Independent aid group reaches areas where FEMA, Red Cross can't - WNEM TV 5

In Sandy-affected NYC, aid group reaches areas where FEMA, Red Cross can't

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Respond and Rebuild volunteers have gutted and/or pumped more than 85 homes in Queens. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild) Respond and Rebuild volunteers have gutted and/or pumped more than 85 homes in Queens. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild)
Damage caused by mold can cost up to $20,000 if not treated immediately. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild) Damage caused by mold can cost up to $20,000 if not treated immediately. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild)
The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy is expected to be a long-term recovery. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild) The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy is expected to be a long-term recovery. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild)
Many Queens residents lack adequate insurance to pay for damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, which has led to a demand for volunteer help. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild) Many Queens residents lack adequate insurance to pay for damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, which has led to a demand for volunteer help. (Source: Terri Bennett/Respond and Rebuild)
Volunteers are being trained to aid in the construction and rebuilding effort. (Source: RespondandRebuild.org) Volunteers are being trained to aid in the construction and rebuilding effort. (Source: RespondandRebuild.org)

(RNN) - As disaster aid behemoths like FEMA and American Red Cross try to help New York City recover from the effects of Superstorm Sandy, many people in the affected areas are still not getting the help they need.

But where the big aid groups fail, smaller independent aid groups created by local residents are succeeding, and people in need of assistance are finally getting it.

One such group is Respond and Rebuild, which was started out of Brooklyn and includes people who have helped in disaster relief efforts in Haiti, the Philippines and New Orleans. The group also includes a "smokejumper" - a professional wildfire fighter who was visiting Brooklyn at the time the storm hit.

With a variety of construction skills and experience, Respond and Rebuild are concentrating on the Rockaways sections of Queens - one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy - to help pump water out of people's homes and prevent mold damage. Many residents do not have insurance to cover that and it could end up costing them up to $20,000 if not treated right away.

To date, the group has pumped and/or gutted more than 85 homes.

Recovery efforts traumatic for some residents

By providing immediate assistance that doesn't require paperwork or waiting lists like FEMA, Respond and Rebuild is not only helping to get people's homes back in livable condition, but also give storm victims encouragement and inspires them to take the next step in the rebuilding process.

"We come in, get the job done, and it really motivates people to do the next thing they need to do and maybe get out of mourning or grief for a minute," said Terri Bennett, one of the group's founders.

Bennett says the "mourning or grief" process of cleaning and rebuilding can be traumatic for some people because it is a realization that much of what they had is now gone.

"People have been in such panic mode until we've gotten there and they see things starting to get done, but they also see half of their house carted out the back door and it becomes a moment where reality starts sinking in. And that's really tough for them," Bennett said.

She added: "Part of our role is to be there and stick to the process, so that they see that they have help with getting their lives back together, their homes back together."

An organized but 'inclusive' recovery effort

Respond and Rebuild has been working closely with Occupy Sandy, the disaster relief group that includes members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The two groups have been sharing tools and other materials, as well as coordinating efforts to get to homes that need help.

But while Occupy Sandy is a broader effort - providing everything from food and emergency shelter to legal aid that helps people navigate the bureaucratic maze of insurance paperwork, Respond and Rebuild has been focused on its namesake: responding and rebuilding damaged homes.

The group is currently working 15-hour days, sometimes more. A typical day involves gathering tools and materials, helping with food rationing, canvassing neighborhoods to see who needs help and what they need, doing construction work, checking in with people they have helped and meeting with group members and Occupy Sandy organizers to identify what else needs to be done.

The grueling schedule is an example of volunteer disaster relief in action - and working. But most of all, it's an example of utilizing the goodwill of people who want to help improve a bad situation, but are not members of FEMA or the American Red Cross.

Occupy Sandy has a strong online outreach effort and volunteers have flooded the area to help. The problem is that many of these volunteers do not have any specialized training and at times have made things worse by adding to the overall confusion, because there are people who want to help but don't really have anything to do.

"About 75 percent of the people don't have skills, but they just want to do something," Bennett says, adding that when untrained people are trying to assist in damaged homes, they can sometimes cause more damage if not trained properly.

But Respond and Rebuild has been able to put these people to work by providing training sessions that give volunteers a crash course in home damage repair. The result is more people working and homes getting the attention they need.

"There are so many spontaneous volunteers and it's nice to be able to harness some of that," Bennett said. "You can't really volunteer for the Red Cross. You can't really volunteer for the bigger organizations. But if you find people who have the right skills, and you train people who are really motivated to do the work, you can have a lot of people addressing the damage at one time."

Long-term recovery expected

Insurance has proven to be a problem for many people, according to Bennett. Some have it, but are surprised to learn that it doesn't cover what they need. And others simply don't have any.

The lack of insurance and surplus of damage means that the rebuilding efforts will be in demand for a long time to come. But Bennett worries that interest in Sandy relief efforts will eventually wane and financial help will dissipate, causing the problems down the road for the long-term recovery effort.

"People lose interest in disasters pretty quickly," Bennett said. "But we're at a pivotal point right now where people's homes are gutted and they need to move on and rebuild."

To help with its efforts, the group has built a website to communicate news and seek donations.

In the meantime, Bennett is getting ready for what promises to be a hard winter.

"This is going to be an extremely long-term recovery effort and I'd say that the best thing to do is not forget about the people here," she said. "Because they've really lost everything and the real work will be when it's really cold and there won't be volunteers anymore."

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