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Crisis Response International volunteers focus efforts on Lindenhurst

Dale Fisher, right, a Crisis Response International volunteer,

Dale Fisher, right, a Crisis Response International volunteer, prays with Bill Witchey, of Lindenhurst, at Witchey's Lindenhurst home. (Nov. 5, 2012) Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Scott and Diana Keicher bought their 85-year-old Cape Cod home in Lindenhurst 15 months ago.

The married couple of 28 years had always dreamt of living near the water, so after their kids moved out, they bought the red two-story home with blue hand-carved shutters that overlooks the bay.

But superstorm Sandy left the couple’s West Bayview Avenue home submerged in 5 feet of water.

As the Keichers attempted to get to their home the Wednesday after the storm, they were stopped by the National Guard and Suffolk County Police who were checking IDs and allowing only residents into their neighborhoods.

Once the couple got to their street, Long Island native Sean Malone stopped them and asked if they could use help from his team of Crisis Response International volunteers.

“The need is overwhelming down here,” said Malone, 40, director of CRI, who now lives in Naalehu, Hawaii. “Homeowners have gone up to us with tears in their eyes. I can’t see us leaving at this point.”

CRI began that day, gutting the walls and floors in the Keichers’ Cape Cod and helping the couple drag their unsalvageable furniture, electronics and carpeting to the curb.

Malone, who grew up in West Islip, said he felt an overwhelming need to stay at least until the end of January to help the community rebuild their homes.

“What I thought would take me 30 days to clean up, took two days with the help of CRI,” said Scott Keicher, 51, of Lindenhurst. “It was a godsend. They were unbelievable.”

Malone has spent the last decade responding to disasters all over the world.

He provided first responders with lighting to dig through rubble at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Three years later, he and his family provided warm meals to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And he didn’t stop. He was also involved in recovery efforts in Haiti and Japan.

Malone founded the nonprofit CRI in 2007, and has trained and mobilized hundreds of volunteers across the country and overseas to respond to emergencies.

Since superstorm Sandy devastated Long Island, volunteers have dedicated their own time and money to help rebuild homes in Lindenhurst.

In Denise and Bill Witchey’s Cape Cod on Surf Street, CRI volunteers scrubbed floors and gutted the walls of their home, which was submerged in 4 feet of water.

“When they first came to my house I sent them to a house down the street,” said Denise Witchey, 57. “And after a while, I said we needed help, too. They helped us carry stuff out and gut the first floor, no questions asked. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

CRI’s base camp, with tent and trailer, is stationed on Bayview Avenue, and volunteers stay at the Lindenhurst Community Center on Buffalo Avenue to sleep and shower.

“We’ve become an emotional support for people in the neighborhood,” Malone said. “There's a sense of community that’s building down here.”

The group’s been working with Lindenhurst Village Mayor Thomas Brennan and the building department on a plan to move forward, streamlining the rebuilding process for homeowners, Malone said.

“Without their help, we would still be ripping apart our home,” Denise Witchey said. “Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without them.”

Malone assured residents they wouldn’t be forgotten and is already looking to the future.

“We want to move into the rebuilding phase,” Malone said. “The good news is that homeowners just need an electrical inspection and then our teams can go in and put in insulation and sheetrock and then can move on to get their homes in order. Now, we need building material.”

He said many of the 150 volunteers plan to stick around for months.

One CRI volunteer, Chris Zitzmann, has been in Lindenhurst for three weeks coordinating groups of workers to make sure each house is thoroughly gutted and cleaned.

“You get pretty overwhelmed with the things you see,” said Zitzmann, 29, of Jeffersonton, Va. “Some people have to decide whether they want to start over or move on. People’s lives are thrown out at the curb. I remember seeing stuffed animals in a pile of debris.”

Zitzmann has been volunteering with CRI for one year, supporting his initiatives and trips through donations from his church, family and friends.

Other volunteers are either retired, use saved up vacation time from work or take leaves of absence from work, Malone said.

“I’ve been to a lot of disasters in the last 10 years all around the world, but it’s a lot different when it happens in your hometown,” Malone said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help people get back on their feet.”

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