Volunteers helped repair thousands of homes in communities damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
By Susan Kim*
October 22, 2013—Mary Reyes knows exactly how many days she was forced from her home by Hurricane Sandy: 303. She left her Keansburg, New Jersey, residence on Oct. 28, 2012, about 24 hours before Hurricane Sandy unleashed its fury over the community.
Reyes was caring for her granddaughters, ages 12 and 15, as well as five cats and four birds. Her mother lived in a nearby apartment. Reyes recalls helping her mother leave the apartment at 3 a.m., then crossing the street with the rest of the family.
“The building was being hit with bricks from the building next door,” she said. “It took us four hours to go across the street. Mom was unable to walk at the time. It was very hard.”
They found shelter at a school, then at a friend's home, then finally landed at her sister's home.
“There was a total of ten of us and eight cats,” said Reyes. “The birds had to remain with my friend. My sister found out she was allergic to feathers.”
During the months she was out of her home, Reyes's commuted more than 160 miles a day round trip. “It was very hard for me,” she said. “I never saw the girls. I am so very grateful for my sister, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews, and my sisters-in-law for taking us in and caring for us.”
As Reyes struggled through each day, she learned about “A Future With Hope,” the disaster-recovery program of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.
Liz McDevitt became her case manager and, side-by-side, the two worked together to form a recovery plan. Volunteer teams helped repair Reyes's home.
“The volunteers should get a ticket straight to heaven,” said Reyes. “They were wonderful, selfless, caring folks. I thank God for them all.”
Sadly, Reyes's mother passed away in January. “She never saw my new home,” said Reyes. “We miss her a lot.”
Reyes said that the case management process helped her plan a recovery that addressed her as a whole person with material, emotional, and spiritual needs. “Liz is a great inspiration to me and my family,” said Reyes. “She is my rock.”
Across New Jersey, New York, and other areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of people like Reyes have been able to move back home. But there are also hundreds of people whose recovery is only just beginning, pointed out Denise Tiedemann, who fields calls from Hurricane Sandy survivors for A Future With Hope.
“I'm starting to sense a little more of a desperate tone from people who need help because the winter months are approaching,” said Tiedemann, who said she still receives at least a few phone calls a day from people who need assistance.
Long-term recovery isn't as dramatic or visible as hurricane cleanup or relief, but it's a reality for thousands of people, many of whom are worried that the rest of the world has forgotten them altogether. “You see some communities that look just fine,” she said, “but you really don't know what's going on behind those walls. It could just be a shell. It's devastating.”
Being Present as the Church
The long-term recovery phase is an ideal time for the church to be present and to be available to help people heal, said the Rev. Tom Vencuss, disaster recovery coordinator for the New York Annual Conference. “I'm encouraged by the desire of our people and our churches to be engaged,” he said. “There are a lot of unmet needs.”
Vencuss estimated that Staten Island alone could use 60 to 80 volunteers per day. “The bottom line is that this is an opportunity for the church to be the church,” he said, “to really respond in hands-on ways to the needs of the people.”
Vencuss and other responders emphasized that the best ways to respond are to donate money, volunteer, seek training to help respond effectively to disasters, and assemble relief-supply kits.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) continues to support the disaster-response efforts of United Methodist Annual Conferences involved in long-term recovery following Hurricane Sandy. Earlier this month, UMCOR directors approved new grants for this work.
Long-Term Recovery Isn't Always Obvious
At the United Methodist Disaster Relief Center at Community UMC in Massapequa, New York, Peggy Racine, site coordinator, said that long-term recovery is sometimes utterly invisible. “You ride up and down the streets in our communities, and from the outside it looks like a very nice neighborhood,” she said. “But these houses may have just a frame and no sub-floor.”
When people feel forgotten, it makes the anniversary of a disaster particularly difficult, said Paul Engel, a clinical social worker who helps offer “Surviving Sandy” support groups in local churches.
“The psychological aspects are hitting some people more now than before,” he said.
At the same time, family and friends who are close to survivors might be feeling frustrated by the slow pace of recovery. “At this point, some survivors say there is a lack of understanding and empathy from people close to them,” he said. “More so now that a year has passed, people are saying, 'Get over it.' ”
But getting over it isn't so simple, said Engel. “A lot of times, people relive their trauma on the anniversary of a disaster.”
You can help UMCOR provide a beacon of hope for Hurricane Sandy survivors. Give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.