TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
NewsNew York

Volunteers pour forth in wake of Sandy to help their neighborhoods

Rockawayhelp.com creator Jessica Klein in Queens

Rockawayhelp.com creator Jessica Klein in Queens Credit: Rockawayhelp.com creator Jessica Klen in Queens

After the destructive storm surge of Sandy, New Yorkers poured forth to help the survivors.

Relief agencies were flooded with donations of cash, food and other necessities. Volunteers flocked by the thousands to the Rockaways, Staten Island and other hard-hit areas to do whatever they could to pitch in.

These New Yorkers have been on the front lines since the storm, offering crucial medical assistance, starting grassroots efforts and bringing some measure of joy and comfort to their neighbors during a dark time. Here are their stories:

Jessica Klein, 32, Carroll Gardens (above)
Jessica Klein, 32, grew up in Belle Harbor in the Rockaways. Her parents, Sylvan, 64, and Rose, 61, refused to leave in advance of Sandy "despite my screaming, yelling and publicly shaming them on Facebook," Klein said.

The Mozilla designer was watching the waters swallow up the place she grew up in when her own TV cable in Carroll Gardens went out. Sick with anxiety and unable to sleep, she waited for daylight and then grabbed a Zipcar for "the scariest ride of my life" to visit what remained of her family home.

She found her parents, both retired educators on the second floor: "The first floor in everybody's house was destroyed," she said. Klein then took her parents to live with her in her one-bedroom apartment.

Klein has returned to the Rockaways every day, sometimes hitchhiking, to check on her childhood neighbors. What struck Klein was that no one knew what to do. Would cleaning up jeopardize insurance claims? Should they stay? Go?

So Klein deployed her technology skills to create Rockawayhelp.com, a nimble Internet clearing house to coordinate volunteer efforts and distribute donations, triage urgent needs and quickly answer questions about FEMA assistance, insurance claims and the restoration of power through LIPA.

Before she knew it, large organizations were asking her about how to get medical supplies to those in need and she was meeting with FEMA officials to strategize on how to best proceed.

On Thursday, her organization joined forces with Team Rubicon, a disaster relief group that harnesses the skills of military veterans and medical professionals to help coordinate individual needs in the "massive hyper local clean up" and efforts of the more than 1,000 volunteers who have offered help.

Klein sees herself as "just being responsible."

"When it's your community and you see a place you feel so passionate about so damaged, you have to help," she said. "Not one thing has been untouched. It's just so heartbreaking. We just have to rebuild."

Nick Weissman, 27, Williamsburg
When documentary film maker Nick Weissman photographed the devastation of Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010 for Time magazine, he was shocked to see it took "four or five days before anyone showed up with food." In the aftermath of Sandy, he felt compelled to do something more tangible than taking pictures.

"There was no way I could just sit there with my electricity in my warm house," watching the progressive horror of a disaster so nearby unfold, recalled Weissman, a former Eagle Scout.

On Halloween, he retrieved shoulder loads of donated baked goods from area businesses and drove a full rented van from Williamsburg to Far Rockaway, where powerless, isolated residents - flooding destroyed hundreds of feet of subway tracks connecting the area to the mainland, and phones were knocked out - were huddled in soaked, sand- and muck-covered homes.

When Weissman arrived, he found dead, empty, pitch-black streets covered in sand left by the receding waters. With no one to give the baked goods to, he wound up taking the load to a well-organized distribution center run by Occupy Sandy in Sunset Park.

Since then, Weissman has been working with the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, whose members showed Charlie Chaplin movies to the antsy kids and developmentally disabled people stuck in shelters, and checked on elderly and disabled people stranded by the storm. In later days, the Collective delivered bread, bagels and blankets to the Gospel Assembly Church in Coney Island, where they also went door to door to assess residents' medical needs and to distribute food, water, batteries, diapers and flashlights.

"The canvassing is very organized so that no one goes to a building twice," Weissman said.

The smaller grassroots efforts - fueled primarily by the young and technologically adept - are in many cases more impressive than those by better-known organizations, Weissman said. Occupy Sandy, he added, had Twitter feeds running and a community kitchen set up by Tuesday night after the storm, whereas the larger organizations, with bigger bureaucracies, were unable to respond as quickly and specifically.

"They put a lot of attention to Lower Manhattan when they should have been in Coney Island," Weissman said.

Noah Reisman, 25, Park Slope
The day after Sandy, Noah Reisman, a medical student at New York Methodist Hospital, biked down to the Red Hook Initiative with his medical bag and a flashlight to see how he could help. Reisman and a group of doctors, physician assistants and nurses divvied up messages of concern people had relayed about elderly and ailing friends and relatives marooned on the upper floors of the Red Hook houses. Anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people were left without power and water, according to various estimates.

Reisman and the others split up and set off in groups up seemingly endless flights of stairs in pitch black, windowless stairwells that reeked of excrement. Because the projects had no water, residents "were using the hallways and stairs in unsanitary ways," Resiman explained.

Reisman checked blood sugar levels of people with diabetes, the blood pressure of hypertensive patients and checked in on mentally ill people to make sure their symptoms were controlled by medications. No one he visited was in a medical crisis, but every person opened the door with gratitude and relief. "Mostly people were just so happy to see us," and to know they had not been forgotten, Reisman said.

"As a med student, [volunteering] really made me feel useful," said Reisman.

Even veteran doctors "were so happy to have our help," he marveled.

It also made him proud to be a New Yorker. "It was amazing how quickly everyone responded. People were very selfless, just wanting to help without getting anything out of it."

More news