11/20/2012 7:30:00 AM Courage, kindness and hope in Long Beach
By Suzanne Flory
Editor's Note: Suzanne Flory, Public and Legislative Affairs Officer with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, recently traveled to New York to assist in the Superstorm Sandy recovery effort. Flory, who lives in Rhinelander with her husband and two children, agreed to share this firsthand account of her experience dealing with the aftermath of one of the worst storms in U.S. history. The first part of Flory's story was published Saturday. This is the conclusion.
Our team was assigned to help with a receiving and distribution center located at the city ice rink. At this point we had no idea what we would be eating or even where we would be sleeping, but those things seemed minor after seeing how much had been lost by so many people living in Long Beach.
The team arrived at the ice rink and was greeted with a scene of mountains of plastic bags stuffed full, people scurrying around, and lines of residents waiting to file a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or in line to get supplies. We quickly found the person who seemed to be in charge, or maybe he found us. Bobby Piazza introduced himself. A man who, under better circumstances, is the Park and Recreation Commissioner for the City; under this state of emergency he had become the de facto receiving and distribution center manager. His ruddy, whiskered face looked to us with anticipation as he asked us to help. He introduced us to Matt his assistant, a young, clean-shaven man wearing a Long Beach Lifeguard sweatshirt.
As our team gathered in a circle around the two men, surrounded by the chaos rushing around us and the loud music coming over the rink speakers, I was struck with concern that this task was far too big for us to accomplish much in the five days we had left before the end of our two-week assignment. I asked Bobby how long they had been collecting and distributing donations. I was shocked when he said it had started only three days before we had arrived, and spontaneously! He said, "People just started showing up with donations. We had power with a generator. The ice was off as we were about to get ready for the season. So, I just started taking the stuff." Now there were piles of donations and more coming in, a handful of volunteers sorting and hauling, and a long line of people in need waiting to get in to the former city ice rink, now the city's after-storm receiving and distribution center.
I was ever so thankful to have team members who had gone through similar circumstances with Hurricane Katrina and tornado recovery. My only experience with natural disasters was with wildland fires, something Forest Service Incident Teams are very well versed in. This was a different beast. After the initial assessment, the team quickly went into action mode. These people needed help. Bobby had been at the rink every day, even though he and his family had lost much, if not all, of their own belongings in the storm. This commitment to their community was evident with many of the people we worked with side-by-side over the next several days. Although we realized this mission, in the big scheme of things, was a small piece, we knew it was important to the people of Long Beach.
In a nutshell the plan was to treat the receiving and distribution center like a wildland fire. Divisions were created, 20 person crews of wildland firefighters were called in to assist, and assignments were made, meetings held, and safety evaluated constantly. I began talking to local officials and other key connections. It seemed almost everyone I met had a name that ended in a Y. "I am Kenny, call me if you need anything," "I am Jimmy," and such. I am sure all the people I met found my, what I call mild, Upper Midwest accent as novel as I found their thick Long Island "New York" accents.
I was immediately struck by how positive and welcoming the people of Long Beach were. Here was a group of people who had been living under major distress for a week, seeing their city in ruins, not knowing when the power would come back on, or when the water would be OK to use, and yet, they smiled. Open genuine smiles. People were so glad to have any help. Our part in helping seemed such a small piece. However, to them, our being there was big enough. This attitude surrounded us and made us want to succeed in helping them even more.
We were quickly immersed in the world of Long Beach; and the receiving and distribution center became our reality. At one point I was standing next to a burly Forest Service wildland firefighter named Nick, as he pleaded with me in an urgent tone, "This is critical, here is what we need and we need it right away! We are out of the larger ones, but could use some newborn sizes too! Really need to get some in quick because they are going fast!" Having served as an Information Officer on a number of Forest Service Incident Management Teams, I am familiar with getting the word out about wildland fires. Getting the word out to the public about how badly we need diapers in the right sizes was not a familiar task.
Another surreal moment came the morning after the election at the morning briefing meeting when someone asked, "Oh, yeah, who won the election?" And it was a bit bizarre to leave each night before the 7 p.m. curfew to head an hour west to sleep at a fire department. Once you left the island, other than long gas station lines, life was normal.
My role on the team, in essence, was to be the person gathering and disseminating information for the receiving and distribution center. My second role was to be the liaison between all the different functions and agencies involved. With a great stroke of luck, Gordon, the City of Long Beach public relations person, provided me with access to the city's Facebook and Twitter accounts. This was huge!
I was able to basically open and shut the valve on things coming in as donations. I would run around on the ice rink floor, now covered with tables of food, bleachers full of diapers, and mountains of clothes, and ask what the "needs" and "don't needs" were.
I was completely blown away at the hits and questions that my Tweets and Facebook posts were getting. I was very aware of how I was representing the city and its best interest in these posts that literally thousands saw within an hour of going out on the web. When it was clear early on that we did not need any more clothes I tried to get this message out in every possible way. I also worked with Danny from the local Salvation Army to come pick up a truckload of clothes, which did not even make a dent at the time.
After a few days I added a few posts to the city's Facebook page that were positive visual symbols of hope. The one that got the most views, thumbs up and shares was a note that one of our guys showed me. It had been included in one of the bags of donations from a school from Queens, New York, and was a note one of the school kids had included with their donation. It told the people of Long Beach, "Don't worry it will get better."
I also found posting updates on my own personal Facebook account and getting feedback from family and friends was a huge comfort and kept me grounded in life and what we were doing. I was surprised by how many people commented they did not know it was that bad.
See Sandy, Page 6A
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I know I would have been in that boat had I not been in the middle of it.
As the long lines of people of all ages continued to arrive each day and fill their garbage bags with food, blankets, and toiletries, the donations and volunteers continued to pour in. Managing it all was a major task. Toward the end of our time in Long Beach we had up to 60 people from Forest Service wildland fire crews working with the volunteers to meet the needs of folks in line.
It is with a big sigh and teary eyes I say that in my entire career I have never been so proud of our Forest Service people! They worked their tails off to help bring order to chaos as we strived to meet the mission of leaving the receiving and distribution center with enough organization and structure the local folks could seamlessly take it on themselves. As we were approaching the end of our two-week assignment, we worked side-by-side with those who would be left in charge to assure they understood the operation.
Many images from the receiving and distribution center are forever etched in my head. These are just a few: Kids working in a line with Forest Service Hotshot crews; big burly guys helping organize baby and women's hygiene products; all the hugs; the smiles when I handed the kids in the FEMA lines a small toy or book; the tears when our mission came to an end and we had to leave.
As we tore ourselves away at the peak of a crazy busy Saturday, Jim Grant, our team's Incident Commander, hugged me and encouraged me to keep my chin up as we walked out. My fellow team member, and friend, Gail captured it when she said through her tears, "I have never felt like this leaving an incident, this is hard." There were some I said goodbye to that I could not even speak to as we hugged goodbye. As I write this tears drop down but my heart is warm because I know they will be OK, and, like the note sent by the young girl from Queens, it will get better. To the people we worked side-by-side with in Long Beach, including Matt, Bobby, Stacey, Keith, and all the others, thank you. Thank you for showing me what courage looks like.
I came away with more than memories and a full heart; I came away with new friends.
I asked two of the Forest Service firefighters I met there to give me some of their impressions from Long Beach. The following is what they shared:
Nathan - "When we first accessed Long Beach I noticed the high water level was five, six, seven feet above the street level, after a delay I realized that this meant any car parked at the curb would have been completely submerged. This is a terrifying novelty to me that defied any frame of reference I had for the word "flood."
I have never handed off an incident to local volunteers. I didn't even know it was viable. Especially, when we were entrusting it to individuals, [when they are] the ones who needed the assistance. I have never been so gratified as to be a part of a devastated community challenging and empowering itself in this manner."
Nick - "While I was working up in the front of the rink, I had the opportunity to interact with some of those who were affected the most. It was an emotional roller coaster. There was one lady who had a little girl with her, and I gave her a stuffed bear. The mom had already been given a bag full of coloring books and crayons, and said that it was too much, and wanted me to take some back. I told her to take it with her and give out the extras to the kids in their neighborhood. Instantly, she dropped everything, and gave me the biggest hug ever, all while bawling her eyes out. Another lady broke down in my arms because I helped her get some canned soup from the box. I had to tell her to stop crying because she was making me cry. There was a man that couldn't thank me enough because I found a pair of warm gloves that fit him. I remember thinking that this Christmas I didn't want anything, because it would just be more stuff, and I'm already blessed with what I need in life. Through this entire mission, I've received enough "God bless you and your team" to last me a lifetime. I can't wait to get home and hold my family tight to my chest, because missions like this make you appreciate what you do have. It's humbling. I just wish more people could experience that. The one thing that I will always remember is the goodness of people that shows up during times like this. The bad part is that it takes disasters for people to open their hearts to others. As humans, we are capable of great things, and if we could just continue the cycle of goodness towards our fellow man, this country would be far better off, and the world for that matter."
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