Better Than FEMA: Volunteers Clean Up Hurricane Sandy, Free of Charge

Respond & Rebuild is making sure Sandy-hit houses are free from water and mold so residents can reclaim their homes.
Waste dragged from the homes of Sandy survivors. (Photo: Respond & Rebuild)
Jan 3, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

House Republicans this week angered members of both parties when they concluded their Congressional session without voting on a federal aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s estimated that over 12,000 families are still displaced from their homes while others continue live in houses that are far from structurally sound.

As the political posturing in Washington continues, one group of citizen volunteers continues to spearhead the cleanup movement in Queens, without pay and free of charge to area residents.

Respond & Rebuild is quick to point out it’s not a charity, but a donation-based organization that's about "people helping other people." It began as a group of six friends, who between them, lay claim to over 30 years of disaster-response assistance, including sites like Katrina, Haiti, and a lengthy list of wildfires, epidemics, and floods.

MORE: Sandy Stories: Baby Walrus Saved But New York Aquarium Deluged

When Sandy hit in October of last year, Respond & Rebuild was onsite in the Rockaway area within 24 hours of the storm’s touchdown, armed with a few tools and lot of energy. Since then, with the help of hundreds of spontaneous volunteers, R&R has systematically cleared rotting rubble, dried out flooded homes and executed the complicated process of de-molding each one. It’s back-breaking demolition work that requires the tearing apart and rebuilding of the ground floors of storm-flooded houses.

Mold is a particular concern for Sandy survivors. The Center for Disease Control website reports that repeated exposure to it can exacerbate cardiovascular issues for those with chronic issues, like asthma, and studies are showing it can initiate asthma in previously healthy people.

But since they started, the group has so far managed to clean over 100 structures, work that’s sustained by volunteers, gifted tools and monetary donations. It costs R&R about $1,000 per house to gut and de-mold it, while private contractors have reportedly given locals estimates that top out at $15,000 per structure for the same work. Discounted though their work may be, the number of houses left to clean is going to cost R&R about a quarter of a million dollars. That's why the group is hoping its latest IndieGogo fund will supply the necessary resources for it to finish the job.

In the midst of all this elbow grease, many are turning a critical eye to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) for its inability to initiate the same level of cleanup efforts as what's essentially an ad-hoc group of citizen volunteers. According to the Village Voice, FEMA closed down its emergency-response stations and pulled out its personnel just nine days after the storm hit, long before most had electricity, warmth, or any sense of security. The reason? Bad weather.

Mary Comerio, a professor at UC Berkeley and a recognized international authority on post-disaster reconstruction issues, told TakePart that the problem with relying on the government for help is that in cases of major disasters, like Sandy, help just can’t come at the pace that people expect or need. "The federal government does a certain amount. FEMA does a lot, but it doesn’t cover everything. It pays for some amount of debris removal…but most of it [federal disaster relief funding] goes towards public infrastructure.”

Comerio says the discrepancy we run up against in times like Sandy or Katrina is that our federal budget really only covers disasters of a certain size like “the occasional tornado that hits a Midwestern town. We’re great at things like that, the smaller incidents. The bigger ones, we’re not equipped.”

And politicians aren’t helping. According to Comerio, in an effort to assuage the public, politicians often make public promises about relief efforts that aren’t possible to execute under federal mandates. “The reality of the current mandates are extremely limited. So the poor beaureaucrats have to come in after the politicians and say this is what we can actually do, and it’s never as much as what’s been promised.”

After a heated public backlash this week, House Republicans finally agreed to vote on the Sandy relief efforts over the course of two days, the first of which will happen this Friday, and the next on January 15. Whether those funds will put residents back in their homes or not remains to be seen, but regardless, Respond & Recovery seems intent on continuing, hopeful and unabated.

Do you think the federal government should be doing more to help residents back into their homes, or does a disaster of this magnitude simply require citizen-run assistance? Let us know in the Comments.