Nearly three months after hurricane Sandy devastated portions of the east coast, a team of volunteers from St. Louis continue to dress in protective gear to clear sludge and lug moldy belongings out of homes in Long Island.
It's messy work, but necessary. The volunteers, from the AmeriCorps emergency response team based in Soulard, arrived in Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Halloween.
“This disaster is probably one of the most difficult challenges we've had to address,” said AmeriCorps St. Louis director Bruce Bailey, of the Fox Park neighborhood in St. Louis. “This storm came on the cusp of winter, which is the most difficult time of year. It creates huge challenges for trying to get people back in to their homes, particularly if they haven't had heat or power for extended periods of time.”
AmeriCorps St. Louis started in 1994 and is one of the oldest AmeriCorps programs in the country, said Bailey. It's a national service organization that's considered a domestic Peace Corps. Over the years it has responded to eastern Missouri flooding, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and numerous hurricanes, wildfires, and the Joplin tornado in May 2011.
At one point the St. Louis group had 23 members aiding in Sandy recovery, and currently has 12 members there.
William Burks, who lives in Soulard, has worked in Long Island since last month as the field operations chief. He and his crew often work 13-hour days, fanning out to different locations around the island, trying to help people get back into their homes by providing temporary fixes to restore electricity, heat and hot water. That way, people can stay in their homes while they make bigger repairs.
It's part of a pilot program set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP.
“We're just trying to get folks back into their homes,” said Burks. “It's just a big issue around here, not having enough housing to put people, people are kind of surviving off of FEMA support and as well as staying at hotels.”
Bailey said about 96,000 homes in the area were affected during the storm, and about 40,000 of them had damage that totaled more than half their value. One family had just fixed their home from damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011. They still had manufacturer's stickers on their new appliances when Sandy ravaged their home with five feet of water.
Bailey expects members of the St. Louis team to work there until March.
“Were creating a sense of hope for affected people about their future,” he said, “and letting them know the world has not forgotten about them.”