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


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:


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.

What We’re Watching: 12/14/12


Sandy recovery continues

It’s been a month and a half since Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast, and the recovery effort continues at full speed.  Thousands of employees from FEMA and other federal agencies remain on the ground working to meet the needs of disaster survivors and offer assistance.  Here’s a quick look at how massive the recovery operation is: to date, over $1.09 billion in federal assistance has been approved for affected individuals and families across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

For state-specific updates on Sandy recovery, visit:

Finally, here are a few photos from this week showing FEMA and our partners in action:

debris removal

CAPTION: Far Rockaway, N.Y., Dec. 12, 2012 -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is removing debris from Far Rockaway, Long Island beaches boardwalk. Using a fleet of front-end loaders, crawler excavators and dump trucks, the Army Corps is working block by block to clear debris and make way for new sand. Replenishing the beach falls under the New York Department of Parks and Recreation authority


CAPTION: Sea Bright, N.J., Dec. 12, 2012 -- Frank Bain (r), owner of Bain Hardware, is interviewed by Steve Zumwalt (l), FEMA Videographer on the opening day of his business. Bain's Hardware was damaged when the town was flooded when Hurricane Sandy swept through the area. The hardware store was one of the first business to re-open in Sea Bright, N.J.

disaster recovery center interview

CAPTION: New York City, N.Y., Dec. 11, 2012 -- Residents of the Borough of Brooklyn in New York City apply for assistance at FEMA's Red Hook Disaster Recovery Center.

Holiday gift ideas

Gift-giving is in the air this time of year as many people around the country are celebrating holiday traditions.  Over the past few weeks on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, we’ve been sharing ideas on gifts that will make your loved ones smile and be useful before, during, or after emergencies.  Gifts like:

  • An emergency kit for your car: Include windshield scraper, booster cables, hat & mittens, blanket, snack food & flares.
  • A solar-powered or hand-crank cell phone charger.
  • Enrollment in a CPR or first-aid class. You take the class as a couple or with the family!
  • Travel-size games to include in an emergency kit; that way kids are entertained if you lose power or need to evacuate.
  • A NOAA weather radio to ensure friends and family always have the latest on severe weather conditions in their area.
  • A sleeping bag or a warm blanket. They can prove especially useful if friends/family loses power during the cold winter months.

Visit for more holiday gift ideas.

Upcoming training

Finally, I wanted to share a few of the upcoming training classes being offered by FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.  Some courses are designed for anyone to take, while others are intended for professionals in specific areas such as emergency management, healthcare, or education.  Here are a few of the courses coming up:

  • For higher-education professionals – Integrating Emergency Management Education into your Institution
  • For emergency management professionals – Social Media in Emergency Management
  • For anyone interested – A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance

If you’re interested in more training courses you can take online at your own pace, check out our independent study course list.

Have a great weekend, and stay safe!

Holiday safety in my house

Each year Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season in my home.  As soon as the meal is over and we settle in for the football game, we begin to create our holiday to-do lists.  Because of my two grandsons, decorating our home has become a very special tradition. 

Whether sorting through yards of twinkling bulbs, hanging ornaments on the tree, lighting the menorah, or displaying the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, many citizens across the United States cherish this time of year.  Unfortunately, these traditions may also increase the chance of a fire in our homes.  Approximately 240 home fires occur each year because of Christmas trees and another 150 home fires occur due to holiday and other decorative lighting. There are a few things we do in my home to reduce the likelihood of experiencing a fire.

First, we make sure our real Christmas tree is fresh.  A fresh tree’s needles will bounce back when you touch the limb.  If they fall off, chances are the tree is already too dry.  The stump of the tree should be sticky with sap. We also make sure all other live greens are very fresh.

When you bring your tree home, make sure you water it regularly.  Check the water each day.  Then, make sure you don’t dry the tree out prematurely by placing it too close to a heat source like a vent or fireplace. 

As you unwind those yards of lights, make sure there aren’t any frayed wires, bare spots, gaps in the insulation or broken/cracked sockets.  In my family, we check the lights each year as we take them off the tree and discard the faulty ones.  If we have a doubt—out it goes.  We are careful not to link more than three light strands as is recommended by national testing organizations, and plug the end directly into a wall outlet or high quality power strip. 

Over the years I’m sure you accumulate those old decorations with sentimental value and special memories.  Unfortunately, they could be very dangerous and flammable.   The rule in my home is: use only nonflammable or flame retardant decorations or don’t use them at all.  And no matter how wonderful the tree looks in that special place in the room, we never block exits or the furniture with the tree —that has sparked some interesting home décor discussions over the years!

Candles are beautiful and make the house feel warm and inviting.  But, candles can definitely be dangerous.  Consider using battery-operated flameless candles in your decorations.  If you must use real candles, make sure they are in stable holders and place them where they cannot be knocked over easily.  Never leave a room or go to bed with candles burning. The flameless candles coming out this year are really life-like.  And some operate on remote control—very convenient and safe!

As an example, here are some battery operated candles:

Photos of battery operated candles

Holiday fire safety does not have to be another big to-do on your growing holiday list.  Just follow a few safety tips while decorating and you will be giving your family one of the greatest gifts this year—safety!

For more information on ways to make your holidays safer, go to Holiday Fire Safety at the U.S. Fire Administration’s web site.  From everyone at the United States Fire Administration, let me wish you a happy and safe holiday season.

A Maverick Way of Staying Calm


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. 

Emergency response training through a county administrator’s eyes

I am the County Administrator for a county approximately the size of Rhode Island.  With over 4,000 square miles, Lane County extends from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains, and includes dunes, wetlands, oceans, rivers, lakes, ski resorts, a large university, and a major north-south interstate.  The question of a large-scale disaster, man-made or natural, is not if it will occur, but when.

training student
CAPTION: Anniston, Ala., Oct. 25, 2012 -- Liane Richardson recently graduated the Technical Emergency Response Training for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Incidents (TERT) course at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala. The TERT course is multidisciplinary and a keystone training program at the CDP. TERT provides a foundation for all emergency responders, to include government officials. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend resident training at the CDP, in Anniston, Alabama. As a fairly new administrator, I am attempting to immerse myself into every aspect of the services we provide.  A large share of those services involves emergency response.  When I learned about the training opportunities at the CDP, I jumped at the chance to attend.

As County Administrator, I have specific roles related to the overall running of a full-service county.  However, I am also very interested in emergency management.  I am in charge of ensuring our county continues to operate during the worst disasters possible, while at the same time responds appropriately to the disaster itself.   The CDP training, without a doubt, makes a difference in the leadership decisions I make; whether in the office, or in an emergency management situation.

I recently attended the Technical Emergency Response Training (TERT) course. This training allowed me to experience first-hand what would be required should a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive (CBRNE) incident occur.   I have a better understanding as to what our employees will be facing, what training and resources they need, and what I can provide to them to ensure they respond appropriately, regardless of the situation.   I appreciate the fact FEMA provides the opportunity to receive CDP training, at no cost to the jurisdiction. The training is fully funded for state, local, and tribal employees.  Funding, such as this, is greatly appreciated, and a huge bonus for Lane County.

I whole-heartedly recommend that elected, appointed, and senior employees of government take this training for a better understanding of what it is their first responders do, as well as show them the benefits of CDP training. I feel more prepared, and I believe it all starts at the top. If senior management places priority in certain areas then so will the entire organization. Emergency management, planning and preparedness, is very important. The more prepared Lane County can be for any type of incident, the better off we all will be. I am better prepared thanks to my CDP training, and encourage more government leadership to attend the wonderful training environment that is the Center for Domestic Preparedness. Thank you CDP and FEMA!

training next to fire engine

CAPTION: Anniston, Ala., Oct. 25, 2012 -- Liane Richardson (front left), Lane County, Oregon, county administrator, simulates the initial decontamination of a disaster survivor at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala. recently. Richardson attended the Technical Emergency Response Training for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Incidents (TERT) course.

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.


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.


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