James Hodge was sitting in his office at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Long Beach, NY, where he volunteers on the board of directors, wondering what he could do to help residents who were suffering right after Hurricane Sandy. That’s when a woman appeared holding bags of clothes.
“Is this the rec center?” she asked.
Hodge knew she was probably referring to the Long Beach Arena, the big distribution site almost two miles away.
But he said, “Yes, yes it is.”
That was the moment another distribution center for hurricane survivors was born. “I wasn’t lying,” says Hodge. “We’re a recreation center too!”
After the storm, Hodge saw people in his community struggling for days, even weeks, in mold-infested homes without power. Much of the population in Hodge’s North Park neighborhood is made up of low-income and the elderly.
Hodge spent much of the first few days after the storm wading through several feet of water to get to high-rise apartment buildings in North Park to check on neighbors. He and other volunteers went door-to-door bringing food and water to the homebound. The nearest distribution and donation center was over a mile away at the Long Beach Arena, a sports complex and convention center, which was a difficult trek for those without a car.
As word spread about donations at the MLK center, more came in and soon the gymnasium was stocked with clothing of all sizes and seasons, food, water, baby formula, household goods and furniture.
As food donations came in, the kitchen at the MLK Center became very busy, providing lunches for increasing numbers of children coming off the nearby school bus as well as other hot meals. “Some of the women who donated meals did so because they said they didn’t have anything else to give,” says Cheryl R. Catchings, FEMA’s deputy assistant external affairs officer for community relations. “We called them ‘food angels’ because they cooked from their hearts.”
Hodge says if it weren’t for FEMA community relations teams and American Red Cross volunteers, he would not have been able to serve the survivors the way he did. “They were wonderful,” he says. “They helped carry food and water up many flights of stairs and set up tables and fold clothing, as well as translate for our Spanish-speaking residents. If we gave the FEMA teams an address, they would be there right away. The response was inspirational.”
The inspiration worked both ways. Catchings was moved to tears when a 9-year-old boy who called himself “Oatmeal” told her he had been so sad that he and others had lost so much, but was grateful that FEMA came to help them. He put his arms around her waist and gave her a big hug and smile and said, “Thank you, FEMA lady.”
Hodge and his volunteers were also able to provide uplifting inspiration to some of the elderly who weren’t able to leave home. In addition to food, water and medicine, the MLK group surprised their neighbor, “Miss Annie,” with a birthday cake and candles on the day she turned 89. “I was having the worst birthday,” she said. “Without you guys, I would have been upstairs with no elevator, no food…nothing. I love you guys”.
For those who weren’t homebound, Hodge took a proactive approach to letting them know resources were nearby. He walked up and down the flooded roads with high-rises, yelling through a bullhorn: “Hot food! Hot food at MLK!”
In November, at the height of the disaster response phase, about 3,500 people a week walked through MLK’s doors for assistance. (Normally, the center provides afterschool programs and meals for some 300 children a week.)
As the deadline for individuals and families to register for FEMA assistance approaches – Jan. 28th – and the community begins the rebuilding process, it will be centers and organizations such as MLK that will serve as some of the main partners in recovery. Going forward, MLK staff will be helping with the demolition of some of damaged homes in the neighborhood.
“This worked how it was supposed to,” says Hodge. “The FEMA team supported the local communities. After all, we know the intricacies of our neighborhood better than anyone because we live here.”