AmeriCorps: Leadership, Muscle, and Hope for Sandy Recovery

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Disaster Response and Recovery
By: 
Wendy Spencer

As Hurricane Sandy efforts transition from emergency response to long-term recovery, AmeriCorps members are providing vital leadership in communities up and down the East Coast.

AmeriCorps members remove debris from a crawl space at a home in Atlantic City, NJ. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)

AmeriCorps is skilled and experienced in volunteer management and gutting and mucking operations – and our teams are already having a powerful impact helping hundreds of Sandy survivors put their homes and lives back together.

I witnessed their impact first hand on a return visit to New Jersey and New York last week. From Atlantic City to Union Beach to the Rockaways, I was deeply impressed with the resourcefulness and dedication of our members, who are serving long hours in difficult conditions.

With tens of thousands of homes damaged along the East Coast, there is a large need for volunteers to help displaced residents take the steps necessary to move back into their homes. The tasks involved – removing debris, remediating mold, and gutting and mucking – are labor intensive. This work requires skilled crew leaders and an infrastructure to recruit, train, and supervise volunteers. That's where AmeriCorps comes in.

Washington Conservation Corps Crew Leader Ernie Farmer explains Hurricane Sandy clean-up locations and strategy to CNCS Senior Advisor for Disaster Services Kelly DeGraff and CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer at the VRC in Brigantine, NJ. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)

Ernie Farmer, a crew leader from the Washington Conservation Corps, briefed me on the volunteer operation he leads out of a community center in Brigantine, NJ. Working with state and local officials, an AmeriCorps strike team set up the operation in a matter of days. They reached out to local partners, secured a location, found housing, and established a seven-day-a-week volunteer operation. This includes canvassing door-to-door, creating work order and volunteer tracking systems, securing donated supplies, training volunteers, and sending out crews to gut and muck homes.

One of the crews we met in Atlantic City was led by NECHAMA, the Jewish disaster relief organization. All 11 volunteers were recent graduates of AmeriCorps NCCC – alums eager to get back into the field for hands-on service.

In many sites, AmeriCorps members are both leading volunteers and providing the muscle power for home repair. In Union Beach, NJ, a blue-collar town of 6,200 where nearly a quarter of the homes were lost, I joined AmeriCorps members in ripping out the flooring of a storm-damaged home. Our members bring tools, training, and a supercharged work ethic that rubs off on the volunteers they serve with.

An AmeriCorps member and CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer look at a 150-year-old home in Union Beach, NJ, that was cut in half by Hurricane Sandy. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)

Removing damaged floors and mitigating mold reduces health risks and can save homeowners thousands of dollars – especially important for those who aren't covered through their insurance or can't afford contractors. The cost savings are significant. But AmeriCorps members and volunteers provide something else harder to put a dollar figure on but no less important: an enormous emotional lift.

Maureen Gallagher is an 82-year-old widower living a few blocks from the shore in the Belle Harbor neighborhood in Queens. Her home suffered extensive damage and she has been living with her daughter since the storm. When she heard volunteers were at her home, she made a special trip over to say thanks. Emerging from her car, she was overcome with gratitude, with tears streaming down her face as she hugged and thanked the volunteers. Similar scenes are playing out across the affected areas, as volunteers come from near and far to lend a hand.

Maureen is one of hundreds of homeowners assisted through New York Cares, a Points of Light affiliate. We are proud to partner with New York Cares, our state service commissions, and dozens of other organizations in the affected states on this critical mission. It takes partnerships of many kinds to help a community recover and rebuild, especially from a storm as devastating as Hurricane Sandy.

Working with local partners and residents, national service will continue to provide leadership and muscle power to Sandy survivors in their time of need.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that engages millions Americans in service through Senior Corps and AmeriCorps, and leads the president's national call to service initiative, United We Serve.

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