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Grassroots Sandy disaster relief groups look to future

The nor'easter flooded South Bay Street in Lindenhurst.

The nor'easter flooded South Bay Street in Lindenhurst. Credit: James Carbone

In the dire weeks and months after superstorm Sandy, volunteers emerged as the local heroes of devastated communities across Long Island and beyond.

Their ad hoc groups quickly coalesced via Facebook pages into lifelines for neighbors up and down flood-torn blocks. Two years later, they're still at it and looking toward the future.

While Sandy scarred many of the lives it crossed, the storm opened new paths for many of these grassroots advocates who see no reason to stop helping now.

"Disaster relief is something we'll be in for the long haul," said Michele Insinga, executive director of Adopt a House, a Lindenhurst-based group with more than 700 registered houses from Sayville to Northport to Long Beach and Queens, and more than 2,000 members on its Facebook page.

But while Sandy continues to be a focal point, some groups are looking to expand their missions around and beyond it.

"We are seeing the big picture: It's not just Sandy, but people in unfortunate circumstances," from a house fire or an illness or accident, Insinga said of the group's recent fundraising. "We realized people were already in trouble before the flood. . . If there is somebody there who can help you, we want to be that somebody."

Neighbors Supporting Neighbors, Babylon is going in a similar direction, continuing with flood relief and preparedness even as it transitions to new projects: "Children in the town, poverty and veterans as well," said Kim Skillen, a school district administrator and one of the group's founders.

"It became evident to us that poverty in the Town of Babylon was more prevalent than we'd thought," she said. "It was the next step for us. If people come to us looking for help, we don't turn them down."

Agency-homeowner link

With the group's connections to agencies like the American Red Cross, United Way and Island Harvest food bank, "we've almost become a mutual aid society, a link between agencies and homeowners," she said. "We didn't have that before Sandy, but we do now because of all these grassroots organizations from Freeport to Mastic."

In Oceanside, evolving ambitions has meant a literal change in identity. C.H.O.R.A.S., which has members from about 10 community organizations, just changed its name to ACTION (Alliance of Citizens to Improve Oceanside, NY) to move beyond its identification with Sandy "toward future needs," said Ellen Culter-Igoe, its vice president. The group wants to help coordinate emergency preparedness, "and raise funds for Oceanside's resilient economic growth in a post-Sandy world," she said.

For Liz Treston, president of the Long Beach COAD (Community Organization Active in Disaster), Sandy showed how vulnerable the barrier island is in an emergency.

"I think about blizzards and blackouts. I think about a plane crashing into the community. I think about a solar flare," she said. She envisions a brick-and-mortar center for emergency training and coordination, and sees herself working on Sandy issues for at least the next seven years. "It's a big task but . . . I believe, in my heart, it's a path I was chosen for."

Many of the groups are now, or soon will be, registered nonprofits, or 501 (c) (3) charitable organizations, that can apply for grants as well as raise tax-deductible funds through local events.

Despite the new ambitions, groups ranging from The11518 in East Rockaway to Sandy Support, Massapequa Style to Lindy Manpower, and Long Beach Rising! to Sandy Victims Fighting FEMA, will likely remain involved in Sandy relief and rebuilding for years to come.

Friends of Freeport, with 2,300 members, just recently helped gut the flood-damaged first story of the home of an elderly man who lived upstairs while mold grew an inch thick on the walls down below, said its president, Rich Cantwell.

"Here we are coming up on two years, and I get requests for help every day," said Cantwell, who works as a fire dispatcher for the Village of Hempstead. "The government can do some things and the government can't do other things."

State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who lauded the work of the grassroots groups as "mind-boggling," foresees a continuing role for them.

"They've made individual connections with these homeowners, who have had their lives turned upside-down, and there's an ongoing relationship there as they go through this ongoing nightmare," he said. Should another disaster hit, "these individuals have a system in place," he said.

And, he noted, they've earned political clout. "Their voices will be heard very loudly in Albany," he said, noting they'd "certainly have a lot of homeowners and residents behind them adding to their voices."

Full recovery yet to come

Full recovery from Sandy could take as long as seven years, said Gwen O'Shea, president and CEO of the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, which helps coordinate disaster and charitable relief services regionally. Groups with local reach can find people, like seniors, who might not know where to turn otherwise, and help politicians understand local impacts, "bringing concerns up the ladder. That's a huge piece in helping communities rebuild," she said.

But recovery from a regionwide disaster can be a marathon, said Mary W. Bossart, coordinator of Catholic Charities' Disaster Case Management Program. Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded disaster case management agencies, like Catholic Charities, work with clients over "the prolonged duration of a region's recovery," and have the training and FEMA oversight to "walk with clients through a very complex process and connect them to every type of assistance, program or benefit for which they may be eligible."

The grassroots groups don't want to duplicate the work of long-established groups, said Jon Siebert, a founder of a COAD now known as The Friends of Shirley and the Mastics. "The groups that have been doing things for 30 years, keep doing it," he said. "If there's a gap, we want to fill in wherever possible."

Volunteers look to future

His group still helps gut houses and staffs the food pantries its volunteers helped start right after Sandy, while a church has continued with the post-Sandy soup kitchen.

Siebert, who now gets a stipend from the Friends of Long Island -- the Vision LI-run consortium of about 18 local Sandy relief groups -- said advocates have become politically engaged, lobbying in Albany for the Sandy Tax Assessment Act, and pushing for more county funding for sewers and infrastructure.

While no one has yet said they planned to run for office, some haven't ruled it out, and Siebert said he is one.

"I've been asked if I'd consider running for village office," Siebert said. "But for now, I feel my energies are better placed here."

Advocates are using their "pretty good relations" with local governments "to back up residents," he said. "We make sure they contact the right people to get assistance."

Not every volunteer has kept at it. When Camp Bulldog, the relief encampment in Lindenhurst, closed, retired schoolteacher Andrea Curran, one of its most active volunteers, stepped back.

While her work there was uplifting and a highlight of her life, "I needed to regroup and put a space between me and that for a while," said Curran, 60, of West Islip. "It drained me tremendously."

But for others, Sandy advocacy blew open a door.

"I'd retired from running offices to running my home, and now I found a general purpose again," said Insinga, now executive director of Adopt a House. Of her post-Sandy life, Insinga said, "I am doing what my passion is."

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