“I looked at a vacant lot with a roof sitting in the middle of it.”
Amy Gross, a Los Angeles-based Gift Planning Officer with the Red Cross and a mental health volunteer who had just arrived on the East Coast, was standing on a street in Staten Island, one of the boroughs torn apart when Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012.
One of the first Southern California responders to deploy, Gross soon realized that “watching the devastation on TV is nothing like standing in front of it.” Feeling compelled to leave her job because of her ties to the New York area, Gross recalls the shock that set in when she suddenly realized what she was seeing. “The lot wasn’t vacant, and the roof was sitting on about three feet of rubble. Then I realized the rubble was the remains of someone’s house, of their life prior to the storm, and I started to cry.”
Gross was just one of the 166 Red Cross responders who left their homes in the Los Angeles area to attend to the vital needs of those hardest hit by Sandy. Some were Red Cross staff, but many were volunteers. Some were retired, some asked for leaves from their jobs, others used vacation days and all took invaluable time away from their own families to pack their bags and boarded planes within 48 hours of the call to action.
Among the volunteers were four teams who loaded up and boarded Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) one Sunday morning to make the one-week, cross country trip from L.A. to the East Coast, where the ERVs were pressed into service, providing emergency relief supplies and meals to those who needed them most.
San Fernando Valley’s Carmela Burke was one of the hundreds of volunteers who arrived even before the storm made landfall: “The predictions were ominous. The Red Cross wanted people in place, ready to respond.”
Burke was part of a volunteer damage assessment team traveling into the hardest-hit New York neighborhoods. Says Burke: “The devastation was widespread and unexpected. Some survivors were in shock. We encouraged them to go to Red Cross shelters for hot meals, water, snacks, relief supplies and other Red Cross assistance.”
For weeks following the storm, a massive Red Cross relief operation sheltered, nourished and comforted people. This response was powered by more than 17,000 Red Cross workers—90 percent of them volunteers—who rotated through New York and New Jersey and whose work was made possible by $302 million in donations for Sandy relief. The generous support the Red Cross received following Sandy allowed the Red Cross to deliver their largest domestic response in more than five years.
To date, about 16-million meals have been served to survivors of the storm. More than 7-million relief items have made their way into the hands of victims. Over 81,000 families were housed in shelters; essential supplies poured into the stricken areas for weeks.
Today, six months after the storm, most people would be surprised to hear that the American Red Cross continues to work, assisting people in what will be a long and complicated recovery. Danielle Mareschal, a volunteer from Pasadena, CA just recently made her way back home. Mareschal, a case worker, began her deployment in December, and has seen clients in New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island, beginning by driving an ERV, distributing food, supplies, water, and since January has spent her time serving client needs as the recovery phase of the response continues.
“There have been thousands of people in need,” she reports. “You can only imagine the gratitude I now hear in peoples’ voices when I talk with them or meet with them and help them get maybe a small piece of their problems solved. It’s about keeping people hopeful.”
Months later, Mareschal kept up her involvement with people displaced from their lives and homes. One of Mareschal’s most poignant personal experiences as a case worker involved an elderly woman and her daughter: “When I first started on their case, the 92-year-old mother would sit every day alone in a hotel room, as her daughter worked at her job. The team gave them both encouragement and tiny jobs to do on a daily basis to keep them occupied with their recovery. I cannot even describe how happy they were when we helped them relocate to a FEMA trailer that the Red Cross had provided with supplies.”
Recovery and rebuilding are undertakings that address the unique needs of the individuals, families and communities reeling from disaster. In contrast to immediate response, much of the recovery process is less visible. It takes place in the homes, hotel meeting rooms and community centers where Sandy survivors sit down with Red Cross workers to plan the next steps tailored to their individual needs. For example, it may include mold cleanup from walls and floors, making homes safe and habitable again, or it may provide people with financial guidance to better navigate their resurgence.
Marechal and Gross both state how important it was for them to be part of the American Red Cross relief effort for Sandy. Gross observes: “The storm is off the front page of the news but not off the Red Cross front page. I want donors to know that every dollar they donated for Hurricane Sandy was well spent. The relief operation was and continues to be a magnificent effort of Americans helping Americans in need. It was a privilege to be there.”
The six-month report and other information on the Red Cross Sandy relief and recovery efforts can be found at www.redcross.org/sandy-response.