Neighbors help neighbors in New York City

November 9, 2012—As big flakes of icy wet snow fell on streets still muddy from last week’s storm surge, Peter Vasquenz carried another black trash bag to the curb outside his mother’s home on Staten Island. In it were pieces of ripped flooring and soggy drywall from the modest house that is decades old.

“I grew up in this house,” Vasquenz, a Brooklyn firefighter, said. “My mother grew up here.”

He said that when Hurricane Sandy roared into this working-class neighborhood in one of New York City’s five boroughs on Oct. 29, the storm filled his mother’s home with at least three feet of water. It chased her to the second story, where she waited for her sons to rescue her the following day.

Now a sheet of clear plastic covers the way to the second floor, Vasquenz’s attempt to concentrate what heat remains in the house so he can work at removing the waterlogged pieces; nine days after the storm, electric power still had not been restored.

“I don’t know what my mom’s going to do with the house now,” Vasquenz said, working diligently amid diminishing daylight, his breath visible in little puffs of smoke.

Even with the flooring and furniture gone and a neat line of sheetrock stripped away from the base of the walls, it was clear the home had been warm and well cared for. A cheerful wreath of twigs and dried flowers still hung on one wall; on another, the wood and glass face of a built-in curio cabinet hinted at family history.

“This is one of the neighborhoods where we will deploy volunteers,” Rev. Joseph Ewoodzie, disaster-response coordinator for the New York Annual Conference, explained to UMCOR’s Rev. Tom Hazelwood, as they toured the Midland Beach area of Staten Island.

While a sharp wind whipped through the street just a few blocks from the ocean, and construction vehicles scraped and pushed debris and at least some of the rust-colored mud to the side of the road, Ewoodzie shared his plan to multiply relief efforts by combining local volunteers with UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams (ERT).

Hazelwood praised the effectiveness of this model. “It emphasizes my strong belief in neighbors helping neighbors. People with a good heart and good hands can accomplish a lot when they have some trained folks with them to direct the effort,” he said.

Many of those volunteers and ERTs will be deployed from Bethel United Methodist Church, where Rev. Matthew Schaeffer has served as pastor for just over two years. He is working with other Methodist congregations on Staten Island to gather information about the needs in the communities.

“Right now the most pressing need is for mucking out,” Schaeffer said. His church already has hosted an ERT training, conducted needs surveys by phone and by foot, and set up a small table with two vats of hot soup for neighbors as they began to go through their ruined possessions.

The soup table quickly turned into a “dry-goods store,” Schaeffer said, as those who could, added to the provisions. “Everyone wanted to help, but didn’t immediately know how,” he said.

Your gift to Hurricanes 2012, UMCOR Advance #3021787, will help storm survivors now and over the long term of their recovery. Cleaning buckets are in short supply. Learn how you can assemble and deliver cleaning buckets to any depot in the UMCOR Relief Supply Network.

*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.

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