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Hello friends,

I am writing to tell you about a Red Cross volunteer day to Far Rockaway, Queens, which you’ve probably heard about. The story of my last stint at the shelter in Long Island was posted on the CUNY SPS Community Blog, and I thank them for their initiative. It may also be on the Red Cross blog soon.

This stretch of land, Far Rockaway, is a peninsula on the south end of Queens/Long Island, just south of JFK airport, which was right in Sandy’s way and still has widespread power outages and fuel shortages.

The New York Red Cross organized a volunteer effort to cover some of the most affected areas, which are basically the last pockets without power. There is an info-graphic that compares three recent major storms.

This was also an interesting day. We met up with our Red Cross (ARC) friend and headed down to Floyd Bennett airfield where the National Guard, FEMA, ARC, etc., have set up with fuel tanker trucks, trailers, mass kitchens from the Southern Baptists, and so on. Anne and I were with an ARC member and we set out ahead of the volunteer bus to find the location where we were to meet the food trucks, and to let folks in the area know there would be hot food.

The drive to Far Rockaway over the bridge from the airfield was an eye-opener. Even big trees had toppled and the storm’s winds had spread the sand from the beach from the waterfront up to a few hundred yards inland. Written on a boarded-up McD’s was: “Nothing here 2 take. U R 2 late.” Some commentary on night-time activity. Smashed car windows told the same story.

People in those neighborhoods were tending to their homes, generating piles of rubble that sanitation crews were picking up here and there. Some streets were closed to traffic entirely, because of downed trees, downed cables, trash, or rubble. Utility crews, said to come from all over the country, were all throughout the neighborhood, working on power lines and assessing damage. Some unfortunate neighborhoods will always be the last to have services restored.

Much of the dislocation comes from the associated effects of not having power—no heat, communications, spoiled food, trash piling up, lack of fuel, totaled cars everywhere… The area has been without power since the storm 18 days ago, when the ocean water, 4 to 6 feet deep, rushed in and destroyed any electrical circuit it met—in cars, in fuse boxes on houses, street lights, garages. Generators were around by buildings, work sites, and on main streets and corners. Lines of hundreds waited in long lines for fuel trucks, carrying gas cans to fill up their cans and generators, all overseen by police officers.

We found that a church close by had clothing donation and distribution going on, and found people charging their phones on generators. The food trucks arrived soon, run by volunteers from California, Virginia, and other places. People soon started queuing up for a hot meal ready to go, but that didn’t compare to when the next truck, carrying a load of clean-up kits, diapers, and over 900 comfort kits (containing a blanket, flash light, batteries, wipes, hand sanitizer, hand warmers, and more) arrived. Since we had walked the neighborhood, we easily found three apartment complexes that lacked generators and the kits found their way into the crowds in less than an hour. Here a word about the volunteers. They came from schools and companies all over town and formed instant teams for canvassing, food prep, handing out supplies, and did it all with a compassionate and positive attitude.

There were bright spots. Some houses had remained dry and people had taken in others who had no place to go. Sometimes we were told that things were fine, or that neighbors were helping each other by sharing a generator. In another back yard we found a guy with a beer and a hearty “who cares”-laugh barbecuing.

The whole effort will have gone on for a few more days after the first one on Saturday, which we were part of. I am thankful for getting a chance to help, and that leads me, with a little smile, to a good opportunity to mention that a small donation to the Red Cross is a very easy and helpful way to support disaster relief, not just here, but all over the country.

One more thought. After Katrina hit New Orleans it became public knowledge that in a situation like this people really need to be prepared to get by on their own for 72 hours. Please consider checking a preparedness web site to make a plan. They say hindsight is 20/20, but sucks nonetheless, if enjoyed from a raft.

Best, as always,

Mike

PS: As always, these views are my own and do not reflect the views or positions of any other party, directly, or otherwise.

Michael Spieth is a graduate of the Advanced Certificate in Project Management program at CUNY School of Professional Studies.

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Hello friends,

Some of you know already that I volunteered at a Red Cross shelter on Long Island as part of the disaster relief efforts after the Hurricane Sandy (Monday, 10/29/2012). I’d like to share some of these experiences with you. You would hardly believe the pace of work at these places. Every moment is taken up by thinking and acting on a never ending list of items. I’m very glad I did this. I’m back home after almost three days, having taken a Long Island Rail Road train back to Jamaica station and the subway from there. I got to sleep three hours twice in that time. I could have gotten more, but one goes into some kind of adrenaline rush and mostly only sleeps when told to—a few times.

This shelter is located by Farmingville in a high school, and, on my first night there, received 100 clients from another shelter that had closed due to lack of electricity. That brought us up to about 230 in total at the time. The Red Cross (ARC) had prepositioned a container with supplies that Sunday, and we took cots, blankets, and many other useful items from there. Parents and residents from the community kept walking in with bags full of donations: clothes, diapers, soap, toiletries… we had boxes full of toiletry kits prepared by a Girl Scout troop, for example, and food was often donated from businesses nearby. This shelter will probably have to close on Sunday to make room for school starting again Monday, and they did not know where they’d be transferred to when I left. (*update: It did not move that weekend. Things change often.)

While I was there volunteers ran the entire site. Our managers were professionals with years of experience in emergency and disaster relief management, and the volunteers all did what they were best at. In training at the ARC in Manhattan we were told two indispensable things: 1. ‘Be flexible.’ 2. ‘Listen to them. It helps.’ —and it does: So many times our clients just stopped me, and told me their story. One could see their relief to share. I’ll add another, #3: ‘Let people be people.’ With so many quirky characters under one roof, the only thing one could do is just take them for who they were—people in need of help, who needed a place to sleep, food to eat, and a hot shower. Many of them had literally lost everything. Others just couldn’t stay at home for a while, because of a lack of electricity, and often because they were dependent on medical devices needing electricity, like oxygen machines.

I won’t go into detail on some of the bad luck that these folks have had. Needless to say, if one has to go to a shelter, it’s serious.

Because I was rushing almost everything I did, the pictures are somewhat below my usual quality photography.

I was made aware of this need for volunteers by a friend. She forwarded me the information, because I asked and she’s connected to the ARC in Manhattan. I signed up on Tuesday, showed up for training on Wednesday morning ready and packed for three days, as the email had asked, and was in a van with four others out to Long Island that same afternoon.

There’s an ARC coordination center somewhat east of New York from where we were sent to where the need was greatest.  More volunteers from Americorps, Stony Brook University, Jetblue and others arrived on Thursday and brought much needed help to the team, and we finally had enough people to do the work. A bus from the SPCA housing the animals/pets arrived on Thursday as well and the pet owners got to spend time with their animals. Ambulances and paramedics from Ohio and Alabama were kept at the school to provide extra medical coverage, beside the nurse, who was sent home and replaced after 48 hours of straight work. The school’s custodians helped us 24 hours a day with facilities, and police officers kept the peace.

The staff and clients started working together very quickly to manage events like putting together 100 beds. One kid really stood out. He helped like a champion with anything he could. I’ll call him Brian and he celebrated his 16th birthday in that shelter. The school’s custodians found out and got him a cake. The ARC’s policy is to never abandon people, but the goal really is to get people connected to their relatives and back on the way to get back to their lives.

One senior lady was there, because she needed electricity for her medical device (oxygen, in her case), and I often just called her Sweetheart. I was glad to see that she was picked up before I left. There were about 5 babies, 25 kids, and the rest were adults. The kids were kept with their parents/parent in a separate gymnasium in the school, next to the gymnasium housing adults and one of our goals was to create routines, so that everyone had some structure to their time there. If they needed something and we had it, it was theirs.

Ok, I’m exhausted and on my way to a full night’s sleep, after a great, warm, homemade dinner.

This was an amazing and moving experience, and I thanked the ARC that they let me do it. Please consider making a small donation to www.redcross.org.

Hope you’re all well, and thanks for listening.

Best,

Michael Spieth

If you have questions, comment or email, and I’ll fill in whatever I may have forgotten to mention. You can connect with me on LinkedIn with a quick search for my name, as well. Needless to say, these are my views and I don’t speak for the ARC.

Michael Spieth is a graduate of the Advanced Certificate in Project Management program at CUNY School of Professional Studies.