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Learning about holiday season fire safety

The weather has been getting colder – and that means more than just getting out the winter coat, hat, and gloves.  It also means we’re getting close to the holidays and some extra cheer is in the air!  However you celebrate the season, you’re probably doing some decorating inside your house, out in the yard, or in your own room!

Putting up lights, candles, and holiday decorations can be a lot of fun.  We have been spending the last few days learning about how to safely put up all our pretty decorations.  You see, more houses tend to be damaged by fires this time of year, and unsafe decorating is often a cause of the fire!  So here is some of what we learned about safe holiday decorating:

1. Lit candles are dangerous and should never be left unattended. If you aren’t able to constantly watch candles, you should use lights instead.  Holiday light sets come in so many different colors and shapes and can make any home look cheery.

stella next to christmas lights

Or you can use electric candles instead – they look real and you can even find some that are scented!

flameless candles

Or if you have candles that give off traditional holiday scents when they are lit, we learned there are ways to still enjoy the holiday aromas without having an open flame.  Here’s one way, using a candle warmer:

stanley next to candle warmer

2. The more lights you use, the more you’ll need places to plug them all in.  Make sure you use surge protectors and don't overload your electrical outlets:

stanley next to surge protector

3. Decorate with materials that don’t catch fire easily.  Look for the decorations that are clearly marked “nonflammable” or “flame-retardant”.   We hung a wreath next to our desk that is nonflammable:

stanley with wreath

4. If your family celebrates Christmas and uses a real (or live) Christmas tree, remember to keep it watered and away from any heat sources like a fireplace or heat vent.  That way it the tree doesn’t dry out and accidentally catch on fire.

5. Don’t block exits as you put up decorations.  In the event of a fire, people need to have ways to easily exit the room and get outside to safety.

If you’re looking for more fire safety tips, check out the U.S. Fire Administration website. They have a bunch of ways you can keep your home safer from fires during the cold winter months.   

We wish you and your family a very happy and safe holiday season!!

stanley and stella with decorations

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.