Friday, April 27, 2012

“…the Red Cross responded in a powerful way.”

Monica Tomtania, pastor at the Assembly of God church in the Bronx, was on her way to a wedding when she received a call that her apartment, on the second floor of a house also located in the Bronx, was on fire. By the time she rushed back, the three-story building was engulfed in flames.

Tomtania could only stand and watch firefighters struggle to save the building.

In the midst of the disaster, Tomtania saw the Red Cross arrive. At first, Tomtania did not accept services from the Red Cross, since she was eager to attend the wedding reception. Despite feeling sick from the fire’s smoke, she returned to the reception, then stayed the night with member of the congregation and preached her Sunday service the following morning.

Photos by Liz Borda

Soon after, Tomtania called the Red Cross for support. She was given emergency housing at a local hotel and referred to regional headquarters in Manhattan. There, she met with a Red Cross caseworker and received emergency financial assistance.

“I came in and the service is excellent,” Tomtania said. “You are doing a great job. With all the disasters happening around the world, the Red Cross responded in a powerful way.”

Tomtania, originally from Togo, Africa, had seen the work of the Red Cross before, when her oldest sister served as a fire service officer in Ghana. But she never expected a response in her own neighborhood.

“I read a little bit about Red Cross,” she said, “But I never knew I would be here….You’re doing a great job.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Moving On

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Photo: Ian Favilla
They say moving on isn’t easy. Well, they’d be right. My husband and I found ourselves “moving on” quite a lot after the fire in our apartment building. We were effectively nomads for almost a year. Most of our possessions were destroyed and would have to be replaced eventually. But our most pressing need was finding a place to live while our apartment was being rebuilt.

Finding a temporary home was difficult enough, but finding one that could accommodate our indefinite timeline was even more daunting. In fact, we didn’t find one, not just one anyway. It would take four temporary homes (and five moves between them) to fill the time between the fire and our return home.

First we moved in with my brother-in-law who lived walking distance from our Elmhurst, Queens apartment. We stayed with him for just the first two or three nights after the fire. Then we were taken in by two friends in a Union Square, Manhattan apartment with an extra bedroom for a month. And then, just as our time in Union Square was ending, through a friend of a friend, we found a place we could stay in for a few months—a beautiful one-bedroom apartment in Long Island City, Queens. It was time to move again.

With this next move, we got a bit creative. New York City had been inundated with snow, and as a result a good parking spot was hard to find. With alternate side of the street parking rules suspended, I could leave my car parked where it was indefinitely, so I devised a plan to move without moving my car—a plan that would remove the pressure and time-consumption of repeatedly looking for a convenient parking space in a snow-coated city. I decided to leave the car in Union Square until the final leg of the move.

Never underestimate the efficacy of public transportation. That’s how I made the majority of move three: Union Square to Long Island City (LIC). Instead of driving, I took the subway. I packed our stuff into a large, thick garbage bag to keep things clean and dry on the slushy streets, and then I put everything into a shopping cart.

Thankfully, both the Union Square and LIC train stations were a very short walk from their respective apartments. And I didn’t have to negotiate any stairs, because both stations were equipped with elevators. Once on the train I could relax and read for the thirty-minute (or less) ride (instead of dealing with NYC traffic—or drivers), and when I arrived at my destination, I didn’t have to spend time looking for a parking spot. The shopping cart was pretty big, but it still could only hold so much (much less than a carful). So, I had to make a lot of trips back and forth—but thank goodness for unlimited MetroCards!

What an odd first impression we must have made. I can only imagine what the doormen at the LIC apartment thought of us given how we moved in. On day one, they saw me coming in every hour or two with a full garbage bag-lined shopping cart. I must have made at least six or seven trips like that. I imagine I looked like a persistent hobo to them.

That weekend, they saw my husband and me bringing in closetful after closetful of dry-cleaning—everything from suits to undershirts to bed sheets. What they must have thought of that! And in the weeks (and months) that followed, they witnessed us receiving as many as four or five boxes of deliveries on a regular (almost daily) basis. Odder still, they didn’t see us bring in a single piece of furniture until we’d already been there for a month.

The apartment was already furnished with everything but a bed when we moved in. Our insurance company provided us with one, but it took a month for the logistics of that to be resolved. We slept on an air mattress that first month.

It was only later that we befriended the now understandably quizzical doormen and shared our situation: that there had been a fire in our building, that we were living nomadically until our apartment was rebuilt, that almost all of our clothes had gone to the dry-cleaners not because we were pretentious or lazy, but because they had a special process to remove the soot stains and smoke smell, and that all of the deliveries were due to us trying to replace as much as we could—everything from sneakers to shower curtain rings to books.

That Long Island City apartment was an oasis in our nomadic journey. It is where we spent the most time. We were able to grow roots there—however shallow. It almost felt like home. In fact, we thought we were almost home. That it would only be a short matter of time. Oh how wrong we were, but we didn’t know it then. Instead, we moved to Long Island City confident that this was our penultimate stop, and that our next move would take us back home.

As was our time in Union Square, our stay in Long Island City was full of blessings. First and foremost was that we could stay there for almost six months. Having such a long stretch of time there made our lives as a whole feel much less temporary and uncertain. We were able to build a routine and treat it as home—a home we didn’t have to share with anyone. Thanks to the generosity of our renter’s insurance policy, this was an apartment we wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to afford. We enjoyed the amenities that were luxuries to us: a doorman, a balcony, a gym, a view. There were also unexpected sources of entertainment: the pool table in the rec room and the impossible to ignore fights between the couple living next door.

All in all, we were happy. After the fire, everything had felt like it was happening in fast forward. Decisions had to be made, forms had to be filled out, we moved three times in the first two months. But with six months to get comfortable, it felt as though someone had benevolently pressed pause. Now we could find a reasonably paced routine for our lives and just live. We didn’t feel so much like victims anymore. We weren’t home yet, but we were closer. And that proximity made us feel more normal.

Some of our losses were intangible and took a bit longer to recognize, I’ll reflect on those in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“I thank the Red Cross for their availability during this crisis.”

James Clark, Grandview Palace resident
Retired businessman James Clark had just returned to his home at the Grandview Palace condominiums in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., after a trip to the west coast when the fire alarm went off on April 14.

“It has gone off before so I chose to ignore it,” he said.

Moments later, someone started to pound on Clark’s door, telling him to get out. He grabbed a sweater and ran out.

“The fire was so threatening,” he said. “You could hear the structure collapsing. It was disorienting to see the buildings consumed by the fire and the intensity of the fire. It was a horrific experience.”

The fire destroyed Clark’s home, as well as close to 400 other units in the condo complex.

Clark came to the Red Cross shelter at Sullivan County Community College for help with the paperwork he needed to complete in the wake of the fire.

“I thank the Red Cross for their presence,” he said. “For the help with all the forms I had to fill out, the fact that there’s food available … that’s very helpful, especially when you’ve lost everything.”

Friday, April 13, 2012

STORIES FROM THE FIELD: Red Cross Tornado Relief in Sellersburg, Indiana

After recent devastating tornadoes in Indiana in March, Greater New York Red Cross volunteer Eddie McQuillan was deployed to the IVY TEC Center in Sellersburg, Ind. as a Red Cross public affairs supervisor. Here are some stories from the field Eddie put together during his time in Indiana.  
Henryville, Indiana, two weeks after
the early March tornados of 2012.
Henryville, Ind. is a small town about 15 minutes north (on Rt. 65) of the Ohio River that splits the two states, Kentucky and Indiana. On the Kentucky side, the city of Louisville. Hence people say “Kentucky-ana” or “India-tucky,” depending which side of the river they hail from.
This little roadside house sits on the main corner of the town. Behind it are bowl-like hillsides that show a clear path of destruction. This corridor of devastation is covered in blue tarps, littered with downed trees and flung with assorted debris.  
 This little house stood up to the storm and shows its scars. 

The high school

Behind and to the left is the high school. The gym roof has been ripped off and it also looks like it has a collapsed wall. The photo was taken was from a hillside field before entering town. It shows the effects of an F2 tornado (a "significant tornado" on the Fujita Scale; F2 tornadoes can produce wind speeds of 150 mph) crossing a field and slamming into a building. This is a fully engineered building made of steel beams, concrete and cinder block. 
The church.
Behind and to the right is a church and the first stoplight at the four comers of Henryville. I stopped there and spoke to the pastor and his wife, along with a small group of church volunteers who were getting a little lunch.
The church and parking lot were operating as a Point of Distribution (“POD” in Emergency Management talk), a place people receive donated goods and services. These spring up spontaneously after disasters and are great resources to help community members get back on their feet. Most are run by the volunteer community or organized by faith-based groups.
At the POD I delivered some Red Cross flyers encouraging the local residents to visit the Sellersburg Service Center located at the Ivy Tech College (just on the other side of the Rt. 65 interchange) and the Underwood Service Center.
The folks here seemed to be pleased to have the Red Cross in their town helping out and offering services. That was a good sign. But I hadn’t met any clients yet, and I had just come from the Tech Center. Nobody from the community was there. Had we reached everybody already? We’d been in town two weeks. Not likely.
People in small towns tend to stay with family and friends, so Red Cross shelters were closed. Most people were (I guessed) just catching their breath after two weeks. This was a sunny, warm weekend. A good time to do some clean up, and there was still too much of that to do. Residents would have to self-identify, to show up to the service centers, and ask for help. Not an easy thing for anybody to do.
I’ve seen this before.
Last year I had the privilege to serve in the Red Cross response to the tornados in Alabama and later in Joplin, Missouri. Some were big towns like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham; others were little towns like Hacklesburg and Phil Campbell, Ala. The devastation there was catastrophic.
Here too, in places, it looked much the same. Thankfully there hadn’t been any loss of life here in Henryville and neighboring Marysville.
The early part of an incident is the “response phase.” That’s when police, fire and EMS pour into the towns to help the injured, performing first aid and rescue operations, restoring order and assessing the full scope of the disaster. Two weeks on, these folks were into the “recovery phase,” the long slog of clean-up and getting back to a new normal.
The aftermaths of natural disasters are dirty, dusty and overwhelming. The reality of not being able to restore things to the way they were sinks in. People crash after two weeks of running on adrenalin, fixing things and caring for people.
About now is when people are tired, testy and just want it all to go away. This is a tough wall to climb when you’re exhausted and know you can’t do it all yourself.
The pride of a little house stands as a backdrop to this effort.
Red Cross volunteer Bethany Dusseou talks about how a family she met made it through the tornadoes that struck their community

First-time volunteer Bethany Dusseou from Indiana
registered people for Red Cross assistance
at the Underwood Service Center..
A 62-year Indiana resident told Bethany how she and her grandson ran into their dug-out shelter just minutes after hearing tornado alerts on TV. The grandmother remembered that the door was off the shelter. She said and friends used to play in it when she was young; they’d swing on the door, and it had fallen off years earlier.

The grandmother described watching with her grandson through the open door as the tornado came through and destroyed their mobile home. It then came back and spun everything around again.

When the tornado finally passed, they tried to find their home, but it was gone. They walked around thinking they would find a big part of it, but it was literally broken into small pieces.

They told Bethany, that’s when they decided to go for help. But they couldn’t get down the road because of trees and “big stuff” in the road that they were unable to move.

They decided to drive through the woods the cross the creek behind what had been their mobile home. The Grandmother drove the pickup; her grandson walked out in front in the water, looking for stumps or deep holes. It took them some time to find other people; when they did, nobody knew what to do. Cell phones didn’t work and it was getting dark. They went back across the creek.

The grandmother told Bethany she had a feeling she should return to her house, even though it literally wasn’t there anymore. When they got back, family members, fearing the worst, were searching the woods for her and her grandson.

The grandmother reported having a tearful reunion when they found each other. She said she and her family thank the Red Cross for listening and being there to help them at the service center.

Bethany was able to offer direct assistance to the grandmother and her grandson, helping them get food and temporary housing through the Red Cross.

“I’m glad I joined the Red Cross and deployed here to Henryville,” Bethany said. “Being here to listen and give assistance has made me feel that as a volunteer, I’m part of something that really helps people.”


Family Receives Red Cross Help after Indiana Tornado

Tabitha P., her mom and three boys, register
for Red Cross assistance at the
Ivy Tech Center in Sellersburg, Ind.
"We were really lucky,” Tabitha said, “a lot of people have it a lot worse. At first we didn’t think we needed help, but when we got back to the house, it was still a really big mess.”

Red Cross caseworkers helped guide Tabitha and her mom through the process of registering for Red Cross services, and explaining what type of services they would qualify for.

“I’m glad we came down here to do this,” Tabitha said. “It’s not easy asking for help. I would tell people it’s been good to come here; it’s helped us to heal and little, and the Red Cross volunteers have been great.”

Photos and story by Ed McQuillan
Public Affairs Supervisor DRO KY/IN TOR

Thursday, April 5, 2012

“I’m eternally grateful for the care and concern the Red Cross gave me.”

LeRoy Alexander
by Gemma Haywood

While many people were enjoying the opportunity to relax over the long Presidents Day weekend, LeRoy Alexander was dealing with the aftermath of a devastating fire at his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which destroyed 90% of his belongings.

“Keep your eyes on your fries”

LeRoy, whose passion is performance poetry, wasn’t feeling well that night. After putting on some French fries to cook on his gas stove, he went to lie down for a moment, inadvertently fell asleep, and awoke to see his kitchen engulfed.

“All you could see was smoke,” he said. “If you’re cooking, keep your eyes on your fries.”

Then began a frantic effort to get out of the fourth floor apartment. LeRoy’s neighbor tried to force the front door open from the outside, but the lock had become jammed. As smoke filled the apartment LeRoy was disorientated, trying to find a way out.

The electricity failed, leaving half of the apartment in darkness, and LeRoy had to make his way around from memory while struggling to breathe. He managed to make it back to his bedroom, and, wearing just a shirt, he climbed onto the fire escape and made it safely to his neighbor’s window.

His neighbor gave him a pair of shorts, and as emergency services arrived, LeRoy was taken to hospital where he stayed several hours. It was a frightening and confusing time.

After being released from the hospital, LeRoy stayed with his cousin in the Bronx, who contacted the Red Cross and asked for assistance.

Red Cross Responds

The following evening a team of Red Cross responders met LeRoy at his apartment in Brooklyn.

The fire department had quickly contained the previous night’s fire, which meant some of LeRoy’s belongings had survived. The Red Cross team accompanied LeRoy into the charred apartment with flashlights to collect whatever was salvageable. LeRoy packed a small suitcase and was relieved to find his watch and mobile phone, and to finally have a change of his own clothes.

LeRoy called the help he received from the Red Cross “invaluable.” The Red Cross arranged for him to stay in a hotel and provided him with self-heating meals to see him through the weekend. Finally he was advised to visit Red Cross headquarters to speak with a Red Cross caseworker about next steps.

The fire had left LeRoy feeling distraught but after a few nights in the hotel he felt reinvigorated and better able to deal with the situation. After the weekend, LeRoy did visit Red Cross headquarters to meet with a client caseworker. He said the caseworker was, “patient, professional, caring,” and went the extra mile to ensure that his needs would be dealt with.

Looking forward

LeRoy is unsure whether he will ever be able to return to his apartment, but he is pleased that the Red Cross was there to help him.

LeRoy had heard that the Red Cross helps New York residents whose buildings have caught fire, but “You’re only peripherally aware of the Red Cross until it touches your life,” he said. “Nobody understands the depth of caring that the Red Cross provides until it happens to them. I’m eternally grateful for the care and concern that the Red Cross gave me.”

LeRoy Alexander, Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

“The Red Cross was like a guardian angel.”

Diana Perez
by Laura Steifman

Diana Perez is the matriarch of a 12-person extended family that lives together on the second floor apartment of a private house in Queens, New York. One day about noon, Perez’s 23-year old son came upstairs from doing laundry and reported smelling smoke.

Though the five family members who were home at the time couldn’t immediately see the smoke, they could smell it, so they vacated the apartment and called the fire department.

Firefighters broke into the first floor of the house and found smoke coming from the wall. They determined the fire to be electrical, extinguished it, and gave the family clearance to go back upstairs.

A short time later, however, the family discovered more smoke issuing from the attic.

“It was seeping through the walls, the stairs, the closet, and up to the roof,” said Perez.

Once again, the family fled the house and called 911. This time, they were not so lucky.

“We watched from the front of the house as the building burned,” Perez said. “I cried. I was so scared because we don’t have any other family to go to; it’s just us living together.”

Although the family’s second floor apartment was destroyed, “The Red Cross was like a guardian angel,” Perez said. “If it weren’t for them we would have to stay on the street. God bless that Red Cross responder. She helped calm me down and told me how to explain it to the kids.”

The Red Cross provided the Perez family with emergency housing in a hotel, as well as financial assistance for basic needs.

“And now they are helping us figure out what to do next,” said Perez. “I never knew the Red Cross did this. We thought it was just for big disasters or the blood bank. Now I have a better understanding of the Red Cross. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Diana Perez, Queens, N.Y.