black vehicle drive through the waters in front of their home. “It was like a mirage,” she says. “Eight guys with a raft on top…they yelled to us, ‘Stay in your home. The wind has shifted!”

The fire did indeed turn in the other direction. “I don’t know who they were, but they saved our lives,” says Virginia.

The family is now waiting to hear how much Patsy’s flood insurance will cover before making plans to repair and move back in to her lifelong home. In the meantime, her son-in-law, Cristian, who calls each card she’s sent to people over the years a “little prayer,” initiated a letter writing campaign in the media for her.  So far, she’s received more than 1,500 cards.

“It’s wonderful,” says Virginia. “She was a very active woman and now she can’t really go out because of the damage and the air quality. These cards are therapy for her.”

 New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- Hurricane Sandy Survivor Patsy Roberts, in her daughter's guest room with the hundreds of letters she received from supportive friends, neighbors and strangers after she was displaced from her home in Belle Harbor in Rockaway, Queens.

It’s a good thing Virginia’s husband didn’t tell her ahead of time about his card campaign. “I’m kind of a Grinch,” she laughs. “I am so glad he didn’t tell me because I would have been like, ‘absolutely not!’ But this is the best thing for her. The outpouring of love and support is inspiring. And people are sharing personal details of their life, not just superficial things. They’re making a real connection. It restores your faith in the goodness of people.”

For those who are looking for ways of making a wonderful difference in a hurricane survivor’s life, here are some organizations that help Sandy survivors for the holidays as well as beyond:

  • Toys for Tots: This organization, run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, lost much of its inventory of toys in New York during the storm. 
  • Fashion Delivers: A non-profit organization which collects excess inventory from companies to distribute to those in need. This Saturday, Dec. 22, and Sunday, Dec. 23, the group is organizing free holiday shopping for Sandy survivors in Staten Island. Pre-registration with a FEMA number is required for admission. Staten Island residents who would like an invitation can contact Tony Navarino at Fashion Delivers’ partner agency Tunnel to Towers at 718-987-1931.  For more information visit www.FashionDelivers.org
  • Believe in Belle Harbor: An organization founded by the Roberts family in partnership with Team Rubicon, a group of retired military veterans who volunteer their time to help at disaster sites www.believeinbelleharbor.com. For Team Rubicon: www.teamrubiconusa.org
  • Where to Turn: Organized a toy drive where families can pick out two toys per child at a former store located at 3948 Amboy Road in Great Kills, Staten Island, from noon to 7 p.m. until Christmas Eve. Families must show photo ID with proof of address as well as their FEMA number to qualify. www.where-to-turn.org
  • BrotherMelo: This youth program will be hosting families affected by Hurricane Sandy with a Holiday Party with donated toys, clothes and household supplies. Saturday, December 22 at the Community Center 110 West 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231, Red Hook, Brooklyn, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information or volunteer opportunities, you can contact karlharpersanders@yahoo.com

A Commitment to Stay with New York, Its Hospitals and the Long Term Recovery

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Ceiling panels missing. Wires dangling. Layers of dust. Floor tiles removed and concrete exposed. Five feet sections of walls cut from the ground up, and in some cases, completely removed. Flood lights and construction lights strung along corridors. The constant hum of fans.  Hard work. And determination.

These were all things that Mike Byrne and I witnessed on Friday after spending a few hours visiting with employees at Bellevue Hospital and Coney Island Hospital.  A few weeks ago I also visited NYU Hospital, and the reason for the visits – because I believe it’s important to get a firsthand look at the damage and hear directly from hospital staff about what they experienced, as well as what their thoughts and ideas are for moving forward.

It was important that Mike Byrne was with me on these visits. Not only is he a New Yorker, but he is also my point person in New York and is the one responsible for coordinating FEMA’s response and recovery efforts.  Our recovery effort is very personal to him.  Aside from his personal connection to New York, you should know he has worked on many recovery projects and is the right person for this job.

Before we walked around with staff at Bellevue Hospital and see the damage and recovery work, we had to put on yellow protective boots and wear face masks because the area was still being decontaminated and cleaned.  I saw the lower areas of the hospital where their equipment and mechanical systems are housed, which were completely inundated with saltwater and destroyed.  The orange paint on the wall indicated how high the water rose, a striking reminder even though the water is no longer visible.

At the Coney Island Hospital we saw the same items damaged – water pumps, electrical systems, computer networks – all of the things we need for our facilities to stay up and running.  When we walked around with staff, I was in a pump room that was completely filled with water, floor to ceiling.  The hospital shared that they are only handling urgent care walk-ins as they continue to get their hospital back to full working operations.

I made it a point to also thank the staff on the frontlines, and to thank them for all of the hard work they have done to get the doors to the hospital open again, because even if it’s incremental, it’s good for a community to see some services come back online.

It’s telling of the staff that serve their communities, because it’s their hard work and determination that has gotten them this far. What’s even more telling is that the staff are also storm survivors themselves, and they have their own personal recovery work to do, all the while they get the hospital back up and running.

I wanted to share some photos from both hospitals:

Bellevue

exploring hospital
CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- Bellevue Hospital Associate Executive Director of Facilities Management, Michael Rawlings, center, explains the damage incurred by Hurricane Sandy to Administrator Craig Fugate, left, and FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, right. Due to the continuing efforts of abatement, visitors are required to wear protective gear when going into areas where cleanup continues.

tour of the hospital

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- Administrator Craig Fugate, left, and FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, right, get a tour of Bellevue Hospital in Manhatten, by Associate Executive Director of Facilities Management, Michael Rawlings, center. The orange line on the wall indicates how high the flood waters were after Hurricane Sandy. Due to due to the continuing efforts of abatement, visitors are required to wear a face mask and rubber boots.

Coney Island

inside hospital control room

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, second from right, gets a tour of flood damaged areas of Coney Island Hospital by Director of Faciliites, Daniel Collins, right and Senior Vice President of Coney Island Hospital Arthur Wagner, second from right. FEMA officials and senior hospital staff joined the Administrator on the tour.

examining damaged floor

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, center, listens to Senior Vice President of Coney Island Hospital Arthur Wagner second from left, along with FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, second from right, during a tour of flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Flood waters damaged many of the operational components of the hospital.

inside damaged hospital

CAPTION: New York, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2012 -- Administrator Craig Fugate, right, along with FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne, left, get a tour of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy at the Coney Island Hospital. They were joined by hospital administration and were shown areas of the hospital impacted by Hurricane Sandy. This particular room has imaging equipment that was destroyed by the storm surge waters.

During my conversation with staff from both hospitals, I also discussed three items that I see as the way forward from Hurricane Sandy, which can be described as the now, the temporary and intermediate work, and the long term work and planning.

The first item, or the now, is helping the hospitals with the bills they have now, because of the extraordinary cost they have incurred from when the storm hit, up until this point.  We call these protective measures, and as part of the President’s major disaster declaration for counties in New York, we can reimburse them for their emergency work.

Building off of the first item, the second item is looking at how much temporary work can be done to get back to capacity, to get hospital units back up and running.  These are the intermediate steps, but it’s prioritizing and looking at the critical aspects of the hospital and the functions they need to serve their community – whether it’s a unit for trauma, psych or radiology.  These are not necessarily full term permanent solutions, but just like getting a clinic open, what’s next, and is there a function this hospital serves that other, surrounding hospitals don’t, meaning there is an even greater need.

And building off of the function theme, as the staff continue to think through long-term solutions, I encouraged them to look past just rebuilding and making changes based on the effects of Hurricane Sandy.  What I mean by that is, if we mitigate just against what occurred during Sandy, we’re not really mitigating against the worst case, because the next storm could be much worse.  I heard this from others, that after Hurricane Irene, they changed or improved their protection plans based on Hurricane Irene’s impact, but it didn’t help with Sandy because the storm surge was so more devastating then Irene.

This is what I mean, that all of us in the emergency management field need to do – we need to shift the way we’re thinking about making our communities stronger and better.   We can’t make them stronger and better just based off of the last storm, because next year or in 10 years, even if there’s one more foot of water then what we had with Sandy, then we’re back to the same problem – and what did we accomplish?

Mike Byrne has the right people on his team who know hospitals, and we’re going to get this done.  I don’t want missed opportunities and I want to get it right the first time, so I’ve told the team the mantra is speed, not haste.  The goal is to do it once, and then it’s done, and it’s done right.

The recovery work individuals, families, businesses, and hospitals have in front of them won’t happen overnight, the recovery will take time, but we’re not going anywhere.  Our commitment at FEMA is to stay with New York – and all of the impacted states for that matter – until the job is done.  FEMA staff (community relations specialists and registration assistance specialists) continue to work in the impacted neighborhoods to talk with survivors, and I know Mike is continuing to attend town hall meetings, so he can personally talk with survivors, because just like we talked firsthand with hospital staff, he likes to talk firsthand with survivors to have a conversation with them and answer their questions directly.

Secretary Donovan, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is tasked with working directly with communities as they come together, to map out what their new community looks like, and they aren’t going anywhere either.  Mike and the rest of the FEMA team in New York, in support of the State and affected communities, will continue to work closely with Secretary Donovan’s team.

Again, and I can’t say this enough – FEMA will stay with New York until the job is done.

A Maverick Way of Staying Calm

Author: 

When Jack Zenkel, 10, was in the hospital with a serious head injury six years ago, his mother, Michele, stood vigil. She was worried, but determined to remain hopeful. While Jack was resting in his hospital bed, a woman with a small, furry therapy dog entered his room. Upon seeing the dog, Jack’s face immediately lit up.  For the next few minutes, Jack petted and snuggled with the dog.  “I was amazed at the wonderful effect the dog had on my son. The dog made a huge difference,” says Michele.

As Jack’s condition began to improve in the hospital, Michele started thinking about the family’s golden retriever, Maverick, back at home. They had adopted him as a puppy and he had always had a gentle, patient disposition. Maverick had begun life as a trainee in the Guiding Eyes for the Blind guide dog school, but, “he didn’t finish,” says Michele. Maverick flinched during one of the tests so he was “released,” explains Michele. “They don’t like to say that a dog has been rejected.”

Although he wasn’t quite guide dog material, Maverick, was accepted by the Good Dog Foundation, a non-profit organization based in New York City dedicated to “dogs helping humans heal.” Good Dogs and their handlers regularly visit children and adults in hospitals, nursing homes, group homes, schools and libraries.

Within 48 hours of landfall of Hurricane Sandy, Michele traveled with Maverick from her home in Westchester County to the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Long Beach, NY, where the storm had swept through the beach community. “Having a dog onsite not only helps reduce stress levels for some, but it’s great for the parents with kids who need to take care of paperwork,” says Michele.


therapy dog

This is especially true for those families who were displaced and whose pets are at shelters. When survivor Anna Park walked into the DRC one day in December, her two daughters ran squealing over to the gentle sandy-colored canine. The family’s home, a few blocks from the beach, had been inundated with water, waist-deep on the night of the storm. Anna grabbed her two daughters, Eliana, 6 and Jessica, 5, and their three Chihuahuas and escaped through the rushing water.

Because their first floor apartment had to be gutted, Anna and her children are staying with her mother nearby. But with no room for their dogs, the pets have been boarding at an animal shelter.

The young girls spent the next hour petting and chatting with Maverick, giving their mother much needed time to speak with disaster recovery officials. Park was receiving rental assistance from FEMA, but her job at the local library was recently cut from full-time to part-time. She is looking for a full-time position and a new place to live, and wanted to learn more about other assistance she might qualify for.

“You’re not like our puppies,” Eliana told Maverick. “They’re wild. My grandma won’t let them in the house.”

 
therapy dog

“We like you almost as much,” her sister Jessica added.

Maverick did not seem offended at all.

When it was time to leave, they hugged him, finding it hard to let go of the puppy who was released from guide dog school, but who still grew up to live a life of service. 

A Rockaway survivor looks at a “new normal”

Author: 

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 ready.gov 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

Author: 

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.

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