By Barbara Gaynes, American Red Cross in Greater NY
Lou Cousens will never forget February 14, 2022, a Valentine’s Day that turned into a nightmare when he lost his home of 30+ years.
The 74-year-old was in his New Rochelle apartment that afternoon, recuperating from hernia surgery, when an upstairs neighbor called to tell him there was a fire in the building. Cousens quickly filled two bags with medications, tax papers and other important belongings before making his way down three flights of stairs. When he got outside, he saw flames and smoke coming from the top of the six-story co-op.
“I knew this was something serious,” Cousens said of the three-alarm blaze, which took firefighters more than seven hours to contain. “The windows were blown out on the sixth floor, the roof was caving in. I was outside for a couple of hours in the freezing cold.”
Feeling distressed, cold and wet from the spray of the fire hoses, Cousens and his neighbors weren’t sure where to turn.
“We’re all standing around, mouths agape, staring at our building, our homes, being destroyed,” he said.
Fortunately Red Cross volunteers, as well as representatives from other local agencies and organizations, were on the scene to help.
“The Red Cross came and took us to a warm place with some food and some clothes,” Cousens said of the support provided at the nearby Fuller Center where a Reception Center was set up for displaced residents. “They were amazing. You don’t realize how necessary they are till you go through something like that.“
The affected families also received debit cards from the Red Cross to purchase basic necessities, and a hotel room for a few nights.
The next day Cousens got a call from Red Cross caseworker, and volunteer, Felicia Fried, who would become instrumental in helping him get back on his feet.
Red Cross caseworkers are another line of support, along with disaster responders, for residents who experience an emergency like a fire or a flood. They help walk residents through the recovery process by assessing their unique needs, answering their questions, and connecting them to available services from the Red Cross and other community groups.
Fried said: “I spoke to Lou, and he had very limited resources. One of the questions I asked was if he was a veteran — and he was. … There are tons of resources for veterans.“
Over the next few weeks, the two formed a special bond as Fried worked to help Cousens, who served in Vietnam, secure additional financial assistance and connected him with organizations that might be able to help. This included My Brother Vinny, a Westchester County nonprofit serving veterans, which provided furniture and housewares for the temporary apartment Cousens eventually rented.
“Lou is special to my heart,” Fried said. “My grandfather was in the Army, so that triggered something special for me. He reminds me of my grandfather in some ways.”
Cousens felt that connection and compassion as well, calling Fried his “guardian angel.”
“She did everything a human being could do to help another person,” he said. “She has been the guiding light behind my being where I am today.”
Though he lost most of his possessions in the fire and it will be at least 18 months of reconstruction before he can return to his co-op apartment, Cousens says he feels fortunate. He has a place to live, and insurance will cover some of his expenses.
“I’m doing better than most,” he said. “When you see what’s happening in Kyiv and Europe and what those poor people are going through, I consider myself blessed because they don’t have anything to go back to.”
He also wants to share an important message about being prepared for emergencies.
“I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that something like this could happen,” he said of the fire. “But it can. And it did. And it can happen to you too.
“I caution everybody: Make sure you have homeowners or (renters) insurance, and make sure it’s an adequate amount.”
And if disaster should strike, Cousens said, take advantage of the services that are available to you.
“The Red Cross will put you in touch with the organizations that will help you. Without the Red Cross, I don’t know where I’d be today.”