Monday, November 19, 2012

Boots on the Ground: Unexpected service in New York

First person accounts by WCC responders
compiled by Bridget Mason and Janna Sargent, Ecology Washington Conservation Corps

WCC Supervisors provide updates via smart phones and Skype™

A gymnasium at Lehman College serves as a makeshift shelter for displaced residents
A gymnasium serves as a makeshift shelter for displaced residents at Lehman College inBronx, NY

The nor'easter that hit New York after Hurricane Sandy
Nor'easter dumps snow andadds new challenges for responders

AmeriCorps members serve food and coffee to evacuees.
Eight Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) crews recently drove across country to the East Coast to respond to Hurricane Sandy.

A total of 40 AmeriCorps members and eight supervisors are currently in New York where they are assisting with shelter operations in the New York City Boroughs of Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. In the past few weeks, we have seen them featured in newspapers and interviewed on the radio.

WCC often on the front lines

In recent years, the WCC has responded to disasters across the county, including tornadoes, floods, wildfires, as well as other hurricanes. Often, it is difficult to receive regular updates from our responders due to lack of power, downed cell towers, and the hectic nature of disaster response.

Smart phones keep us linked

This is the first incident where the majority of our responders have smart phones, enabling more frequent updates – requiring ample patience on their part while drafting multi-paragraph summaries on a 3-inch screen.

We recently received the following updates from several of our responders requesting anonymity and to receive no special recognition, adding, “All of the responders here are working very hard.”

Daily grind of shelter operations

Up to 600 displaced New Yorkers are currently sheltered at Queens College. There are 41 AmeriCorps volunteers supporting them including the WCC, Montana Conservation Corps, and Minnesota Conservation Corps. These volunteers are responsible for operating the family and pet shelters. This means rather than the physical cleanup assignments that our members were expecting when leaving Washington, they are working directly with displaced residents of New York. Their daily tasks include:
  • Cleaning at the shelter
  • Serving meals
  • Helping children get to school
  • Clothing people
  • Finding answers, occasionally finding translators
  • Sharing stories with shelter residents
  • Loading and unloading trucks and sorting donations
  • Helping elderly residents with day-to-day needs
  • Constructing cots, cribs, and assembling toys
  • Entertaining children
  • Defusing volatile situations

Election Day at a shelter

To add to the commotion, Election Day presented its own challenges. The day was fast approaching and evacuees did not know how or where to vote.

AmeriCorps volunteers took on the challenge of researching and publicizing the revised voting policy for evacuees and helping them find the nearest polling site. After some effort, we managed to connect a laptop to a monitor and stream live election results while the entire family shelter gathered to watch the results. It was an electric day and night.

The American right of voting, that secures all other rights, was salvaged that day in the shelter.

Other challenges

Another opportunity for creative problem-solving presented itself when a “nor’easter” hit New York on Nov. 7. A refrigerator that had been storing food for 150 people suddenly ceased working, resulting in spoiled food.

Volunteers used their phones to reach out for help from local churches, non-profits, and businesses. Three hours later, a call came from PC Richards and Sons letting us know that, despite the blizzard, they were bringing us a brand new 21 cubic foot refrigerator

Staying positive

WCC members and supervisors are staying positive and, often times, fighting just to stay awake, despite the work being mentally and emotionally challenging. The night shift has been especially taxing since this means our few sleeping hours happen when all other shelter residents are awake. Many of us await the call requesting assistance with debris cleanup.

Running chainsaws, mucking out houses, and clearing debris sounds easy at this point!

Washington proud

In the meantime, our members are doing an excellent job representing the Washington Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps. The logo on their uniforms has become a powerful symbol – both as an all-access pass to get through multiple levels of security and a sign of their responsibility.

A popular saying is that the AmeriCorps ‘A’ stands for answers. When evacuees see the A on our shirts, it means they can ask for help and they will be heard.

Read more about them!

On Nov. 9, the New York Times wrote a story about what AmeriCorps, including the WCC, are doing in response to Sandy.

On October 31, the Department of Ecology issued a News Release as WCC crews deployed from Ellensburg, Washington.

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