York County volunteers return from helping Superstorm Sandy victims

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comDecember 1, 2012 

Cotton Howell

Streets covered in sand, tunnels flooded with saltwater and mountains of debris piled in public parks now cover much of the landscape a month after Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast, Cotton Howell said after returning from a two-week stay in New York City.

Howell, York County’s emergency management director, supervised medical operations at makeshift healthcare and treatment clinics since Sandy shut down most hospitals in Long Island, Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y.

Normally when Howell is sent to a disaster, he coordinates body recovery as the regional director for fatality management. This time, the National Disaster Medical System, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, asked him to make sure medical staff – many of whom lived in trucks and tents as they treated people “round-the-clock” – had the supplies they needed.

Staff members used portable toilets and showers. They provided emergency care in austere environments, forced to deal with “a lot of long hours, hard work,” Howell said.

The people affected by Sandy are “resilient,” but, “going through a grieving process,” he said. “Many of them have lost their homes, many of them have lost their jobs. They look down the street and all their support mechanisms: the people from church, the people from school, everyone that’s normally there to support each other when something happens to them as an individual, they’re impacted too.

“They’re all victims.”

Conditions in the Northeast are slowly improving, Howell said, but “traumatized” New York and New Jersey residents have years of recovery ahead of them.

Crews are working to restore power one home at a time, Howell said,

But many people, he said, are still without heat, electricity and food – “and, it’s cold. It’s an environment that we’ve seen before in many other hurricanes, but not in an area that’s so densely populated…and (where) everything is so dependent on public transportation.”

“The way that people would normally get to a grocery store” is blocked, he said, and motorists, unable to maneuver across damaged roads and bridges, are handicapped.

Even with emergency vehicles, Howell said a 10-mile trip had to be planned at least three hours in advance. Gas rationing ended last week.

Droves of American Red Cross volunteers have responded to help, including some from the tri-county South Carolina area.

“There are still a lot of people calling Red Cross seeking services; they don’t know exactly where to turn,” said Katherine Correll, director of the Upper Palmetto Chapter of the American Red Cross, which serves York, Chester and Lancaster counties.

The chapter sent 10 volunteers to help with relief. Some are still helping with shelters, many of which have closed now that storm victims are returning home, Correll said.

Mitch Truesdale, a Rock Hill volunteer with the emergency response vehicle team, delivered meals, comfort kits, blankets and bottled water to people in Middletown, N.Y., and parts of Long Island for three weeks.

While stationed at parks and picnic shelters, Truesdale and his team delivered 3,300 lunches and 3,300 dinners per day for nine days. Around Nov. 11, that dropped down to 600 meals, lunch and dinner, each day.

Some of them had running water. Others didn’t. “It varied,” he said.

He met an elderly couple that refused to leave their pets and home for fear of looters. The woman, he said, was shivering.

“It was a major disaster,” he said. “This just knocked everything out...out of kilter up there.”

For many victims, waiting for help to reach them is excruciating when they see things restored to other neighborhoods but not theirs, Howell said.

“You’ve got the largest systems and resources in the world there and it was overwhelmed – completely overwhelmed,” Howell said. “When you look at something that cripples all of lower Manhattan, that’s pretty devastating.”

Last weekend, some transportation tunnels reopened, and trains service between New Jersey and New York City resumed. Still, many train stations remain shut down because saltwater has resulted in corrosion.

Pumping the water out will be an expensive task, Howell said. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the federal government for more than $40 billion in aid and city Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sought almost $10 billion for recovery. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said his state would need nearly $37 billion to recover from the storm.

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