By Michael de Vulpillieres, American Red Cross
“Water came in from both sides,” said Connie Hulla, pointing to the walls of her Coney Island church exactly 100 days after Sandy made landfall.
She had seen major storms here before, just never anything like this.
“Sandy nearly flooded the entire peninsula,” she said.
Hulla is pastor at the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, a church on the peninsula’s North side, a densely populated area comprised of housing projects and row houses.
“This community was struggling before the storm,” said Hulla. “Now it’s devastated.”
Like most of the buildings around it, Connie’s church was badly damaged. She considers herself lucky. “The whole structure could have come down,” she said.
The church’s basement, which housed the boiler and the electrical system, was destroyed. Thirteen feet of water flowed through an area that, days earlier, served as a homeless shelter.
But despite the damage, the church almost immediately became a relief hub in Coney Island; a safe place for the community to find donated clothing, food, relief supplies, and hope.
“We’ve just done what we’ve always done,” Hulla recalled. “Giving and serving.”
That was the basis on which her father founded the church 55 years ago.
“My family started the church to meet a lot of the needs caused by the serious levels of poverty here,” said Hulla.
Over the years, Hulla’s church has become an institution in Coney Island. So after Sandy, it was logical for residents to come here seeking help.
Within hours of Sandy’s landfall, donated food, water, clothing, clean-up supplies, diapers, and other items poured in, and thousands of locals lined up every day and night seeking assistance.
Hulla has been addressing needs for Sandy relief around the clock. Early on, she and her team of volunteers worked 18 to 20 hour days. She said that even today, it’s still a 24/7 job. (A job in which no one actually gets paid.)
Throughout her response to the storm, Hulla has received assistance from the American Red Cross.
“Everything the Red Cross does here makes a difference,” she said.
It began when truckloads of clothing and relief supplies were delivered to the church.
The organization has also provided thousands of meals to Coney Island residents which Hulla called, “a Godsend.”
She was referring to the dire situation in Coney Island, one where the storm took out so much of the local infrastructure that finding food and preparing meals has been so difficult.
To help, Red Cross food trucks canvassed nearby streets distributing hot meals, water and snacks. Additional Red Cross vehicles were stationed in front of Hulla’s church distributing food to hundreds more every day. Today, the Red Cross continues to deliver meals.
“Seeing the Red Cross sends a message of hope to the community.” Hulla said, “It tells us that we are not abandoned.”
In addition to prepared meals, grocery boxes funded by the American Red Cross are also distributed from Hulla’s church.
“A lot of people here were having a tough time purchasing food before the storm. Now, with the added financial burden that Sandy has caused, it’s almost impossible.”
But for a neighborhood that has seen its share of tough times, Hulla said the significance of the Red Cross goes beyond food and supplies.
“Red Cross volunteers bring such positive energy,” Hulla said. “We are not used to that. It lifts people up; it infuses the community. We need that here.”
Pastor Connie Hulla (Photo credit: Bill Fortune/American Red Cross)