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On the (soggy) ground in New York City

Riding along with a PDA National Response Team in the borough of Queens

November 13, 2012

The Rev. Benjamin Patterson (center), pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Far Rockaway, discusses Hurricane Sandy relief needs with PDA National Response Team members Helen Robinson (left) and Donna Melloan (right).

The Rev. Benjamin Patterson (center), pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Far Rockaway, discusses Hurricane Sandy relief needs with PDA National Response Team members Helen Robinson (left) and Donna Melloan (right). —Jim Nedelka

NEW YORK

“Coping is not easy, but we’re alive!”

FAR ROCKAWAY

It is a bit past 10 o’clock on this Saturday morning (Nov. 10) in the unheated pastor’s office of First Presbyterian Church of Far Rockaway. A low chorus of “Amen” and a smattering of nodding heads punctuate the warming sentiment expressed by Ruling Elder Claudette Bravo Ho-Sang.

She is addressing Helen Robinson’s National Response Team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), making their first of three planned stops in the hard-hit New York City borough of Queens.

They are the second PDA team on the ground here since Hurricane Sandy and the first since a nor’easter blew through November 7th, dumping upwards of four inches of snow atop the remnants of Sandy’s wrath.

This morning’s meeting provides Robinson the opportunity to underscore PDA’s mission, which:

  • Focuses on the long term recovery of disaster impacted communities, in other words, PDA will be with the impacted churches “for the long haul.”
  • Provides training and disaster preparedness for presbyteries and synods.
  • Works collaboratively with church partners and members of the ACT Alliance (Action by Churches Together) internationally and nationally with other faith-based responders, such as Church World Service.
  • Connects partners locally and internationally with key organizations active in the response — United Nations, NVOAD (National Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster), World Food Program, Red Cross, FEMA and others.

In short, Robinson underscores the point that PDA’s efforts ultimately serve Christ.

Elder Ho-Sang’s optimism shines brighter than the sunlight pouring through the windows or from any of the lamps in the room which have been dark since October 29, the night Hurricane Sandy arrived.

Nearly two weeks later, the power is still out in Pastor Benjamin Patterson’s office, along with the rest of his church ― built in 1908 on a four-acre site as Russell Sage Memorial Presbyterian Church his congregation’s homes and nearly every other corner of the Rockaways.

As the conversation continues, the room gets warmer: more congregants join the discussion. Some come merely to listen while others come to break their boredom.

Mixed in among the tales of drowned cars and homes where sea water flowed in up to the second floor, many members speak of feeling alone and isolated in this part of town, as if no one seems to care.

The return to Eastern Standard Time (Nov. 4) has also inadvertently heightened these feelings. Elder Monica Clark sighs. Because it now gets dark earlier, because there are no street lights, traffic lights or the usual lights from businesses, there is a genuine fear of walking alone in the dark.

Later, during a tour of the neighborhood guided by church members, the PDA team would find these feelings puzzling, since FEMA and several neighboring churches and other organizations mere blocks away are up and running with generators, actively providing hot food, clothing and other services to those in need.

As the meeting progresses, it becomes obvious to Robinson and her team ― Donna Melloan, Kelly Buell and Liz Branch ― that the 30-some people who have ultimately squeezed into this office are finding the conversation therapeutic.

Clark seconds the sentiment about coping, admitting it’s been hard for her to leave work knowing she was heading home to a cold, damp, dark home. She recalled one fellow Long Island Rail Road passenger who lit up another way. “He loudly proclaimed. ‘I had to go into Manhattan to get a slice of pizza and some rum.’” Sometimes she wonders if maybe he has the right idea.

Among the many frustrations is one with the Long island Power Authority (LIPA), which showed up at the church but apparently did nothing, leaving church members’ circle of information and communication limited. With still no electricity, there is still no heat, nor hot water, nor light and, for far too many members, no access to the internet and its easier gateway to FEMA or other avenues of information and potential help.

There is frustration in having a dead cell phone battery and frustration with the man sitting alongside several generators charging $5 a recharge. There is frustration in the long lines waiting for that recharge.

The PDA team brings news of a new initiative, NYC Rapid Repairs, announced by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the late afternoon of the previous day. It’s an effort to help expedite repairs by connecting the storm-affected with general contractors and their stables of sub-contractors.

The program’s lynchpin: the acquisition of a FEMA registration number by those needing repairs. Hearing this, a light goes on among the handful of First Far Rockaway’s members who have internet access: they realize they can be immediately helpful to those who can’t get online.

This isn’t the only ray of optimism. Patterson sees concrete growth in the congregation’s limited inter-faith activities: the rabbi of nearby Temple Israel has provided the pastor the warmth and comfort of friendship ― and the use of his shower.

Before the gathering adjourns for the guided tour, Elder Joy Campbell expresses her optimism musically. During her climb up nine flights to her cold, dark apartment, she keeps a hymn in her heart; she leads the chorus as a coda to this morning’s meeting:

Count your blessings
Name them one by one
Count your many blessings,
See what God has done.

BREEZY POINT

The site team’s next scheduled visit is to still-powerless Breezy Point, a few miles west along Broad Channel Drive. The evacuees, along with many summer-only residents, are still recovering from the shock of watching on TV as 111 of the Point’s homes ― perhaps theirs ― went up in smoke during the height of Sandy’s fury.

En route, the PDA team gets an eyeful. The now-placid bay on the right contrasts sharply with the scenes on the left: the sanitation department’s front-loaders emotionlessly scooping away the water-logged collections of several lifetimes, their future cargo heaped along the curbs ahead, waiting.

As the team approaches the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, it becomes apparent that today discretion will be the better part of valor: a bumper-to-bumper line of vehicles inbound to the peninsula stretches all the way along the bridge, back onto the mainland.

Cresting a small rise at the mouth of the bridge, the team is met by a solid line of vehicles laid out straight ahead as far as the eye can see, all headed to Breezy Point, all capitalizing on their first opportunity to assess the damage in-person.

Later in the day, news reports would inform the team that the line of vehicles also included a crush of volunteers arriving “to help.”

To meet their noon appointment ― an invitation from Christ Presbyterian by the Sea ― the PDA team takes their first chance to make a U-turn and heads to Broad Channel, situated on a spit of land in the middle of Jamaica Bay. Christ by the Sea is one of 10 churches in the Presbytery of New York City damaged or affected by Sandy or in need of some TLC in the storm’s wake.

Church of the Covenant, on East 42nd Street in Manhattan near the United Nations, suffered the most severe structural damage when part of the parapet of a neighboring building crashed through the church’s roof, creating a hole the size of a small car. For a current list of Sandy-affected Presbyterian churches, click here

Pastor Andrea Zarou’s church sits on Noel Road, about midway between the Rockaways and the mainland, just off Cross Bay Boulevard, the spine of this community of small homes, many which are winterized bungalows.

Like much of the neighborhood, Christ by the Sea is a 30-foot wide building on a not-much-wider lot, a healthy handshake across the property line from its next-door neighbor. The 100-foot long church building also contains a community room, Sunday School classrooms, office space and roomy kitchen.

In front of every home around the church, the former insides of these homes are methodically becoming growing piles of trash.

A fire engine in Breezy Point, destroyed when flood water shorted out its electrical system and set it ablaze.

A fire engine in Breezy Point, destroyed when flood water shorted out its electrical system and set it ablaze. —Jim Nedelka

Diagonally across the street stands the volunteer fire house. The community ambulance corps rolls out of the parking lot of St. Virgilius’ Catholic church, across a narrow street from Christ by the Sea. On this day, the corps is supplemented by EMS crews from other areas, here to help their fellow first-responders. In solidarity, some of these crews have hand written “Broad Channel” on cardboard, duct-taping these signs over the name of their home communities.

The firehouse is now a small distribution center. Several stacks of bottled water line the walls. Parked outside stands the charred skeleton of a fire truck, a stark reminder of the power salt water has when it meets electricity ― when Jamaica Bay overflowed Broad Channel, it drowned the fire truck, shorting-out its electrical system and engulfing it flames.

As the PDA team walks up, they learn that Pastor Zarou is planning to meet with her congregation, but  stuck in traffic she’s running late.

Hanging on or propped against the fence around Christ by the Sea’s corner lot are bags and bags of donated clothing, some labeled, many more not. The odd bag contains toys or items for baby.

As the team waits, an SUV with Delaware plates pulls up. Inside are the Mohr sisters, Karen and Ann. They have returned to their childhood home today, hoping the personal hygiene items, non-perishable foodstuffs, cleaning supplies and their friendly smiles will be able help. Though Catholic ― “We used to go to St. Virgilius,” says Ann ― they gladly add their donations to the growing collection around Christ by the Sea. 

Karen and Ann Mohr, former residents of Breezy Point, returned “home” to bring relief supplies to stricken neighbors.

Karen and Ann Mohr, former residents of Breezy Point, returned “home” to bring relief supplies to stricken neighbors. —Jim Nedelka

When Pastor Zarou arrives in the company of her daughter, Heidi, Robinson and her team greet her with a smile and a handshake. It is the first step in relieving the immense heartbreak written across the pastor’s face. Hurricane Sandy arrived a little more than a year after Hurricane Irene stormed through, taking Christ by the Sea’s roof with her.

Inside, the damage is subtle but evident: the chancel carpeting is soaked. The center aisle runner squishes under foot. There is concern that beneath the carpet, the mastic used to lay the floor tiles ― or perhaps the tiles themselves, already buckling elsewhere in the Sanctuary ― contain asbestos.

In the fellowship hall, Elder Janet McCarthy points to a spot roughly two feet above the already-warped wooden floor. This room is some four feet above grade, which means that the wall of Jamaica Bay floodwaters was at least six feet high.

Stacked around the room on, or under, dozens of six-foot folding tables are hundreds of bags and scores of boxes of clothing donations. The congregation abandoned their attempt to sort the clothes ahead of the Nor’easter; today’s disappointment is the hours-overdue arrival of a truck meant to transport these donations to those in need.

As the strong smell of heating oil fills the church – the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is in the block, pumping out the bilge of heating oil and salt water from the neighborhood’s oil tanks – the PDA team says its goodbyes; they are due back at their Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church base for a 3 o’clock meeting.

Boxes and boxes of clothing and other emergency supplies fill the fellowship hall of Christ By the Sea Presbyterian Church in Breezy Point.

Boxes and boxes of clothing and other emergency supplies fill the fellowship hall of Christ By the Sea Presbyterian Church in Breezy Point. —Jim Nedelka

The long haul

Benjamin Franklin once advised, “If you want something done, give (the task) to a busy person.”

The Rev. Thia Reggio is the Presbytery of New York City’s busy person.

The mother of two teen-aged boys, Reggio was ordained as a Presbyterian minister on October 21 and installed as pastor of Astoria Presbyterian Church in Queens. The daunting task of disaster assistance efforts fell to her on November 2.

“Our goal,” she says, “is to be a prophetic witness to this storm and the ensuing disaster and to support the communities in recovery through strong, vital and engaged cooperation between the presbytery, directly affected churches and neighborhoods and the many who want to help.”

Undaunted, Reggio adds, “As our friends at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance would say, ‘Our job is to be there when the cameras are gone, continuing to walk with our city as it heals and comes back stronger.’”

Because she still needs to finalize her sermon, the time for the PDA Field Team report is brief, as is the time allotted for the PDA’s Eric Mohr to give his take on site cleanup training session held earlier that afternoon. The team turns to the situation on Staten Island and the challenges facing them on that front.

After assigning a handful of immediate action steps, the team dives into the larger discussion surrounding the best-situated “hosting site.”

Buell reviews the qualities of the ideal hosting site: that it be located no more than a half hour from the work site and include adequate showers, toilet facilities, sleeping space, a kitchen, some type of recreation space as well as a “quiet” space.

Among the factors impacting the team’s options are the lack of fully-restored subway service to the Rockaways and the realities of driving during the typical New York City morning “rush hour.”

Yet the team members remain optimistic, their belief that God underpins their efforts raising their spirits.

After all, PDA is in it for the long haul, not the short sound bite.

Here’s how to help: To donate $10 right now, text PDA to 20222. Donations can also be made through local church channels. To donate by credit card, check or from a bank account, click here. For more information, visit http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/pda/hurricane-sandy/

Jim Nedelka, a frequent contributor to the Presbyterian New Service, works for a major broadcast news organization in New York. A ruling elder, he is a member of New York’s Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House.

  1. Helen and John-- I can't go, but I'm very glad to be a listener for folks like Thia Reggio when she needs to yell, cry, or just talk. I hope you'll send it to her: 775-747-2194. Blessings, Jackie

    by The Rev Jackie Leonard

    November 21, 2012

  2. Helen, good work being first on the ground after Sandy. It sounds like your team did great work being "a presence."

    by Kathy Morriss

    November 19, 2012

  3. A riveting story well told...hope lots of folks continue to pay attention and respond with generosity and compassion to our brothers & sisters in the New York City area whose lives have been turned upside down by this disaster.

    by Helen Robinson

    November 13, 2012

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