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After the storm
Answering the call
Thousands of UFT members volunteer at evacuation sites to help victims of Hurricane Sandy
by Maisie McAdoo, Michael Hirsch, Joe LoVerde, Cara Metz and Paul Schickler | November 1, 2012 New York Teacher issue
While Hurricane Sandy was still swirling around the Caribbean, the UFT was already reaching out to members to tell them how they could volunteer when the storm hit New York.
And they volunteered — by the thousands. UFT members spent days and nights in 76 hurricane shelters, most in city public schools, helping however they could. They set up cots, delivered supplies, organized children’s activities, treated ill and fragile evacuees and even walked dogs.
“I want to thank the thousands of UFT members who volunteered in the schools that served as evacuation sites throughout the city,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote in a letter to members on Nov. 1. “Once again, our members stepped up when they were needed to help families and communities in need.”
As Sandy raged through the city, residents of Coney Island, Red Hook and other coastal areas of Brooklyn sought shelter in the John Jay HS building in Park Slope.
Teachers from nearby PS 321 were there, registering arrivals. A teacher from PS 10, also in the neighborhood, arrived at John Jay HS on Saturday and had yet to leave by Thursday. A guidance counselor from District 54 was in her fourth day, working the animal room. A school psychologist from PS 217 in Ditmas Park was being used as a “floater,” moving from one room to another as needed.
“Teachers have been going out day and night,” said PS 321 3rd-grade teacher Elissa Spencer. “These evacuation sites are staffed by a lot of teachers.”
Nurses were working around the clock as well, said Anne Goldman, a UFT special representative who leads the Federation of Nurses/UFT. Goldman said they were pulling consecutive 12- and 16-hour shifts at Staten Island University Hospital and Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, which became de facto shelters when residents couldn’t get to evacuation sites at schools.
Nurses were also going from house to house in the dark and cold to treat patients in their homes who could not be moved.
Among John Jay HS’s 150 residents were a 2-week-old infant, another 9-week-old baby, wheelchair-bound seniors and families with as many as five children. Joining teachers and volunteers from other city agencies, the building’s janitor, who lives in Staten Island, remained on duty day and night. The school’s kitchen staff prepared three hot meals a day, handed out milk to the children and warmed formula in the microwave.
Cara Metz Spencer and her colleague, 3rd-grade teacher Karyn Wulwick, arranged for the PS 321 band to perform at John Jay. “It gives parents a break and keeps morale up for people going through a tough situation,” said Spencer.
Ten blocks away, other teachers were working the overnight shift at the Park Slope Armory, which was serving as a medical center for nursing home residents from the Rockaways.
In Manhattan, Laura Wolverton, a 1st-grade teacher from PS 86 in the Bronx, walked from Hunter HS on 68th Street to the CUNY Baruch College campus on 23rd Street to help carry boxes and deliver food, hauling everything up the stairs after the elevators stopped working.
Teacher Center English language learner specialist Laura Daigen-Ayala headed over to George Washington HS in upper Manhattan, where arriving children were scared and disoriented. She called her neighbor, retired teacher Carole Mulligan, who brought over boxes of toys. They put three teenage girls to work setting up a library.
“I’m a volunteering person,” she said, though she resented being threatened with loss of vacation time if she didn’t show up.
Nick Norman, also a Teacher Center specialist, said he and other volunteers at his site were supposed to watch an orientation video, but no one knew how to work the school’s audiovisual equipment — except him.
“That was a teacher task,” he laughed. “I guess I was useful in some special way.”
On Staten Island’s beachfront areas, homes were flooded out and pulverized by the storm surge and high winds. Joanna Beltran, a teachers assistant at PS 42 in the Bronx, anticipated as much when she chose to volunteer at the Susan Wagner HS site near her sister’s home before the storm hit.
“It was heartbreaking,” Beltran said. “People coming in with no shoes or socks.”
Eleanor Jacobs, a paraprofessional at Staten Island’s Hungerford School, who brought along her son Justin, an 11th-grader at Susan Wagner, joined her on Sunday.
“We helped wherever needed,” said Jacobs, “whether it was putting blankets on babies or taking care of pets.”
As late as Nov. 2, there were 200 families still taking shelter at Tottenville HS, and many areas of the island remained without heat or light. Teachers at the school continued to staff the center, bringing in family members to help as well.
Jeff Pedersen, a UFT delegate at McKee Career and Technical Education HS, was designated manager of the Susan Wagner Evacuation Facility. No one was identified to lead the site ahead of time, so he took the helm.
Pedersen said a dozen UFT members joined more than 20 other volunteers working 12-hour shifts — although many stayed round the clock.
“It’s been one horror story after another,” Pedersen said.
When power went out during the height of the storm, Pedersen said, the some 500 displaced Staten Islanders who filled the center were in the dark with no phone service until backup generators arrived.
“Once you see what people are going through,” he said, “you have to keep coming back.”
This story was first published on UFT.org on Nov 3, 2012.
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