Nov 13 2012
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For Hurricane Sandy Victims, A Gym Glows in Brooklyn

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Last week, a member of the NewPublicHealth staff had the opportunity to witness on the ground efforts in Brooklyn, N.Y., to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. To follow is a brief account of the incredible response and community resilience in the face of a major disaster.

“How ya doin’ buddy,” the National Guard officer asked the elderly, weary man waiting in line for some food and a blanket late last week in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The old man, a Russian immigrant, spoke no English and the National Guard solider spoke no Russian, but they locked eyes, and shared a sigh as the man accepted the soldier’s arm around his shoulder. Together they entered a cavernous community center gym with lights, but no heat, a full ten days after the storm. Volunteers stood by tables heaped with supplies: gallon jugs of water, ready-to-eat meals, fleece ponchos that double as blankets, small bags of snacks from the Mayor’s office, and baby formula, diapers and wipes. Volunteers asked the residents their home situation: some had nothing, others had lights but no heat, some had heat but no hot water. Some had it all and lost it again, when an additional storm hit the coast and knocked out more transformers.

Brighton Beach was hit particularly hard during the storm. The community has a significant older Russian immigrant population, many of them on fixed incomes and government benefits, with a poverty rate of close to 30 percent, according to recent surveys. The National Guard soldiers deployed to patrol and search for victims described the conditions they saw: residents drowned in homes closer to the water, homes vandalized, windows smashed, and possessions looted.

Subway service only returned to the area last week, which let volunteers get in to canvass the neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a city-wide agency that has partnered with the New York City Mayor’s Office on response efforts, dispatched volunteers to check the conditions in apartments throughout the neighborhood. The check-list they carry includes questions such as “does your toilet flush?” Frozen pipes are wreaking havoc with water and heating.

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The Shorefront Y suffered no structural damage and has been turned into a distribution center, even if parts of the building still don’t have heat. The executive director, whose own home on Long Island had no power before the weekend, recently reopened the fitness center and pool as well as after-school programming “to try to restore some normalcy to the community.”

Volunteers at the Y last week included people from the Met Council’s database of donors and volunteers, people who answered Facebook and Twitter requests from the Mayor’s office, residents who came to help their neighbors and a cadre of young adults from Green City Force, a city-based service corps that prepares young people from low-income backgrounds for careers in environmental sustainability. Some of the Corps members were directed to canvass apartments, others to staff the distribution line. 

The soldiers were constantly in motion—replenishing distribution stations, checking in on volunteers, and keeping the lines moving. A police officer from the local precinct’s community service division came in to meet with the commander before the day ends. The National Guard soldiers will be stationed in the area at least through Thanksgiving but then the community will take over.

The distribution was set to end at 4 p.m., but volunteers and soldiers stayed well over an hour longer until every community member in line had been helped.

As the center shut down, soldiers shook hands with every volunteer, saying, “we get paid to be here—you’re the ones who stepped up.” 

Tags: Public health, Emergency preparedness and response, Preparedness