Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Trial by Fire: Reflecting on Sandy's Destruction in Breezy Point

When FEMA Corps member Casey Stewart arrived at the burned neighborhood of Breezy Point, NY, she had no idea how much of an impact Hurricane Sandy and her national service experience would have on her.

More than 150 homes were destroyed from a fire in Breezy Point, NY the night Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic Coast. Photo by CNCS.
When I started in AmeriCorps NCCC-FEMA Corps, I had no idea how much history we would be a part of. Class 19 was not only the inaugural class, but we would also respond to the second costliest hurricane in US History. It's been a year, and I can still remember the hundreds of people in line at DRC #9 in the Rockaway's, what Breezy Point looked like a few days after the storm, and the amazing strength and resilience of the East Coast. Until I finished the program, I didn't realize the impact Hurricane Sandy had on me.

In the weeks leading up to Sandy, my team and I were working at the Region IV Headquarters in Atlanta. We were working in different departments on a few different projects.  Some were locating resources and creating spreadsheets, some were helping with the Great Southeast Shakeout, and others were sorting through old disaster documents and filing them accordingly. We had settled into a normal everyday job, unaware that we were about to respond to one of the biggest Hurricanes of our time.

As Sandy neared, we were sent to the Emergency Management Institute in Maryland to wait out the storm and await deployment. We sat with the rest of the country and watched the devastation unfolding on the news and ready to get out to help.

Rockaway, N.Y., Nov. 5, 2012 -- FEMA Corps Members Casey Stewart, Lizz Locke and Victoria Lomas check in disaster survivors at the Rockaway Disaster Recovery Center. FEMA is working with state and local officials to assist residents who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Sean Kerr/FEMA

On November 2, my team was deployed to New York to begin the recovery process. Our first day, we were told we would be working in the neighborhood of Breezy Point, the site of a huge fire in Queens, New York City, which destroyed 162 homes. We were handed flyers with the number to register for assistance, and simply told walk in that direction. We spent that day walking the streets, seeing the damage first hand, talking to residents, and answering any questions we could to the best of our ability. In total, FEMA distributed more than 1 million multilingual flyers. We walked the same streets that days earlier we had seen on TV being destroyed by flooding and fires.

My team spent the next few months at Disaster Recovery Centers in the Rockaways and Staten Island. We arrived as one center opened, saw hundreds of survivors a day who needed assistance, and stayed until the crowds dwindled and the center closed. Within 48 hours, five
mobile disaster recovery centers were opened, and $1.7 million in Individual Assistant grants were approved. We learned to do case work and help survivors to get assistance. We made an impact, whether a small or big one.

A year later and I realize how blessed I was to be a part of this response. This program showed me that regardless of everything, when disasters strike there are people willing to help. I learned that the people of the East Coast are some of the most resilient people around. I witnessed survivors who had just lost everything forgetting about themselves to help a neighbor. 

Breezy Point, N.Y., Aug. 5, 2013 -- About 350 of the more than 2,800 homes in Breezy Point were completely destroyed by the fires or flood surges caused by Hurricane Sandy. Ten months after Sandy, about 60 percent of the community has returned. K.C.Wilsey/FEMA

The program and the work I did there had a huge impact on me. It helped me decide what I want to do as a career. Through the devastation, I've learned that I want to be a first responder. I want to be the first boots on the ground to help someone when they need it, and I would not have realized it without this program.

I'm amazed and humbled to sit and look at pictures today of different sites in New York. To see homes being rebuilt in Breezy Point and across New York and New Jersey gives me hope. No matter what happens, we will be there to help our neighbors and we will rebuild.
Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
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