Report from the Field:
The Rockaways and Super Storm Sandy
Tom Cocks, LCSW
SCO Family of Services
“I woke up in the street—swimming.”
“I was holding my infant son up near the ceiling as the water came to my shoulders.”
“When I returned home, I found my husband had died from a heart attack during the storm.”
“My family has no clothes but these on our backs—all our clothing is drenched and mildewed.”
“The water damaged the boiler and I am cold.”
“We have no beds.”
“We are out of money; my employer’s business had to shut down from the surge damage.”
“My dentures washed away and I don’t have $1,000 to replace them.”
“I slept on the beach for three days. I need a place to go.”
“The mildew is coming up the wall and our child has asthma.”
“I had to put my son to sleep last night in the open trunk of our car.”
I interviewed two dozen people for crisis counseling in the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy. When the water came up the sides of their building all believed that they and their children were going to die. Folks described a black sea. The storm had broken off electricity and the dark rising of the sea appeared certain to continue. Next morning, adding to a sense of unreality, the ocean had receded as if the nightmare of the previous evening never happened. But as one woman stated, “Now when I turn a street corner I think I’m going to see the water again.”
At 6 AM on Friday November 9, 2012 I got a call that my agency, SCO Family of Services, had joined the Super Storm Sandy response in Far Rockaway. On Monday, the Far Rockaway Restoration Center opened. I led a team of twenty on-call social workers and we prepared to work with first responders and agency personnel at the crisis centers. Mayor Bloomberg spoke to us. Sandy victims immediately began to pour in to open a FEMA case and to visit the array of City agencies present under one roof to help them. Every day of the week, Sunday through Saturday, I set out before dawn and arrived at work in the dark. The Centers were open from 8 AM to 8 PM. After tallying the reports and statistics, I drove home usually arriving after 10 PM, tired.
Restoration Centers were co-located in the FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers in all the flood zones in the City. Other Federal, State, and City services were abundant at the Restoration Centers: Small Business Administration; Housing and Urban
Development; NYC Small Business Services; NYC Departments of Buildings, Housing, Health and Mental Hygiene, Consumer Affairs, Aging, and SNAP (food stamps); and numerous other public and private organizations.
Those of us in voluntary social service programs screened the community residents. We identified what they needed and pointed to where the various City agencies sat. Individuals went around the crowded room with FEMA and HRA checklists and stopped at specific services they needed. People had lost jobs, their cars, clothes that were washed away or destroyed by mildew, boilers damaged by seawater, and more.
Indeed, many folks came in for concrete assistance but also wanted trauma debriefing and crisis counseling on the spot. The clinical social worker played a key role in the disaster response. Our voluntary agency staff asked, “Would you like to talk to someone today?” Those of my staff with clinical background and qualifications were able to interview and evaluate dozens of pesons each month, while clinical professionals from NY Medical Corps, Project Hope (both funded by NYS Office of Mental Health), and NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene counselors saw many others daily who were psychologically impacted by the storm. Crisis counseling took place almost continually in the first two months.
Apart from crisis counselors directly working with the walk-in public, there were half a dozen local community mental health centers on the Rochaways Peninsula. With some frequency, persons with acute stress disorders also had symptoms of depression or anxiety. They all were given referrals to the mental health centers.
We asked a question at intake: “Is there anyone who you know that needs to come but is unable to?” We notified the Department of Aging to send outreach workers to elderly residents incapable of travel or too weak to take the stairs in buildings without elevators.
Many people came to the Restoration Centers with no housing. They were placed in shelter outright or given a
table with a phone to call the long list of hotels until they got a vacancy; whereupon, the Home-Based Program and Department of Housing placed them. Metropolitan area hotels were full, vacancies only occurring
At exit interviews, the volunteers guided consumers to food pantries, gave out vouchers for clothing at Salvation Army stores, and referred people for mental health services.
In the five months the Restoration Centers were open, we touched the lives of tens of thousands. In Far Rockaway and Arverne Centers alone, our sites had 30,000 touches for about 10,000 individuals and families coming once or more.
Now, one year later, contracts have started for “recovery” as opposed to “response” phase. In the Rockaway peninsula, we are one of three agencies with Federal (FEMA) funds to conduct Long-Term Disaster Case Management services. After the closing of the Centers, we now conduct assessments and refer to programs providing cash for repairs and other assistance to the many who, after a year, still are not back in their homes. The process of recovery has been slow.
About 2,137 homes in the Far Rockaway zip code have 30% damage, making them eligible for NYC’s Build It Back program, which will make repairs for tenants and homeowners necessary to return. Another program is the Unmet Needs Roundtable, whereby case managers present their clients’ need for repairs and other problems. As always, the case managers are making referrals to community mental health, food banks, and other services.
In my particular LTDCM program seventeen case managers have opened almost 700 cases since January and currently manage a caseload of about 550. This program will end on the second anniversary date of the storm.
In the Rockaways, as in other flood zones, community organizations came together to form disaster recovery groups. SCO helped one such group, Rockaway United, to connect services organizations during a disaster and provide preparedness training and planning. RU has met every other week since December. We work with the Queens Borough President’s office, whose website lists charter RU members, and the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Services Officer to be prepared for the “next time,” whenever that might occur. The Mayor’s plan, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, cited our recommendations for the Rockaway Peninsula. Our network sponsors preparedness training by the Red Cross and the Office of Emergency Management. We have a Rockaway United Help Line (718-888-6868) to link persons to local services and prepare for emergency management in the future. Recently, we held a Sandy anniversary service provider fair for hundreds of community members.
The first year after Super Storm Sandy was an admixture of the best in social work response and significant challenges. In the early weeks, a proliferation of resources and subsequent confusion occurred. As emergency response continued, huge amounts of supplies and personnel were deployed City-wide. Coordination of shelter, mental health, clothing, and food needs developed. Currently, thousands are still without repairs, many not able to move back into their homes or
apartments. While help is available through Federal, State, and local programs and private philanthropies, the process has been slow.
One Year After the Storm
There are many who still need concrete help to repair or to return to their homes. These folks are getting help from Legal Aid Society as advocates, from case managers in the Long Term Disaster Case Management programs, and from direct assistance from the state, the city, and private groups. The process has been slow. Persons received cash and benefits in the aftermath of the storm, but such resources have been spent down or are in abeyance pending more awards needed for the actual cost of renovation. For those living in a flood zone, they must use their awards to mitigate the possibility of another storm, including the large cost of raising a house out of danger from a surge. If they do not make the repairs properly, they will receive nothing when the next disaster might occur. Individuals are therefore underfunded and still need more help for restoration.
In the meantime, mental health services continue to be needed and have been maintained for those had traumatic experiences or other reactions to the disaster requiring follow-up care. Recently, awards totaling over $200 million were announced by the State Office of Children and Family Services to address the needs of child care facilities and others impacted by the damage and suffering caused by the devastating power of Sandy.
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