The next time a superstorm decides to flood Jersey City streets and homes, knock out power to thousands of residents for days, and cripple the local transit system, the folks behind Jersey City Sandy Recovery say, the residents will be ready.
By now, the all-volunteer group founded by Dana Shilling, Candice Osborne, and Tiby Kantrowitz has become somewhat legendary for its response to Hurricane Sandy in the early days of the crisis. Aware that their neighbors downtown were in need of everything from food to furniture removal, the women began posting hand-written signs in public spaces telling people to gather each day at noon at City Hall.
Through these informal gatherings, folks who were able to offer help were paired up with residents who were in need of help.
‘In a time of crisis, people don’t leave their homes.’ – Candice Osborne
Learning as a community
“One of the things we’re going to have to do as a community is learn who our vulnerable residents are,” said Shilling. “We may need people on every block, or almost every block, who know who the elderly residents are, who the physically challenged people are, who’s sick. This way, when something happens, like a blackout, we can check on those residents quickly and communicate with the Red Cross, the city, or other agencies to let them know that there are people who maybe need water, food, or medication. They may need to be evacuated. This needs to be formalized so that help comes faster for these residents.”
Days after Sandy hit the area, it was discovered that there were several senior buildings that had no power, no elevators, and no heat. Volunteers from various groups eventually donated water and other supplies to the residents of these buildings. But it would be better if neighborhood groups could anticipate these needs before a disaster strikes, Shilling said.
Developing lines of communication so that residents can share needs and resources are something else that needs to be created before the next superstorm comes our way. For example, the need for carpools has been apparent given the ongoing disruptions to mass transit system, said Shilling.
“We need to have a mechanism that allows residents to say, ‘I need a ride to my office in Newark. Can I carpool with someone?’ Obviously, there were gas shortages that added to the situation. So, encouraging people to carpool when we can’t rely on mass transit is going to be important,” Shilling added.
Thinking big, thinking small
The founders of Jersey City Sandy Recovery admit that this level of organization is going to require deep commitment and a level of community that will take a certain amount of work to sustain long-term.
“In a time of crisis, people don’t leave their homes,” said Osborne. “We were successful in reaching people because we used social media to reach people through Facebook and Twitter. But we also combined that with pretty extensive canvassing, just going door to door talking to people about what their needs were.”
At the height of the crisis, Osborne said, Jersey City Sandy Recovery was able to assist residents of public housing developments who had been told by their landlords that they couldn’t remove damaged, waterlogged furniture from their homes. The volunteers are now assisting residents – including seniors and those with limited English-language skills – navigate the application process from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Moving forward, she said, communities may need to help residents prepare emergency plans for each household.
“We have to think big, but we also have to think small, too,” said Osborne. “We may need to have days where we encourage people to buy flashlights, buy batteries, buy canned food, because unless they have that encouragement, some people won’t make this a priority.”
But this isn’t to say the group does have big plans as well.
They are looking into the possibility of buying light towers that can be posted around town in the event of another mass power outage and they have already bought generators as well, although it is unclear whether the city will let neighborhood groups use them.