A Call to Serve: Stevens Alumni Volunteer to Repair What Sandy Damaged

4/25/2013

Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, at approximately 8 p.m., causing storm surges in rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Winds reached hurricane-force levels at 110 mph at one point, knocking down telephone poles and trees. Homes were knocked off their foundations by the strong winds and powerful surges. The states of New York and New Jersey have asked the federal government for $60.4 billion in aid. The impact of Sandy will be felt for years to come, as communities begin the task of rebuilding. Hardest hit areas include the Breezy Point section in Queens, New York; towns along the Jersey Shore, and of course, Hoboken, N.J., where half the homes were flooded. Many Stevens alumni volunteered in the wake of Sandy to help communities with relief efforts. Some have shared their experiences.

Dick McCormack ’53 was sitting on the back deck of his La Jolla, California, home in late October, ready to enjoy a Bloody Mary when he heard and saw a TV news program about a woman from Breezy Point, Queens, N.Y. The woman’s home was destroyed by a fast-moving fire that ultimately destroyed 129 homes in the beachfront community, home to many members of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). She began to cry heavily as she told TV viewers of the complete loss of her home and her possessions. She spoke of the devastation for herself and her neighbors. Something stirred in McCormack.

“I’m sitting on the deck, watching this woman on TV who has lost everything, and I thought to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here having a Bloody Mary when people out there have lost so much?’ ’’ McCormack said.  So McCormack, who has special memories of Breezy Point, decided to do something. He bought a plane ticket, and decided he was going to help people in that community recover.

This past December, he spent more than a week volunteering his time with “Operation Gut and Pump,’’ a volunteer-based group that helped assess the damage and prep salvageable homes in the first few weeks after Sandy. GNP volunteers worked with Breezy Point residents to determine what damage was done to their homes and then began the hard, physical work of ripping out sheetrock and removing wet flooring, ultimately reducing homes to the studs, all to minimize mold damage caused by floodwaters. GNP volunteers, who were made up of area residents, New York firefighters, and anyone willing to help, provided the free service to residents. It was a huge undertaking because in addition to hundreds of flooded homes, rising sea water made its way into electrical systems at a home, sparking a massive fire. The fire grew and burned for several hours, as rising flood waters prevented responders from extinguishing the flames. In all, the fire destroyed 129 homes and damaged 22 others.

McCormack worked about eight hours a day for eight days, helping with GNP. He laughed while he described his deluxe accommodations in New York – a “dive’’ motel room that cost him $120 a night and the pleasure of paying $6.50 a day in tolls, his traveling expenses to and from the motel to the site. But no expense could keep him away. He knew he had to come, had to do something.

Breezy Point was a place that was very familiar to McCormack. The Irish Riviera, as it was once known, was where he spent his summers as a lifeguard and cabana boy, fetching towels and drinks for sunbathers. He grew up in Brooklyn, but his first girlfriend lived in Breezy Point and had a lot of friends from the area. So when he first heard of the one-two punch the area took in late October, first from storm waves and then from fires, memories resurfaced of those carefree summers of his youth.

“The houses were really summer bungalows built without insulation and one-story tall,’’ he said, during a tour of the devastated area he once knew so well. And the houses were built very close to one another, he explained. Fire is a devastating thing, but the Breezy Point fires were especially devastating, he said, because three firehouses are within a small radius of the homes that burned. The storm surge produced floodwaters that were four feet deep, making the roads to the site impassable. Miraculously, no one on Breezy Point was killed in the storm or the fires.

So why did McCormack, 82, leave the comforts of his southern California home, travel 3,000 miles and pay for hotel rooms, food and tolls out of his own pocket?  “I just wanted to help out any way I could,’’ he said.

And help out he did. During his eight-day volunteer effort, he helped manage the work orders the residents filled out and also went to various sites to check on progress. On the weekends soon after the fires, as many as 600 volunteers would show up, ready and eager to help. Coordinators were needed to make sure the volunteer efforts were put to good use, that people who needed the help would get it quickly.

McCormack is humble when talking about his role, referring to himself as one pair of hands among the thousands that are needed to get the area back up and running. McCormack, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, owns RAMCO Consulting Company and has enjoyed a long career in the energy industry, tells a memorable story of one resident he met. This woman had her electricity finally restored after weeks without it. So she bought an electric heater to fight the cold nights. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to put it together. A GNP volunteer told her the group couldn’t help her with the assembly, and she left in tears. When McCormack found out what kind of help the woman needed, he caught up with her and offered his help. He said he thought to himself, “OK, Mr. Power Engineer, you’d better know how to get this thing up and running.’’ And after a few tries, he did. 

Walking along the narrow pathways of Breezy Point, rubble sits everywhere, and it provides a glimpse into the life of a beachfront community now damaged from fire and water: a rusted out bicycle, some waterlogged books, pieces of charred furniture, appliances blackened from soot. But these things can be easily replaced, McCormack said. It’s the ruined or lost pictures that most people are saddened by, he said, the tangible memories that can’t be so easily replaced. “(The residents) cry over the lost personal belongings,’’ he said. “That’s what they find most difficult to accept.”

Breezy Point wasn't the only area damaged by Sandy. Staten Island’s Tottenville neighborhood was also hard hit. Keith Cassidy ’09 lives in Hoboken, and has no personal connection to Staten Island, but decided to spend time volunteering in this outer borough of New York. Why not help out in his badly-damaged hometown? “I knew that Hoboken was well taken care of when I saw all of the Stevens students out volunteering,’’ he said.

Days before the storm, weather reports had predicted that Hoboken would be hit hard due to the Hudson River surging, and Hoboken’s mayor ordered evacuations of garden or basement apartments.

The day before Sandy hit, Cassidy spent the day packing. He put his important documents, his laptop and other irreplaceable items in his car and drove to the home of Katie ’09 and Phil Gengler ’05 in New Providence, N.J., to ride it out. Cassidy hoped that by leaving, he would minimize his loss.

He was one of the lucky ones: his home, which is a first-floor unit but raised slightly above street level, sustained no damage, while condos a few feet away had their front doors ripped off the hinges from the force of the storm surge. While in New Providence, his hosts’ home lost electricity for more than a week. He came back to Hoboken two days after the storm to survey the damage, and was awe-struck by what he saw. He knew he had to do something, anything to help. A co-worker told him of a group, Movement for Peace, an organization which was traveling from Michigan to Staten Island to help with the rebuilding effort. Cassidy knew where he would volunteer his time.

Less than a week after Sandy hit, Cassidy spent a full day volunteering in Staten Island. On Brighton Street in Tottenville, he helped cook and assemble meals for volunteers and residents who needed a hot meal. He knew his act of kindness would help the badly-damaged area recover, slowly but surely. Residents, with and without power, shared what they had, everything from cans of soup to trays of baked ziti. Weeks after that day, Cassidy is still amazed at the generosity of those he met.

“It was great seeing the community come together,’’ he said. But it wasn't easy at times. A message board featured pictures of those missing from the neighborhood.  “The toughest part was seeing the board,’’ he admitted. “But we managed that day to find the best in people, people who were either helping to clean up or giving us cans of chicken noodle or chicken rice soup to combine into a big pot to share with everyone.’’

The Stevens community also came together many times over to help their Hoboken neighbors. Scores of Stevens students pitched in to help the Mile Square City during the storm, as President Nariman Farvardin mentioned in an alumni email in early November. Without power, elevators in high-rises were dormant and elderly and disabled residents were stuck in their apartments with little food, no drinking water and limited access to replenish supplies. Students immediately volunteered to help Hoboken residents, with many spending their days walking up as many as 25 flights of steps to deliver food, medicine and bottled water to residents. Other students assisted National Guard members who were deployed to the city.

Cassidy has lived in Hoboken for nine years, and has visited family in Hoboken since he was born. And he beams with pride when he mentions all the volunteer work Stevens students did during the storm. “It was great seeing Stevens students out and about, doing what they needed to do for Hoboken,’’ he said.

Corey Milloy ’09 was one of many assisting in Hoboken. Milloy rents a fourth-floor apartment on Washington Street in Hoboken. The day after Sandy hit, Milloy delivered meals, flashlights and bottled water to the elderly and shut-ins in high-rises. He spent another day running a shelter for those displaced from the storm.

The day of the storm, his apartment lost power, but did not sustain any water damage. He went to Hoboken City Hall to see how he could help out and was told that supplies were needed by people in shelters and high-rises throughout the city. Milloy, with a team of about 15-20 others, delivered what was needed to those shut-ins.

“One of the things we did was take down prescriptions for people (to be called into pharmacies) and gave them bottles of water,’’ he said. “We also gave out flashlights.’’

He also took note of what supplies were needed. While many supplies were donated by stores and individuals, Milloy noticed that some things were desperately needed, but not donated. So he and his girlfriend spent their own money to buy these forgotten items: adult diapers, D and C batteries, over-the-counter medications and toiletries. He then brought them to a shelter on his way home on each of the three days he volunteered.

“Baby diapers were plentiful, but people seemed to forget about adult diapers,’’ he said. On his second day of volunteering, he worked at the Wallace School, which was turned into a makeshift shelter for about 50 people who could not return home. From midnight to 8 a.m., he prepped the shelter for breakfast, made coffee and took inventory of what was needed for the morning shift.

With no damage to his apartment or belongings, Milloy considers himself fortunate, but the storm taught him several lessons, the most important being to never laugh off the capabilities of Mother Nature.

“I completely underestimated this storm,’’ he said candidly. “When (Hurricane) Irene hit (in August 2011), I was more prepared. And then nothing really happened. I thought with Sandy we would get a lot of water. I didn’t give any thought about losing electricity, and not being able to see.’’

Another lesson learned from Sandy is in his right pocket. He pulls out a small, black flashlight attached to his key ring that he carries constantly.

“Next time, I’ll be better prepared. I’m going to listen to the weather reports,’’ he said. In the future, he’s planning to keep a supply of canned food in his apartment and is thinking about ways to possibly generate and store his own solar power.

Anne Dutreuil ’10, a business analyst for the corporate offices of Bed, Bath & Beyond, is friends with many Stevens community members on Facebook. She lives in West New York, N.J., and saw the request from Student Life employees on Facebook to help the City of Hoboken. She couldn’t resist the desire to help.

“I was born in Haiti and I consider Stevens to be my second home, my family. I was very involved with APO (Alpha Phi Omega, the service organization at Stevens) and with STEP (Stevens Technical Enrichment Program) while a student, so I like helping out when I can,’’ Dutreuil said. “I was happy to do it.’’

Dutreuil spent a full day walking up many floors in blackened buildings to help stranded residents, mostly checking to see that they were OK and that they had enough water and medicine for a few days. The highest number of floors she walked up? Eleven. “I didn’t do it at once,’’ she laughed. “I took some pauses.’’ 

Tim Lurie ’90 was a councilman representing Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., when Sandy hit. He spent days going around to area homeowners, helping them throw out wet furniture and sheetrock. He estimates flood waters reached as high as four feet.

Lurie also spent time checking on those residents who defied the mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. “I don’t know how they survived,’’ he said. “The flood waters were knocking on their doors. Parts of  town that never flood were under water because of the tidal surges.’’

He relays the story of an older couple in town who hugged him and told him they were glad to see him when he arrived to help. “There was such tremendous devastation, all that debris on the curb’’ after the cleanup, he said. Lurie is also proud of the sense of community that Sandy instilled. “We all banded together to help (because) we’re neighbors,’’ he said.

Both McCormack and Milloy mention how the storm has changed what they view as really important in life. “Seeing the people who lost so much, the devastation, it really puts things into perspective for you, that your problems are so small,’’ McCormack said.

Milloy echoed those sentiments. While at the Wallace School Shelter the night after Sandy hit, he met a woman with her newborn. They had to flee their Downtown Hoboken apartment due to the floodwater and came to the shelter with only the clothes on their backs. Talking to her and hearing about her tremendous loss reminded Milloy about having perspective in life.

He’s now on a first-name basis with his neighbors. He’s gotten more involved with his community. “I never knew my neighbors until Sandy hit,’’ he said.

For Milloy, who has been thinking of buying a home in Hoboken, Sandy provided one valuable tip no realtor could ever have advised him: “No garden apartments for me,’’ he said.

Read more about Stevens and Sandy at /news/sandy.