The floodwaters have receded. The emergency shelters have been emptied. Life in the northeastern United States is slowly being restored and rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy roared up the east coast six months ago.
However, the recovery isn't finished, and one Aiken resident who ventured north with the American Red Cross immediately after Sandy made impact worries the storm's victims are being forgotten.
Sandy, which reached peak intensity as a Category 3 storm, affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard, with particularly severe damage in New York and New Jersey. It caused an estimated $71 billion of damage in the United States.
'A long-term process'
Debra Day, an Aiken resident and longtime volunteer with the American Red Cross, went to New York immediately after Sandy hit and stayed there for about four weeks.
“A lot of people are forgetting about it, or they think the recovery process is finished,” she said. “It's not finished. This is gonna be a long-term process. This is one of the largest domestic responses we've had.”
According to Day, the response to a disaster like Sandy comes in stages, the first of which is emergency response.
“Making sure they're being fed, they've got clothing, they've got some place to sleep,” said Day, who was a case worker for client services. “My responsibility was to deal with the clients on a one-on-one basis to find out their needs at the time.”
Being a case worker was an exercise in being compassionate but not getting invested in other people's affairs, Day said. “You have to stay on track and listen to their devastating stories without allowing yourself to get emotionally involved,” she said. “You have to pick up on everything they need.”
An average day consisted of waking up, driving to the response site (which was about two hours from where the responders were staying) and interviewing people at the site, or going door-to-door to find out what people needed, according to Day. She would then relay the order to an “emergency hotspot,” a warehouse that stored items people may need, including blankets, clothing and cleanup kits. Often, the items could be delivered to a response site within 24 hours.
'They've lost their houses'
Day described the devastation left by the hurricane as “horrid.” Some houses were knocked off their foundations like toys; others were smashed to splinters. Many remained standing but were completely gutted.
“The houses – the insides are completely destroyed. Mold was already starting to set in,” she said. “They've lost their houses. All the walls and floors are gone. They can save the structure of their homes, (but) all that's gonna have to be treated.”
Roadways resembled large trenches, with debris – from sheetrock and flooring to furniture and possessions – piled up on either side.
“The area was devastated, yet we still had to get people to do the work,” Day said.
After the first emergency response stage comes the next stage of recovery – transition. The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the Red Cross to continue working to get victims out of shelters and into permanent housing, according to Day. Some large businesses and companies aided people by providing security and utility deposits and helping victims fill out paperwork.
'Ready for the next disaster'
Currently, there are no more emergency shelters open in the Sandy-affected areas, Day said. FEMA and other government partners are still working to get people into permanent homes.
“It's been a real long, long process and we've still got a long way to go,” Day said.
One way Aikenites can help is by joining or donating to one of several funds and organizations providing aid to Sandy victims, Day said. These include the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, the Robin Hood Foundation and Operation Hope.
You can also become a volunteer and responder, which Day said is important to be prepared for the next disaster.
Organizations such as the Red Cross provide training and skills, including first aid, CPR and basic disaster classes, said Day, who is cross-trained in multiple divisions. Other divisions include logistics, shelter and disaster action. It typically takes four to six months to be ready to respond to a disaster.
Once disaster strikes, the national headquarters contact every division and tell them what is needed to respond, according to Day. For example, the call would go to the Columbia office. From there, the branch offices – including Aiken – would be contacted, and individual volunteers would be contacted to check on their volunteer status.
Day said volunteers are typically asked to leave within 24 hours of receiving the call. A longtime volunteer with the Red Cross, she's responded to a number of horrific disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August 2005.
“Because of the density of the population up there, I thought it was worse than Katrina, and several of us said that,” she said of the damage caused by Sandy.
For Day, disaster response is about more than being a volunteer – it's about being an American.
“That's what we do in America. We do not let our brothers and sisters down,” she said. “You'd be ready for the next disaster. That's what we need in America, is for people to be ready for the next tragedy, the next disaster.”
• Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.