Spring 2014

Waves

Superstorm Sandy hit 24 different states and caused more than $60 billion in damage last October, leaving a wake of destruction that left many in the Saint Michael's family reeling, and others coming to their aid.

Kim Kennedy Miller '94 lives with her husband and four children in Long Beach, a community on New York's Long Island. Between Sunday evening, October 28 through Tuesday, October 30, the Millers lost their cars, children's toys and many sentimental and valuable personal items, and gained six feet of water in their basement. But they consider themselves lucky. After all, their house is still standing.

"We live in the center of Long Beach and the water came over the bulkhead and basically put the ocean right on our street," Miller recalled. "I remember saying to my husband that we needed life jackets. But, honestly, even if you prepared, I don't know what you could have done to prevent [the damage]. When I came back Wednesday, it was desolate. Everything was brown. The salt water kills everything. People never expected to lose their cars and their homes."

"Even if you prepared, I don't know what you could have done to prevent the damage...People never expected to lose their cars and their homes."
- Kim Kennedy Miller '94

Miller said, all things considered, her family has weathered the storm's fallout well. Her husband even managed to replace the irreplaceable by contacting Kim's friends from Saint Michael's and reconstructing several college-era photo albums that were destroyed by the flooding. The difficult part has been working with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) toward reimbursement for the destruction.

"We didn't have heat and hot water for a good month and with four little kids, that's not so easy," Miller said. "And it's been a nightmare trying to deal with insurance and FEMA. We're almost three months later, now, and so many people still haven't seen a penny. But the silver lining is that people really do help each other. We showered at our neighbor's houses and my kids though it was fun because they were going over to their friends'. Those are the things you need to learn to appreciate: how great hot water is, how my kids lost all their toys but understand that we still have our house and some of their friends don't. I'm not sure when kids learn these kinds of huge lessons, otherwise."

Up in Colchester, Vermont, the storm's effects were little more than high winds for a time. But memories of the devastation from Hurricane Irene the previous year remain fresh in Vermonter's minds and many were moved to return the help they received during that storm. The trouble was they couldn't get near the Tri-State area to do it.

"Ours was a measured response based upon what we believed the needs were," said Rev. Brian Cummings, SSE '86 of the college's efforts. "It took us a while to even figure out what we could do. There was no power in a lot of these places for an extended period and we couldn't send people down soon after because, heck, the National Guard was preventing even residents from entering some of the areas."

The college community was able to gather funds and use its Catholic connections to disseminate them to areas most in need. That included $2,000 collected from the worshipping community split between the Belmar Parish School and the Parish High School, which are both self-insured through their diocese and thus face large monetary shortfalls in reimbursement. The Edmundite Order made donations of its own: $1,000 to Staten Island's Notre Dame Academy to be used for students that may have difficulty paying tuition as a result (and matched by the Sisters of Notre Dame) and $2,000 to St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, which was also a matched gift.

"If I'm trying to instill values in our student body and there's a need that we can meet...to help improve people's conditions, then we absolutely do it."
- Fr. Brian Cummings SSE

"Our job here, first and foremost, is to educate students, not necessarily to be a relief agency," Cummings said. "But from a faith formation view, if I'm trying to instill values in our student body and there's a need that we can meet given the limited training of our students and staff in regards to disaster relief to help improve people's conditions, then we absolutely do it. We've worked hard to leverage our contacts and help give our students and staff avenues through which to respond."

Other members of the Saint Michael's community were more directly involved in response efforts by virtue of their careers.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," said Michelle Johnson '10, who worked on the front lines of Hurricane Sandy response for the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in New York City. "It was 12+ hour days with no days off. But I learned so much and grew a lot from it personally and professionally and I was glad to be in a position where I was helping people instead of being one that needed help. I could have easily been in that situation, too."

Johnson was a sociology/anthropology major at Saint Michael's and was inspired by her studies and work with immigrant communities to pursue an advanced degree in emergency management and disaster recovery. She found a small and focused program at the Metropolitan College of New York, where she is currently pursuing her master's degree, and a fellowship program at the school led her to her current position with OEM. It just so happened that she began shortly before Sandy's arrival, which allowed her to test and hone her skills almost immediately and in real time.

"I was glad to be in a position where I was helping people instead of being one that needed help. I could have easily been in that situation, too."
- Michelle Johnson '10

"It's pretty great and a little weird," Johnson said of her work. "Because when I majored in anthro and sociology, I didn't necessarily expect to be putting my studies directly to use in the real world. But the skills that I learned in those classes are extremely relevant. Cultural awareness, for example, is so important in this field and something, surprisingly, that a lot people don't have. The communities that have struggled the most with Sandy are the immigrant communities. Connecting with vulnerable populations is something they're really pushing in emergency management and my background has been really helpful."

Where Johnson's work during and after Sandy consisted largely of coordinating vital resource delivery (such as oxygen and blankets to powerless nursing homes), other Saint Michael's alumni were sifting through Sandy's rubble and doing their best to deploy those resources.

Patrick Lynch '95 is a member of the Massachusetts Urban Search & Rescue Task Force, which is mustered as part of the national search and rescue response system. His team was initially sent to Rainham, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut before being rerouted to the heavily-hit Howard Beach area in Queens, New York.

"It was fairly surreal to be in a hurricane-affected disaster zone where there was hurricane-style damage, high tidal surges, wave-damaged homes pushed off their foundations, cars upside-down, garage doors knocked in from waves, windows pushed in, you name it," Lynch said. "To see that and to look over your shoulder and see the Manhattan skyline, to be in NYC for hurricane response and see streets covered in sand…it was very odd."

Lynch's team coordinated with a number of other regionally deployed task forces, all under the direction of local incident commanders with the NYPD, FDNY and FEMA, to conduct searches of the Howard Beach, Rockaway and Staten Island communities. Most importantly, the search and rescue efforts were well-coordinated and diligently tracked using GPS-guided devices, allowing officials to account for every street in their area and avoid the kind of mass confusion that plagued post-Katrina efforts in New Orleans.

"It was very odd to look over your shoulder and see the Manhattan skyline, to be in NYC for hurricane response and see streets covered in sand..."
- Patrick Lynch '95

"Everyone was really grateful to hear someone walk up and say 'is everyone accounted for?'" Lynch said. "I think a lot of frustration came in the weeks after, where people were looking for cleanup and help putting the pieces back together. But our job was to be the initial boots on the ground and that's what we did."

Like Johnson, Lynch put in long hours during and following the storm, arriving on Monday and finally leaving on Thursday, punctuated by an average of four hours of sleep per night. And, like Johnson, Lynch credited his time at Saint Michael's, and specifically his involvement with the Fire & Rescue program, for getting him interested in helping and preparing him well for that work.

"It's an incredible program, it's very unique," he said of Fire & Rescue. "I've made some lifelong friends through it and it really gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment when you can literally save someone's life… the college puts out a spectacular group of young adults. I have a certain bias, of course, but I think that the students have a real edge up when they graduate, having made critical life decisions through that program. And in the work environment, when I see people getting stressed out, I generally stay pretty calm and say 'nothing's burning, nobody's dying.' My perspective from being involved in Fire & Rescue is invaluable."

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