Councilman’s day job takes him to storm-ravaged Long Island
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org December 12, 2012 1:06PM
Union Beach, NJ, 12/3/12 -- Morris Tetro measures the foundation of his daughter's house for replacement cost estimates. Photo by Liz Roll/FEMA
Updated: January 14, 2013 6:16AM
ELGIN — Elgin City Councilman Rich Dunne spent this Thanksgiving in a dorm room on Long Island doing homework and eating takeout Chinese food.
It was all part of Dunne’s new job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which led him to a role with relief efforts under way in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Dunne retired from the Elgin Fire Department in early September to take a job as a fire grant specialist with the agency. But after the severity of the storm, which reached the mid-Atlantic states on Oct. 29, Dunne was notified at 1 p.m. Nov. 3 that he was being sent to the East Coast. By 7:20 p.m., he was on a commercial flight to Washington, D.C.
The next morning, after a three-hour training session, Dunne drove to Fort Dix in New Jersey, which was a staging area for relief efforts. After a night at the barracks, Dunne was sent to New York City — across a bridge, because tunnels were still out — where he stayed the next night on the Empire State, a training vessel of the State University of New York which was housing relief workers.
According to the FEMA website for the storm, as of Dec. 6, 7,099 FEMA personnel had been deployed at one point or another to states impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
Dunne’s initial drives showed the first evidence of the storm — trucks from FEMA, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, caravans of state police cars, and even a squadron of Florida game wardens headed to help.
And on the way to New York, there were lines of cars waiting to get to filling stations — some watched over by police, some stretching to three-quarters of a mile.
Taking note of such concerns was part of Dunne’s responsibilities, but his primary role would be as a community relations worker for FEMA, answering questions and giving out information about how the agency could be of assistance to those impacted by the storm — all part of a broader effort involving local, state and federal agencies.
While FEMA would be using traditional media, the Web and social media, “boots on the ground teams” were assigned specific areas to survey, going door-to-door to talk to residents about FEMA and potential aid, and to see firsthand what had happened.
So from New York City, Dunne and others were sent to stay in dorms at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Dunne said he became part of a group that included two other people from his office, one from Kansas City, and a reservist and team leader, both from Pennsylvania. They were assigned to the disaster recovery center in Islip Township and specifically covered the town of West Islip. Their efforts were abetted by members of FEMA Corps, the federal community service program for young adults.
The work began each day at 8 a.m., ended at dusk and involved asking those home if they had registered for disaster assistance, then to help them in that process, be it guiding people to online resources, a physical site, or helping them make calls where there could be 20-minute waits. The crews also collected data to help FEMA map how far and what type of damage had been left by the storm.
The project dodged what could have been a major setback when a nor’easter hit just a few days into arriving. While that storm left wet, heavy snow, things didn’t ice over, Dunne noted, and the weather warmed up shortly thereafter.
“Sandy may have been a 15 on a scale of 10, and this turned out to be about a 2 by comparison,” Dunne said.
Boats in homes
The team’s walks to visit storm victims started out on fingers into a cove, where Dunne saw boats that had gone through homes. Along the way, there were large, old trees, too, that had been uprooted.
“You could tell where the storm surge ended by the salt water lines on lawns. On some toward the edge of it, people were watering to try to save what they could of their grass. And there was debris of all sorts to contend with,” Dunne said.
Dunne described the area as middle class to wealthy, with more-expensive homes lining the coast and an occasional, more-modest older cottage sprinkled into that mix.
The power was out for more than a week in large parts of the area where Dunne was working.
“When we left, we were told it was back for about 99 percent of those who could have it,” he said.
What impressed Dunne most about the experience was the attitude he saw among the people.
“Quite a few told us they didn’t need any assistance from the government,” Dunne said.
Still, crews were asked to fill out paperwork, which not only was used for aid but to document the storm’s impact, he said.
The local library was staying open late to let people use the facility in part as a place to charge batteries for phones, tablets and laptop computers.
One man showed him a smartphone video of how a tree had come down on his expensive car. Dunne noted the trees had been cleared, and the man told him the neighbors had taken it upon themselves to use their own chainsaws to clear the fallen limbs.
“The road to recovery began about 10 minutes after the storm ended,” Dunne said.
When he approached the captain of a marina ferry service to see if his employees would be out of work for a bit, the man told him, no, that they were running, “that this is what we do,” Dunne said.
And some neighbors were keeping an eye on a 100-year-old woman who decided to stay in her home, despite not having any heat.
Helping the elderly and those with disabilities was another rewarding part of the job, Dunne said.
Part of the work was to get the word out about FEMA aid.
That included checking with local food programs and thrift shops, and talking with local VFW and American Legion posts, which was a fit for Dunne, who is a veteran. The retired firefighter also went to fire stations. From such visits, he learned of wind damaged areas at higher points further inland.
Churches also assisted, putting notices in bulletins and emails. And at the Catholic parish of St. Patrick’s, Dunne learned that nine families were willing to take in others in need of shelter.
Teams gathered for their own Thanksgiving dinner the Tuesday evening before the holiday at the laboratory campus, and worked Thanksgiving Day until 1 p.m.
“We only knocked on doors neighbors would suggest we check on. A lot of people were out that morning working on their own cleanup efforts,” Dunne said.
Dunne said he did eat a turkey-on-a-bagel sandwich from a deli that day, before heading back to Brookhaven to study.
Dunne returned to Elgin on Dec. 3. He said the trip was a baptism of fire and left him with a broader sense of how FEMA works.
One of the lasting images he will remember captures the resiliency of people and how planning can lessen the blow of a bad storm.
“There was a hunting and fishing club I was told was one of the oldest structures in the area. It was hit during Hurricane Irene (in 2011) and put up on blocks and an I-beam after that. The design held, and Sandy washed through the blocks, and the building held through the storm.”