Sandy relief: How trips to the Hamptons turned into a mission of mercy

New Yorkers have come together to help each other in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy – from volunteers reinstalling drywall to lawyers helping victims navigate government bureaucracy.

By , Staff writer

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    Volunteers Nancy Pagano (c.) and Christina Wilson (r.) help clean up debris from the home of Vanessa Ventura (back) Saturday in Staten Island, N.Y.
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East End Helicopters, which normally ferries people to the Hamptons for summer weekends, is dropping bottled water, warm clothing, and food to people stranded on Long Island.

“We’re doing 8 to 10 flights a day,” says Mike Scialabba, chief pilot of the company.  And who is paying for these mercy flights?

“So far, it’s coming out of my pocket,” says Mr. Scialabba, who also gave his workers his credit card to pay for racks of warm clothing at Wal-Mart. “I’m just looking for people to help offset the costs.”

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The helicopter runs and Scialabba’s generous spirit are just one example of individuals and companies who are reaching into their pockets. Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will probably have the largest share of the financial burden, contributions and volunteers are considered to be an essential element of relief operations.

“Groups that are in the community day in and day out and volunteers from the community are in the best position to identify the needs that are most pressing that might take a while to get heard at the government level,” says Meghan Moloney, director of programs at New York Cares, New York City’s lead agency coordinating volunteer work. “They know the seniors, and they know the people who are vulnerable.”

During the weekend hundreds of volunteers drove their cars loaded with supplies to devastated communities. On Sunday, some 600 New Yorkers piled onto buses to hand out food and water as part of New York Cares. And corporate America – from retailer Macy’s to airline JetBlue – is raising money for relief operations.

The bulk of the money is going to the American Red Cross, which had raised $35 million as of Friday. However, that number will rise sharply: On Friday night alone, an NBC telethon raised another $23 million.

In addition, over the weekend, sports teams kicked in with some major contributions: Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, pledged $1 million; the National Basketball Association and its players’ association committed to another $1 million; Madison Square Garden donated $500,000 and said it will host a telethon.

And Dwayne Wade, the Miami Heat star, said he would donate his pay for a game – about $210,000 – after he was criticized for tweeting about the awful traffic to get into New York for a game against the Knicks.

Still more money will flow in on Monday: Disney/ABC has designed Monday as a “Day of Giving” across its network and syndicated programming.

Although millions of Americans are giving money nationally, many local organizations are focusing on finding individuals who want to help.

For example, over the weekend on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Jewish Community Center (JCC), a beehive of activity, asked West Siders to donate nonperishables such as cleaning supplies and toilet paper to be distributed to victims on Staten Island; in Hoboken, N.J.; the Rockaways (a neighborhood in the Queens borough); and Long Island. More than 200 drivers filled their cars with diapers, wipes, blankets, and warm clothes.

On Monday at the JCC, 12 volunteers prepared meals for 350 children who would normally get their meals in their schools but will not because the kitchens were not up and running yet.

In the case of New York Cares, 600 volunteers who had signed up on its website met at pick-up zones to get bussed to places like the Rockaways, where they handed out food and water.

One of those volunteers was Amaya Swanson, who works in IT in Manhattan.

Ms. Swanson was the captain for 50 volunteers who roamed Breezy Point, where a fire had destroyed 80 homes. “We brought supplies and information on where the residents can get food and water,” she says. The information is helpful since electricity has not returned to the area, so local people may not know where they can get help.

She recounts how a volunteer removed debris from the door of a house so a woman could get back into her home. A local resident gratefully showed a volunteer family photos that had survived. Yet another resident described how a neighbor had to carry a son with special needs out through chest-deep water.

“By offering a presence, we show we care,” says Swanson.

Still other groups are gearing up to help. For example, lawyers all around the city have volunteered to help small businesses file for financial help from government agencies. Others will try to help individuals file for food stamps and navigate government bureaucracies. The deadline to file for disaster unemployment is Dec. 3.

“The outpouring of support is amazing,” says Bill Lienhard, executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service in New York. “We’re figuring out our needs and how to stagger the volunteers so we have consistent support over the next six to seven months,” he says. “We don’t want everyone to all show up at the same time.”

Another group that is looking further out is All Hands, a Boston-based volunteer group. After spending four days on Staten Island, Jeremey Horan, director of operations, says they have identified cleanup as a major way the organization's volunteers can help.

“Some people are saying, 'We’ve cleaned the house, but we still have this smell,' ” he recounts. “That is a great first step, but they may not know they need to remove the drywall, the flooring, the subflooring,” he says.

“Tearing apart a home is incredibly difficult to do,” says Mr. Horan. “We have a lot of good volunteers with experience in helping other people who can make sure it’s done in a responsible manner. They are chomping at the bit to help.”

Sometimes the scenes of the devastation have inspired individuals to see that they can do. That’s what’s happened with Dottie Herman, the CEO of Douglas Elliman, a New York real estate brokerage.

The real estate firm opened its offices so people could recharge their cellphones, make calls, or just get warm. Through a radio show on WOR, Ms. Herman encouraged many people to offer their services to volunteer organizations. “I haven’t slept for two days, we were so overwhelmed,” says Herman.

A company that had 20 trucks volunteered to help move food and supplies. Some 800 people dropped by the company’s offices with supplies.

One of the people who heard her show worked for East End Helicopters, which has four choppers. After the storm, the company had heard about roads that were impassable because of fallen trees and sand that was three feet deep. Then, first responders could not get to some communities because they could not get gasoline.

“That kicked us into high gear,” recounts Scialabba.

Shortly after they started making the mercy flights, one of his crew heard Herman’s radio show asking for yet more help. He told Scialabba, who called Herman.

“He offered to continue to fly the helicopters all week, as long as we supply the fuel,” says Herman who is trying to raise the money for that effort.

On Monday, East End, which got a load of fuel from DHL, got a call from the police on Fire Island, a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island.

“The police chief said they had no water, so we loaded one helicopter just with water,” recounts Scialabba. A second helicopter brought in other supplies.

Scialabba says he’s burning through his DHL fuel supply. He’s told Herman, “find a way to fund my fuel, and I’ll keep flying.”

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