Westchester volunteers help Rockaways' worst-hit Sandy victims

Steve Hills, right, a volunteer from Long Island, Steve Hills, right, a volunteer from Long Island, hands out antibacterial wipes at a distribution point in the Rockaways following superstorm Sandy. A Westchester-based group that informally calls itself NY Hurricane Relief has made regular trips to Queens since the storm hit in an effort to aid homeowners. (Nov. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Days after superstorm Sandy ripped through the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, pulverizing some streets and leaving little but skeletal remains on others, Christine Hines returned to her Breezy Point home and was aghast at what she saw.

Her cellar was flooded with nearly six feet of seawater. Windows had been smashed. A brick wall that once protected her backyard had been toppled by a debris-laden storm surge.

It took FEMA workers two weeks to arrive. As black mold crept over the walls, the 61-year-old Hines began to wonder whether she might be forced to tear down the place she has called home for the past 12 years -- a home she inherited from her mother -- along with all its precious memories.

"I've lived there basically all my life," said Hines, who has taken refuge with her two daughters in a newly rented New Hyde Park apartment. "I want to go back home again."

Now her hopes have gotten a boost from a grassroots band of Westchester County-based volunteers who are determined to help. The volunteers -- organized informally as NY Hurricane Relief -- have been making several trips a week to the areas of the Queens that were hit hardest, toting supplies with them and pitching in to salvage what's left of dozens of homes.

Coordinating their efforts through Facebook, the group has brought together nearly 250 volunteers over the past three weeks. Varying by age and occupation, many are strangers to one another. But they share a resolve to come back to Queens for as long as it takes.

"Queens is in our backyard," said P.J. Collins, 32, owner of Patrick's Pub in White Plains, who has helped lead the effort. Collins said the devastation remains overwhelming. "It's tough to see, hour after hour, knowing that, while we make progress, this isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

The group prides itself on an "adopt-a-family" approach: teams of eight to 10 members focus on one family at a time, asking victims which specific supplies they need, taking requests that run the gamut from toddlers' shoes to adult diapers. Where necessary, volunteers rip up carpeting, tear down moldy Sheetrock and carry out furniture and other fixtures damaged beyond repair by the flooding.

COMMUNITY INITIALLY RESISTED AID

Nearly 60 families have been aided by the group's efforts so far, as teams have made the trip from Westchester to Queens every weekend -- and many weekdays -- since the storm hit Oct. 29.

"There are no words to describe it, unless you've seen it with your own eyes and experienced it with your own heart," said Kirsten Tosh, 35, of White Plains, who had to pause to count the trips she had made as of Wednesday afternoon. "It's like a Third World country."

Volunteers related how, at first, residents of Breezy Point's working class, proudly self-reliant community resisted aid attempts. The disaster's magnitude soon compelled them to accept whatever help they could get.

In Hines' case, about 10 team members showed up on Saturday, Nov. 3, bringing not only the shovels needed to clean up muck and debris, but wine and flowers to brighten Hines' mood. The group cleaned up broken glass and ruined clothing and did their best to preserve damaged photo albums, said volunteer and White Plains resident Terry Fortunate, 41.

When nightfall set in, they fired up a portable generator to maintain lighting so they could keep working until 7 p.m.

'THESE PEOPLE ARE A GODSEND'

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Although there remains much to be done at Hines' house before she can move back in -- a problem exacerbated by her lack of flood insurance -- she's grateful for the assistance she's received.

"It was like a miracle when I went down to that cellar," she said, choking back emotion. "These people are a godsend. These people care about us."

More than three weeks after Sandy hit, the road to recovery promises to be long and arduous. Scores of homes still lack electricity, and public works crews sweep neighborhoods each night to clear away the piles of debris removed from flood-damaged homes each day.

Collins is concerned that volunteers will be more difficult to recruit as the hurricane fades from the headlines and the weather gets colder. Fortunately, volunteers who contribute once typically return, he said.

"I have personally vowed to be there until I'm no longer needed," Tosh said. "It's just the beginning."

If you wish to become involved, contact the organization at NYHurricaneRelief[at]gmail.com

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