Experiences of—and Responses to—Hurricane Sandy within the CUSSW Community

Hurricane Sandy impact & recoveryTwo weeks since Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, relief and recovery efforts continue apace. Classes are up and running again here at Columbia University, which was closed for two days. And at the School of Social Work, students, faculty and staff are tackling their backlog of work.

The timing seems ripe to survey some of the members of the CUSSW community with two basic questions:

  1. Where were you when Sandy hit, and what was the impact on your life?
  2. Have you done anything to aid the recovery?

Thus far we have received responses from several students, one alumna, and a faculty member who is also an alum. We will continue to post responses as they come in. Check back often! NOTE: If you a member of the CUSSW community and wish to add your responses to the mix, please send to swcommunications@columbia.edu.

PARTICIPANTS:

  • Lauren Bachman (2014): Pursuing a dual degree with Mailman and interested in doing Advanced Generalist Practice & Programming, with a concentration in Mental Health & Disabilities
  • Natasha Dachos ('02 LMSW), Interim Assistant Director, Office of Advising
  • Coralee Dixon, Associate Director of Admissions
  • Chris Eagar-Finney (2013): Advanced Generalist Practice & Programming (AGPP), with minor in Law
  • Catherine "Kate" Farrigan (2013): Policy Practice
  • Rick Greenberg (PhD, LCSW-R), Full-Time Faculty (Lecturer) and Alumnus
  • Amanda "Mandy" Hyne (2013): Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in Mental Health and Disabilities
  • Stacy Kass, Assistant Dean for Development and Alumni Relations
  • Hana Myjer (2014): Planning to do Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice, with a concentration in School Based and School Linked Services
  • Chloe Svolakos ('12 MSW): Policy Practice, with a concentration in International Social Welfare and Services to Immigrants and Refugees
  • Catherine Wright (2013): Advanced Generalist Practice & Programming, with a concentration in Contemporary Social Issues

Where were you when Sandy hit, and what was the impact on your life?

LAUREN BACHMAN: I was one of the really fortunate ones. I was in my apartment on the Upper West Side (10 blocks south of the School of Social Work) so did not experience much of an impact.

NATASHA DACHOS: Friday, November 9th, nearly two weeks after we evacuated our apartment, I receive a text from my husband: Power back, water too, one elevator up and running. Followed by: joyful emoticons.

I live in Zone A on top of landfill on the East River. You will know where I live by the other familiar landmarks that still remain eerily dark, having undergone much worse than I: the VA hospital, NYU Lagone and Bellevue.

Sandy took out our building’s transformer, so even while other buildings in my complex came back on line, ours remained dark. We attempted to go home every day after our evacuation, each time thinking this might be the night we could stay. Instead we would trudge up the stairs in the dark, light the even darker hallway with our phones, enter our apartment, gather a change of clothes, and find brighter parts of the city to stay—with the brightest light of all appearing on Election night.

Wednesday, November 7th, the day of the nor'easter. The temporary generator has been installed in my building and is running. I hear the news from work. I am happy to go home tonight. Yet on the way I receive a text stating: We just lost power. My optimism takes over and I honestly believe that by the time I take two trains and a bus home through the snow, power will be back. Instead candles, layers and layers of blankets and quiet. In the morning I find myself a little cranky but am thrilled that my son, who is just 16, realizes, and then comments on, how grateful we should be. After all, it is only heat, water and power—we, unlike so many, did not lose our home or worse, a loved one.

And that’s the crux of what happened to me. Although our lives were disrupted, our experience was perhaps more of an inconvenience—and I am deeply mindful of the greater suffering so many are enduring and will continue to endure.

CORALEE DIXON: Thanks to all the warnings and the advance notice, I was safely indoors at my home in New Jersey throughout the hurricane. We were very lucky to be one of the very few homes in our area that never lost power, and damage to our property was minimal—just one lost shutter and some minor damage to a fence from a neighbor's fallen tree.

CHRIS EAGAR-FINNEY: When Sandy arrived in the city, I was in my apartment located one block away from the School. I took the precautions that were advised by the Mayor of NYC, the University, and the School of Social Work. My six-story building did experience some shaking throughout the night, but having grown up in Los Angeles, I wasn't too bothered. I was fortunate that this hurricane did not impact my life as much as it did the lives of other people throughout the city, many of whom are still suffering. The only thing that was disrupted for me was classes, field placement, and public transportation. I would like to add that all the CUSSW administrators involved in the decision making, planning, and emergency management did an outstanding job at communicating with the students!!!

KATE FARRIGAN: Because I live on high ground, my experience with the hurricane was not as a traumatic as what others faced during and after the storm. The most troubling part was not knowing how my friends downtown or in Brooklyn were doing until after the storm ended. In particular, I did not hear from a friend in Brooklyn until days later (and was relieved to find out that she had been with family in Philadelphia). I still haven't heard from my best friend in Connecticut. She lives in a town that experienced significant power outages—but I think her power should have been restored by now. I was also thinking about those who had been displaced by the storm and imagining what they might be going through.

RICK GREENBERG: I was at my house in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. We prepared as much as we could to move water away, using PVC pipes to direct any water as close to the street as possible. But ultimately there was not a lot of rain. The wind did howl!! When I went outside the next day, I looked down my street and there were branches down but nothing major. I went around the corner and it was a different story. Streets were blocked left and right by trees fallen one after the other down the street. Large trees were uprooted and covered lawns, houses, cars—some with minor, some with serious damage. One block—and a world of difference.

MANDY HYNE: Luckily, I live on the Upper West Side, where we were very fortunate to have sustained no damage or power outages. I was in my neighborhood when the storm struck and stayed indoors to watch movies with my friends. Some of our friends were evacuated and stayed with us when they did not have shelter or power. My family was supposed to celebrate the NYC Marathon, as my dad was running in the race; however, we were completely supportive of the city's decision to cancel the event and use the resources for people in need!

STACY KASS: The lights went out in East Midtown at 8:30 p.m. on the evening of 10/29. Knowing that our water would soon stop pumping to the 13th floor, we began filling every bucket and pail in our apartment—the tub was already filled. Although we'd spent the weekend preparing for the hurricane, we were surprised when we actually lost power. Lured into the hallway by the voices of our neighbors, we spent the next 90 minutes, until the emergency lights in the hallway went out, comparing notes on our individual preparedness and swapping stories about the building and past neighbors. Because of our preparations, our family of four had plenty of food, water, and batteries for our flashlights and radio. Yet by Day Three without water and power, we realized that cooking was no longer a good idea if we could not wash the dishes, and wondered how many more days we would still have enough water for the bathroom. At one point we used a gallon of milk to flush the toilet—it was no longer drinkable and had not yet clumped up. Throughout the week we had a nightly caucus with our neighbors. We shared stories of how we'd charged our myriad electronics, how many times we'd climbed the 13 flights of stairs that day, and how much longer we could stay in the building now that temperatures were dropping. By late Friday night our power and water were restored. The biggest impact on our lives was how much time we had to spend on meeting our basic needs—eating, showering, communicating.

HANA MYJER: When Hurricane Sandy struck, I was at home in Middle Village, Queens, with my parents and cousin. It was not as scary as we were expecting, though I remember the wind and rain being very loud and horrifying. My side of the neighborhood did not experience any damage apart from fallen trees, but across the park where I live the effects were much more damaging. Many of the homes were flooded and had no electricity—they still have no power. My family and I were very fortunate.

CHLOE SVOLAKOS: I live in Bay Ridge, a zone that could have potentially suffered from the storm but, because it was on higher ground, was completely unharmed. The difficulty of living here, however, is in knowing that Bay Ridge lays across from Breezy Point, Staten Island—I live five minutes from Staten Island—and New Jersey. In other words, I am right in the middle of the communities that are in such a heartbreaking state. There I was, watching the news coverage in my warm home in my sweat pants and fuzzy slippers, when everyone living (literally) around me has not only NONE of these things but...not much of anything. I've found it extremely upsetting.

CATHERINE WRIGHT: When Sandy struck I was in Pittsburgh for a weekend trip and ended up getting stranded there for over a week. It was strange being so far away from the city when it happened and only being able to see what was going on on the news, but I was able to catch up on readings for my classes!

Have you done anything to aid the recovery?

LAUREN BACHMAN: The day after the storm, I went with a few friends to a local food bank and helped restock the small warehouse and prepare bags of food for people in need.

NATASHA DACHOS: On a personal level, my family has been involved with GOLES helping to provide MREs, water, blankets and other supplies on the Lower East Side. I will join them this upcoming weekend.

I also had the opportunity to “sub” for one of last week's Advising Seminars. I was saddened and inspired by the stories the students shared—and I encouraged them to take this opportunity to be of greater service in the aftermath, particularly at their internships. For now, this includes triage, rolling up one’s sleeves and doing whatever it takes. Longer-term students can make invaluable contributions at their agencies and perhaps CUSSW in how we prepare, endure and respond to such events.

I told the students that my final year of field began in the aftermath of 9/11. The arc of our internships was drastically altered and we had the chance to serve, grow and contribute in ways we could not have imagined when we initially walked into CUSSW to become social workers.

From the micro to the macro, social workers are uniquely poised to work in a world affected by climate change. Sandy showed once again that while her power and force affected people randomly, numerous unjust structures, politics, and power/privilege differentials produced vastly different rates of recovery. 

CORALEE DIXON: Nearly all of our nearby family and friends were without power for many days, and so we hosted lots of visitors for meals, access to TV & Internet, and just warming up during those cold days and nights following the storm. We ended up with a house full of friends and family for several days, and we ate exceedingly well since many brought the contents of their now-powerless refrigerators and freezers with them for impromptu feasts before the food could spoil. We even cooked a frozen turkey which had been meant for Thanksgiving. That was quite appropriate as the atmosphere in our house was one of thankfulness among ourselves and our guests for having been spared from much of the severe destruction others in our state have suffered, and for having a supportive network of family and friends to rely on and give back to in challenging times.

CHRIS EAGAR-FINNEY: I donated all the supplies and extra food I'd compiled for myself in preparation for Sandy to local shelters. Additionally, I have been collecting items from my network of family and friends and passing them along to the students who are able to drive to the outermost parts of NYC.

KATE FARRIGAN: At first, non-profits involved with relief efforts and the city evacuation shelters were overloaded with volunteers. Most of these places were not prepared to manage so many people and I was not able to find an organization that needed help, outside of donations. But the good news is, I'll now be able to contribute to the city's relief efforts through my field placement with a city agency. Mayor Bloomberg has just announced the launching of seven NYC Restoration Centers to provide one-stop services for city recovery services and federal disaster relief. I'm working at the Department of Consumer Affairs, which will be contributing to this initiative by providing introductory financial counseling and education about potential scams to Hurricane Sandy victims. We will also be assisting with the filing of consumer complaints and making referrals for more in-depth financial counseling. I can't wait to start my first shift!

RICK GREENBERG: I am involved in recovery efforts through my synagogue. We have a very active social action/social justice component of everything we do. We first focused on our immediate community and then the wider community. We tried to reach our members via phone, e-mail, cell phones, and knocking on doors. Whatever worked. We had chains of information (with a "central station") so people could let us know their needs as well as how they might help. We then matched those with particular needs to those who could fulfill those needs. We tried to get everyone who did not have power to a warm, lit home when the weather turned cold. We had a pot luck dinner to which all were invited. We asked that people come without food if they lost power—and for those with power, to please cook extra. 170 people came—and there was food for 300. Those without power had meals to take home. In addition to the dinner, we also had a breakfast that was well-attended (I don't know the numbers) and provided a hot meal for families.

We have had and continue to have collections of goods and dollars. We have been very involved with a community of homeless individuals who live in a "tent city" in Lakewood, NJ—and continue to help through the NJ Coalition to End Homelessness.

Each day I get e-mails from congregants asking how they can help. With Thanksgiving around the corner, the children have begun to ask if they can cook and serve meals to those impacted by the storm.

MANDY HYNE: In the aftermath of the hurricane, I have donated money to the American Red Cross and plan to donate blood at an upcoming drive. I am inspired by all the runners who were supposed to run in the marathon and have since donated their time to help out with the relief effort in Staten Island—great work, NYC!!

STACY KASS: Our only involvement in recovery efforts has been as donors to various emergency funds.

HANA MYJER: I donated food and clothing to the church by my house, for distributing to families in Rockaway, which had some of the worst devastation.

CHLOE SVOLAKOS: I created a Facebook event page, Help Survivors of Sandy - Volunteer and Invite Your Friends with Threads, as a virtual space to enable friends (from my undergrad days at John Jay College of Criminal Justice as well as from CUSSW) to do what they could to help storm survivors. Many who had expressed an initial interest in donating or volunteering felt daunted by the amount of time and energy it can take. My plan was to act as a liaison for those who were in fact prepared to donate but were worried about the logistics. I located donation sites near their homes, and then encouraged them to post pictures of donation boxes to share with others who live in these areas.

Last week I reached out to Council Member Peter F. Vallone, Jr., from District 22 in Astoria, and was informed that most sites had had their clothing necessities met. It was time to shift gears and gather together toiletries, baby products, medical supplies, forms of transportation (such as bicycles) and food, along with other items.

I was also contacted personally by a sergeant in the Marines, who, after seeing my event page, wondered if he could be of service to me. He connected me with Assemblyman Félix Ortiz, from New York’s 51st Assembly District. Assemblyman Ortiz was hosting an event on November 10 to provide free medical screening and services for displaced victims of the storm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, at the Joseph Miccio Center, which has become a shelter as well as a hub for food and supplies. I invited approximately ten volunteers—and, in the gymnasium of the Miccio Center, we decided to establish “Threads,” a non-profit organization.

What started off as an effort to get people to donate clothing has now grown into something more. Within three days of inception, the page had over fifty active participants and today has reached 122 valued friends (and counting).

Recently, I connected with volunteers from the Obama campaign in Ohio: they are bringing four cars full of left-over cleaning items—disinfectants, mops, brooms, and garbage bags—along with flashlights and batteries.

I've asked everyone to inform me and the group if they know of individuals or families in need of specific items and necessities. One participant has mentioned survivors in Cuba who were hit badly from Sandy, expressing an interest in sending donations there. His concerns helped to educate all of us about the international effects of the devastation, and may also help to shape the organization's next steps!

CATHERINE WRIGHT: Upon my return to the city, I volunteered on the Lower East Side by going door to door to check in with individuals and families who were residing in Section 8 housing and had been without power/heat for 5 days. With a group of volunteers, we recorded tenants' needs and helped them fill out paper work to recover food stamp (SNAP) money they'd lost due to the storm.

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To reiterate, we welcome additional responses, particularly from those who are contributing to the recovery. Please send to swcommunications@columbia.edu.

—Compiled and edited by ML Awanohara