On October 27, 2012, Superstorm Sandy made its way up the eastern coastline of the United States. With wind gusts of 115 mph, the storm was verified as a Category 3 hurricane. When Sandy blasted her way through Long Island, the results were devastating — more than 100,000 homes destroyed and thousands of residents left homeless.
Immediately after the storm, students, staff and faculty from the St. Joseph’s College community went to work to restore the homes that were damaged or destroyed by Sandy.
“Over the next four months, the Office of Campus Ministry coordinated teams and went out to Blue Point, Lindenhurst, Seaford, Massapequa and the Rockaways,” said Patrick Tracy, director of campus ministry. “In the beginning, most of it was mucking out, getting the destroyed stuff out of the house, throwing out furniture, tearing down walls and drying out houses so it wouldn’t become moldy.”
About six months after Sandy struck, several students volunteered to give up their spring breaks and continue their heroic efforts for the Island. “Traditionally, for our Alternative Spring Break, we had flight reservations for New Orleans,” Mr. Tracy said, “and when the storm hit, the school had asked us about doing some local response.”
Of course, the team agreed.
After canceling their plane tickets to New Orleans, these ambitious students and faculty members began organizing local projects with different partners. The team of SJC volunteers consisted of 27 students (31 participants in all). According to Mr. Tracy, the team had mixed representation from three different clubs, including Students Taking an Active Role in Society (S.T.A.R.S.), Habitat for Humanity and, from the Brooklyn campus, Students Taking a Role in Positively Empowering Society (S.T.R.I.P.E.S.). Witnessing these clubs come together to make a difference for their community was a special sight for Bridget McNamara ’14, a student volunteer and upcoming senior at the Long Island Campus. “I’m always so impressed with the amount of students at our school who make service a priority in their lives,” Bridget said.
Once everything was settled, these spirited volunteers rented three vans and made arrangements to stay at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Ozone Park, Queens. “It was inexpensive, available and central to the different work areas,” Mr. Tracy said. During that week, the team worked in several different locations, including Staten Island, Fire Island, Long Beach, the Rockaways and Breezy Point.
“We networked with a number of community service organizations, representatives, as well as individual advocates,” he said. In Staten Island, the SJC crew collaborated with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation and then with the National Park Service on Fire Island, where they worked on the iconic lighthouse.
“In Long Beach, as part of Brian Murphy’s LB Sandy Relief efforts, we sent a couple of teams to a few families whose homes needed insulation and wall repair,” Mr. Tracy said. Meanwhile, in the Rockaways and Breezy Point, the groups worked on several individual houses.
“People were amazed at the damage,” he said. “It was phenomenal. We saw houses that were crushed like cigarette packs,” he continued. “In this one area, by a beach in Breezy Point, three blocks wide and three blocks long were burnt to the ground and it almost looked like a post-war burned-out Dresden.”
Each day, the groups were organized into three separate teams and were given a specific location where their service was needed. “Usually, we partnered with the families or helped them in some way and hearing their stories was just as important as doing the work,” Tracy explained. When the evening came to a close, the students would gather for dinner and share what they experienced that day.
“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” said student-volunteer Janece Guerra ’13, a three-time Alternative Spring Break participant. “Talking to those who lost everything made me so thankful that I was lucky enough to experience minimal damage after the storm.” Janece commented that spending a week around people who were in need made her aspire to help them even more. “They are our neighbors and we should help them in any way that we can,” she said.
“A speed bump for the SJC post-Sandy relief efforts”
“The work and enthusiasm was great,” Mr. Tracy said. “The only thing that held us back was grand theft auto.” It was a Thursday morning when the students of SJC discovered that two of the three vans they rented had been stolen. “I thought they were kidding me,” Mr. Tracy said, “but at the same time, they thought I was kidding them.” When the team realized that their vans had been stolen, they immediately called the police.
“So the police came over and, as they’re taking all the information down, the rental agency, that we rented the vans from, called saying they had tracked the vans,” he explained. “When the police drove the group to the location of the vehicles, they discovered that the vans were broken in through the back and hot-wired from the steering column. “One of the things that surprised me was that a lot of the tools we used for the relief effort were still in the vans,” said Tracy. “When we drove the vans back to the hotel, where police dusted for fingerprints, Fox News was already there.”
“Being on the news is something I will never forget in my lifetime, and St. Joseph’s College was definitely perceived well by the community for its storm relief efforts,” said student-volunteer Peter Valerio ’14. “The fact that we got swindled out of a full day to make a difference in our community because of the carjackers was unfair and detrimental to our trip.”
Although the vans were recovered in two hours, the result of the theft put a dent in the rest of their day. “It was going to be the last day of the week dedicated to work and we were all very disappointed when that opportunity was taken away from us,” said Jill Hamill ’13, a student-volunteer and president of the Habitat for Humanity Club.
Mr. Tracy, however, believes that it was a success getting the vehicles back because the people who stole them didn’t profit from the theft, and the students felt that a great victory was won. “We were so happy that the vans were finally found,” Bridget McNamara said, “because it was nice to see that the good came above the bad at the end of the day.”
“Even though the theft of the vans brought media attention, it was just a speed bump for the SJC post-Sandy relief efforts,” Mr. Tracy said. “The outreach and volunteering has continued since then.”