By CAPT Mary Riley, OHSEPR Director
On Oct 29, 2012, coastal areas along New York and New Jersey were devastated by Super Storm Sandy (aka “Frankenstorm”) as high winds and surging ocean waters came ashore. From up to 200 miles away from the impacted areas, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) team coordinated response efforts and worked side by side with the ACF Regional office in New York City.
Region 2 Regional Administrator Joyce Thomas, Regional Emergency Management Specialist Glen Karpovich, Office of Head Start Program Specialist Nicole Richardson, Office of Grants Management Fiscal Specialist Danny Blackmon, and ACF programs have worked hard in their human services response and recovery mission in the aftermath of the storm.
The OHSEPR and Regional teams, in coordination with the ACF liaison officers and subject matter experts in the field, worked together tirelessly, communicating via endless conference calls and emails. We gathered a massive number of situation reports from ACF programs and communications with response and recovery partners to assess, analyze and respond to the disaster.
As OHSEPR program Director, 90 days later and well into the Sandy human services recovery response phase, I had the opportunity for a site visit to the impacted areas. Under the Joyce’s leadership, we visited New York/New Jersey Joint Field Offices, and Head Start and Child Care centers affected in the disaster.
I witnessed the devastation and the fight for resiliency along the road to recovery. Over the next three days, the door opened to heartfelt and transparent conversations with agency staff, local grantees, responders and community members. It was raw, it was real and it was genuine.
Traveling to the Far Rockaways, we visited two New York City Administration for Children services delegate agencies. At the Blanche Community Child Care /Head Start Center facility, the administrator and some of the staff were able to reach the center within days after the disaster hit. They were feverishly working to restore the facility to get the children back. They had made great headway; however there was still a long way to go. In a sense, it was like they were rebuilding from scratch. The first floor, including the kitchen, was flooded with salt water and sand, equipment was destroyed, there were mold issues, etc. There were concerns about the center reopening and whether the families would be returning. The administrative processes required for recovery were slow because the response and needs were so overwhelming, but they took initiative and kept pushing.
At the second Child Care/Head Start center site, Community Parents, Inc., the staff had also hit the ground running and were gloved-up and pitching in to cleanup. Their world as they knew it 90 days earlier had radically changed. They too were driven and determined to recover. In some cases, the teachers and staff were themselves displaced. Families and their children were also displaced, but as a testament to their resilience, Community Parents reopened four of their five classrooms. Children were returning! In both locations, leadership was engaged in the efforts to recover. There was a committed focus on opening these buildings as the families and the children needed the program services and because these facilities served as gathering places and beacons to the community.
Far Rockaways Beach:
When we left the center it was after dark. Going a short distance, we stopped at the Far Rockaway Beach. The waterfront homes were severely damaged, the lighting was temporary and the beach had been moved onto the parking lot. Standing there in awe of the destruction, a gentleman from the community named Ron, walked by us with his dog and we struck up a conversation. Introducing ourselves from ACF , Ron began telling his story with emotions of anger, frustration and, at one point, with tears in his eyes.
He grew up here and loved the beach. His two-story home was on the first block away from the beach. Renters lived on the first floor and he and his family lived on the second floor. On the night of storm, they planned to ride it out. The water first came down the street, then started coming into the first floor of his home. The renters came to his place on the second floor. When the water rose to the second floor landing, he thought to himself, “This is the end,” he said, “we didn’t know if we would live or die.” There was no protective barrier between him and the sea. The ocean and the waters of the Back Bay had run together. Ron said his two kids were back in school, but he lost his tenants whose rent helped to pay the mortgage, he lost his work trucks, and because of that, he lost his job.
In a resilient attempt to recover, Ron applied for a Small Business Administration loan, which he shared was not an easy process. To add to this frustration, his insurance companies were fighting over who reimburses for damages with one saying the damage was wind and the other saying flood. We asked him if he thought of leaving the area. He said no. Ron was trying to get his tenants to return, but said they were afraid to come back. He feared he would never “get over” this, but for now, he was going to keep fighting. Ron spoke freely and transparently. We listened.
On day two, we went to Seaside Heights, NJ, which suffered severe damage from the storm. It was the first day the restrictions had been lifted allowing outsiders to enter the community. Shops and restaurants were slowly re-opening. “Jersey Strong” Sandy recovery T-shirts were on display for sale. The pier was destroyed. The ferris wheel was a crooked heap of metal. Striking up a conversation with an obviously stressed young man behind a food counter, he reported his home was not damaged because he lived in another community, but he did know many, including family, whose homes were damaged or destroyed. He seemed to focus and relax some as we continued in conversation. He said “it’s desperate, but somehow….”
New Jersey Joint Field Office – The importance and value of partnership building over the years:
To meet and engage with state and FEMA partners, Joyce and I “crashed” a meeting that was discussing families in the Temporary Shelter Assistance hotels. A familiar appearing participant gets up from her chair, walks over and hugs me. It turns out she’s the FEMA Individual Assistance Branch Director at the Joint Field Office. We met in Alaska at a FEMA lunch meeting held in Region 10 several months earlier.
Returning back to the Joint Field Office at the end of the day, Joyce and I were approached by the Branch Director to assist in resolving a matter. OHSEPR administers the federal Immediate Disaster Case Management program in partnership with FEMA. The Branch Director led us to the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer, who just so happened to be a suitemate of Joyce’s at a training they both attended a couple of years earlier. The training was aptly titled “Leadership in Crisis – Preparation and Performance.” The unresolved issue had escalated to FEMA headquarters. The matter was quickly and easily resolved. The world of emergency, preparedness, response and recovery partners can be small.
As we were meeting, the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer received a call with a report that a person had jumped out a window at one of the TSA hotels. The status of the person was not known. Heaviness filled the room. It brought back memories of a similar incident that happened in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene – a suicide. For what seemed like minutes, we sat around the meeting table sharing a wordless moment. Everyone in that room had been working a relentless 12-15 hour day since before the storm hit, and for this moment, this was a burden too heavy to bear. The silence was broken, knowing the recovery mission had to go on.
It must go on for people like the Rockaways Child Care team and children, for disaster survivors like Ron, and thousands of others, who fight daily to rebuild after Super Storm Sandy. With the ongoing long term recovery efforts, ACF will continue to support its programs and human services mission, and advocate for the individuals, children, families, and the disaster impacted communities in which they live.
Mary Riley, MPH, RN, CPH is the Director – Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness Response (OHSEPR) in the Administration for Children & Families. CAPT Riley has been active with the U. S. Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps for over 26 years.