In federal government circles, it's known as DR-4086, a simple, seemingly innocuous series of letters and numbers. To the rest of us, it's Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history and certainly the most unique, merging with warm and cold frontal systems to spawn widespread damage – and a memorable moniker: Superstorm Sandy.
For every person profiled here, there are thousands more who played some role in Bergen County's post-storm story. Their vision and values continue to inspire us and strengthen our spirit on the road to recovery.
(201) takes a look at the hometown heroes who helped Bergen County battle back from the worst natural disaster in the state's history.
News Anchor, CBS New York
[back to top]
For Chris Wragge, Superstorm Sandy was more than just another storm.
"I was born and raised here. Growing up, I spent every summer at the Jersey Shore," the co-anchor of CBS 2 News This Morning and CBS 2 News at Noon says, expressing a sentiment shared by so many Bergen County residents. "To be able to let people know what was happening along our coastline went beyond broadcasting. It was very personal to me."
Wragge is CBS New York's go-to guy for storm coverage.
"When the storms are coming, I'm the one they deploy," he says.
Not only does he have in-depth knowledge of "every street from Spring Lake to Sea Girt to Bay Head," he's comfortable behind the wheel of CBS's Mobile 2, a "massively powerful" SUV equipped with the most highly advanced technology in television broadcasting.
"It's the kind of thing that's good to have but not something you ever want to have to use," Wragge says. "Mobile 2 is our trademark. No other news crew has one. Satellite trucks can't travel in winds over 30 mph, but we can drive through anything, as long as we have a cell phone signal."
That signal was the key to his in-depth, nearly round-the-clock storm coverage. But Wragge did more than simply broadcast.
"So many viewers connected directly with me through Twitter and Facebook," he recalls, "asking me if I could drive down a certain street and check on their house. We're in news broadcasting, but it was paired with a sense of public service. It was comforting to be able to put this information out and reassure our people."
In the days that followed, Wragge fielded dozens of calls and messages from concerned residents.
"We stayed on the shore and were able to provide constant visual updates on these communities so residents didn't have to rush back to check on their homes," he says.
It was not Wragge's first trip into the eye of the storm. When Hurricane Irene swept through the tri-state area in August 2011, CBS viewers came to rely on his knowledge of New Jersey communities and solid relationships with their fire and police departments and the mayors of the various municipalities.
"That was helpful this time around," says Wragge, who took up an offer from the Spring Lake Fire Department to rest and recharge on a cot for a few hours in the wee hours after the storm.
From the news desk, Wragge continues to cover Sandy relief efforts – "Not a week goes by that we don't broadcast some kind of Sandy story" – and help raise funds for residents still in need. A devoted New York Giants fan, he teamed up with quarterback Eli Manning to host two fundraising events in the months after the storm.
"I've covered natural disasters before, but this one was more emotional for me. It hits you on a personal level. It's tough to see this happen on the Jersey Shore, something you never thought could happen on our coastline," he says, recalling the sight of the Seaside Heights roller coaster, the JetStar, swept out to sea. "I firmly believe in Jersey pride. There's a resilience here you don't find in a lot of places. I feel lucky to have grown up here."
Trustee, St. Margaret of Cortona Church
[back to top]
"Little by little for Little Ferry" is how Regina Coyle, a trustee of St. Margaret of Cortona Church and a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteer, modestly describes the work at hand. Reluctant to take credit for her heroic efforts, Coyle is more apt to shift the spotlight to "the many, many people who contributed needed supplies from all over the country," she says. "We had no food, no clothes, no power, no essentials – and then people started to arrive with donations."
In truth, Coyle is viewed by many as a savior. Tapping lessons learned in Hurricane Irene, she transformed the church's Parish Hall into an emergency shelter before the storm, stocking it with food, cots, blankets and supplies, and prepared to welcome more than 100 residents of Little Ferry's low-lying areas.
"We had pre-trained and had experience with Irene but, still, we had never faced anything like this before," she says of the 9 1Ú2 feet of water that surged through the make-shift shelter. "We evacuated almost everyone to the municipal building in the middle of the storm."
Undeterred, she returned three days later to begin a massive clean-up project and to reopen the hall first as a distribution center and then, even without electricity, as a shelter. She estimates they fed 200 to 300 people for about 10 days after the storm.
"The pastor who gave us the hall was dying of cancer," she says. "He gave me the keys to the kingdom."
Far from accepting accolades, Coyle expresses enormous gratitude to Janet Sharma of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, Tom Toronto of Bergen County's United Way, the National Guard, UPS and FEMA. With no car and significant flood damage to her own home, Coyle became "a real beacon of hope to an entire community," Toronto says.
A former microbiologist and pharmaceutical executive, Coyle took early retirement five years ago and almost immediately began giving back to the community. She became an EMT driver, then an EMT working with the Little Ferry First Aid Corps. Most recently, she was named a trustee of her alma mater, Felician College in Lodi, and has served as its alumni president.
In May, Coyle was awarded a $50,000 Russell Berrie Award for "Making a Difference." Not surprisingly, on receiving the award, Coyle said she would like to "give it back to the people who helped my town get through this. I want for nothing in my life."
Compassion Fund Manager, Bergen County's United Way
[back to top]
As the Compassion Fund manager for Bergen County's United Way, Tricia DeBartolome is no stranger to crisis situations.
"We have always been involved in immediate disaster relief," she explains, "and Hurricane Sandy was no exception. Our president [Tom Toronto] was out in Little Ferry and Moonachie right after the storm, assessing the needs and handing out gift cards so storm victims could take care of their basic necessities. These are people who left their homes, literally, with only the clothes on their back."
By all accounts, the agency hit the ground running in the hours after the storm.
"Bergen County's United Way was the first one out there," says Janet Sharma, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County.
"All of the money donated to us," Toronto says, "went directly into our Compassion Fund and was spent almost immediately to help as many people as possible as fast as possible."
"Our goal is to prevent homelessness, particularly among vulnerable populations and families with dependent children," DeBartolome explains. "In the acute emergency phase, we distributed gift cards for food, clothing and basic necessities, and helped to fund emergency housing."
Afterward, the agency helped more than 250 households in Bergen County tackle home repairs and purchase "new kitchen appliances, washers and dryers, new furnaces, hot water heaters," DeBartolome says. "These people could not function in their homes, and our job was to make them habitable again."
Of the hundreds of people helped by Bergen County's United Way in the weeks following the storm, one stands out most for DeBartolome because her story captures the generosity and compassion of so many Bergen organizations.
"There was a woman in Little Ferry with multiple sclerosis whose basement apartment received 4 feet of water," she says. "After the storm, she was evacuated to a nursing home, but what she really needed was to be back in her own home."
With funding from FEMA covering only half the cost of the repairs, the agency, in partnership with Heightened Independence and Progress, a Hackensack nonprofit, supplied the rest.
DeBartolome has been the Paramus-based agency's Compassion Fund manager since 2007 and is proud of its "unique model."
"We are the only United Way that is involved in delivering direct service to those in need," she says. "It evolved because of our 211 help line and our clients' immediate need for resources, so we stepped in to fill in the gaps."
She describes Bergen County's United Way as "the resource of last resort. If you're not eligible for assistance through other channels, the Compassion Fund is there to help. It's not for ongoing needs, but for a crisis of some sort. A rent or mortgage payment, a utility payment to prevent the electricity or gas from being shut off, a down payment on a car – these are the types of things we helped with so residents could get back on their feet."
With its Sandy relief resources nearly depleted, Bergen County's United Way is wrapping up lingering cases and worrying about the future.
"I just received calls from two families who had just returned to their homes and needed beds for their children," she says. "We'll be able to help with that, but so many others are still struggling."
Mary Ellen Lyons
Superintendent, Moonachie Department of Public Works
[back to top]
As the only female certified public works manager in New Jersey, Mary Ellen Lyons tackles what, a generation ago, might have been called "man's work" – keeping sanitary sewers running, streets plowed, grass cut. Her passion for the job has made her a major, though modest, player in Moonachie's Sandy recovery.
"I didn't do anything more than anyone else," she says, "but I believe that public works is one of the most critical functions of municipal government."
During the day before the storm, Lyons was doing what she usually does to prepare for a severe weather event – moving DPW vehicles to higher ground and reviewing a "safety first" checklist with her team, a group of six men she affectionately calls "my guys." With an overnight bag at her side, it was business as usual at the municipal building.
"It flooded in just 45 minutes. We could barely open the doors to get out," recalls Lyons, who watched the waters rise alongside Sergeant Tom Schmidt, who was directing emergency resources from the borough building. "We arranged for the rescue of a few residents who had made their way to the building seeking shelter and were then rescued by a Carlstadt DPW truck.
"Most municipal buildings in Moonachie were either destroyed or severely damaged," she says, listing the municipal building, civic center, senior center, Robert L. Craig School, police department and EMS, as well as multiple municipal vehicles. "In addition, the storm-water pump stations and sanitary pump stations were flooded with corrosive salt water, streets were filled with debris and there was no electricity."
In the first days after the storm, the amount of work to be done seemed staggering.
Unflappable, the self-described "born and bred Jersey girl" went to work as both an employee and volunteer, tapping her post-Hurricane Floyd experience (with the Hawthorne DPW) to navigate mountains of FEMA paperwork. Lyons also helped mobilize her South Bergen Rotary Club to tackle a range of projects.
"We are a very small but very busy club and we enjoy supporting the community in ways the government doesn't," she says.
Its post-Sandy initiatives and donations included filling the holiday wish lists of more than 100 families, distributing coats at the Moonachie Tree Lighting, setting up a help center for residents of the town's two mobile home communities, and donating dozens of computers and iPads to Little Ferry and Moonachie elementary schools.
Lyons is also a municipal representative on the VOAD's Long Term Recovery Committee and relishes the opportunity to let the group know what is trending in Moonachie.
"I believe the way the committee has worked with the residents presents a total package for available resources," she says.
Lyons, who estimates that more than half her day is spent on post-Sandy recovery and restoration, is a valuable resource for residents, letting them know about the availability of state grants like the $10,000 Resettlement Grant and the $30,000 Hazard Mitigation Grant, while actively overseeing the restoration and reopening of facilities including the civic center, senior center and parks. (The municipal building, police department and EMS continue to operate in temporary trailers.) When asked how long it will be until things are back to normal, she smiles and says, "I hope before I retire."
President and CEOMWW Public Relations
[back to top]
"All hands on deck" is how Michael Kempner, president and CEO of MWW Public Relations, modestly describes his agency's effort to restore a sense of normalcy to Jersey Shore communities in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day 2013.
Awarded a federally funded $25 million contract by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Kempner and his team were tasked with developing a fully integrated marketing campaign that would assure locals and visitors that New Jersey's favorite summer playground was open for the season, allaying the doomsday fears of many Shore-based small businesses.
"They were concerned that their visitors believed that the Shore was still closed," Kempner says. "Research showed that people didn't know that it was back and better than ever. It was critically important to produce a strong, integrated marketing campaign to draw people back, to illustrate the incredible progress that had been made, that the Jersey Shore was open for business.
"We were hired just six weeks before Memorial Day and my team came together in a way I had never seen in the firm's 26-year history," Kempner recalls of the 20 hours a day, seven days a week MWW put in to produce the "Stronger Than The Storm" campaign. "Many of them grew up spending summers at the Jersey Shore. It was home. It was where they brought their own children to create new memories. For many on my team, it was personal – the most important work they had ever done."
So what did they do? Well, just about everything.
"We decided that we needed to create an iconic song that – love it or hate it – people would not be able to get out of their heads. It would become the rallying cry of the summer," he says.
The song united the agency's "campaign of consequence" – a masterful mix of advertising, web, public relations, special events and social media campaigns.
"We had more than 50 staff and subcontractors working in various capacities over that five- or six-week period," Kempner says. "It became about saving our state and it was highly motivating for everyone on the team. They were committed to being part of the solution."
The only international Top 10 PR firm based in New Jersey, MWW was the logical choice to steer the year-long campaign.
"No one knew how bad the storm would be," he says. "It was just unprecedented, but Governor [Chris] Christie and [EDA CEO] Michele Brown did a tremendous job putting in programs and giving New Jersey the confidence to rebuild the Shore in time for the summer season. 'Stronger than the storm' was a phrase the governor had used and it became the natural theme for the campaign."
Appropriately, the campaign kicked off on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, where Christie made Guinness World Record history at the world's longest ribbon cutting – cutting the ribbon on an incredible 5.51-mile streamer supported by more than 1,000 volunteers.
Measuring the impact of the campaign is the next task at hand, Kempner says. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that more than 70 percent of New Jersey residents have seen or heard the campaign and that it appears to be making some difference in encouraging summer tourism. Mission accomplished.
Executive Director, Habitat for Humanity of Bergen County
[back to top]
"This is not a sprint; it is a marathon." Those are the words of wisdom, shared by a co-worker at Habitat for Humanity's International headquarters, that keep Jacey Raimondo going every day.
"Not long after Sandy, a Habitat International team [from Americus, Ga.] came to see how they could help, and they've been helping ever since," Raimondo says, explaining the organization's expertise in disaster relief. "They continue to provide the New York and New Jersey affiliates with mind-boggling support and amazing grant opportunities that have allowed us to grow our work here."
Unlike some organizations that expect to run out of money before the work is done, Raimondo fully expects to have the funding and manpower to see the job through. Among the grants Habitat International has secured for its Bergen County affiliate is a $500,000 American Red Cross grant earmarked exclusively for seniors, the disabled and low-income homeowners.
Like other organizations, though, Raimondo met with some skepticism early on.
"Little Ferry is a tight-knit, very proud community," she says, "and a lot of people were hesitant to ask for help. Little by little, as they see articles in the newspaper and see friends and neighbors getting some help, they feel more comfortable reaching out."
In the job nearly four years, Raimondo nonetheless brings considerable construction experience to her post.
"I grew up amidst a successful construction business [C. Raimondo & Sons Construction in Fort Lee], and family dinners were consumed with conversation about projects my father was working on," she says. "Then we'd pile in the family station wagon for tours of the job sites."
Those early life lessons paid off. After earning her law degree, she worked in the commercial real estate department of a New Jersey law firm and later joined the family business.
Raimondo expects that by next fall, Habitat will have restored at least 100 homes in Little Ferry.
"Habitat's Disaster Relief model is very different from our regular work," she explains. "We do charge for it but at a substantial discount. The labor is free and there is no mark-up on materials, plus [we receive] generous discounts, money and man hours from partners like Lowe's, the Gap and Old Navy."
In addition to a $200,000 donation, the apparel retailers will send 200 volunteers to work from September through November this year.
While working in Little Ferry, Raimondo and her team continue their core mission to build four to six new affordable housing units per year in Bergen County.
"That program hasn't been compromised at all," she says.
Four homes in Oradell were ready in time for the owners' children to start school in September. In late fall, the organization, in partnership with the Paramus Affordable Housing Corporation, will begin work on a housing project for low-income veterans.
But the marathon that is post-Sandy keeps Raimondo on her toes.
"Our core projects are new construction, but in Little Ferry, it's more challenging," she says. "We're often working in homes where people are struggling to live upstairs while we make repairs downstairs, but we are keeping our focus on the families who are trying to cope down there, tackling it one block at a time, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block."
Executive Director, Volunteer Center of Bergen County Inc.
[back to top]
"In some ways, it feels like it's been one long day since October 30," says Janet Sharma, the longtime executive director of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County Inc.
Not the least bit fatigued, though, Sharma rose to the challenge, quickly mobilizing "the VOAD" (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) and forming a Long Term Recovery Committee that has registered more than 550 families.
"The Bergen County VOAD has been around since 1999 [when Hurricane Floyd swept through the area], but the kind of work we're doing now just wasn't possible until now," she says of the organization's first foray into boots-on-the-ground disaster assistance.
To appreciate the scope of the committee's work, it's helpful to understand what the Volunteer Center of Bergen County does. Under Sharma's leadership, it functions as a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities, matching prospective volunteers with agencies that need their help. Since its founding in 1966, dozens of programs have been added, each designed around the center's mission to "strengthen the community by connecting people through service and developing civic leaders."
"Within a few weeks of the storm," Sharma says, "we all realized that the role of the Volunteer Center was becoming much bigger. There were relief organizations, nonprofits and hundreds of people who wanted to help, but there needed to be a much more coordinated effort. At that point, our board of directors made the decision to continue to lead the effort."
As Sandy relief funding became available, Sharma appointed Tess Tomasi project manager and hired four full-time case managers (previously committed volunteers) who work at the Recovery Information Center based at the First Presbyterian Church in Moonachie. A year later, "it's a start-up business. We have seven employees and manage a $2 million budget, and we will keep at it until either the money runs out or the work is done," she says.
Incredibly, almost a year after the storm, Sharma feels the committee is just hitting its stride.
"These are very independent communities, places where residents had always donated what they could to help others but had never been on the receiving end," she says. "They felt like they could take care of it on their own."
The committee's door-to-door outreach succeeded in assuring hard-hit residents that help was available.
The biggest challenge, she says, has been the range of needs. The committee spends extraordinary time piecing together all the components of putting a house back together, from mold remediation and construction to painting walls and replacing floors and furnishings.
"These people lost everything from their cars to their clothing, tools, bikes and furniture," she says.
While a good portion of every day is still devoted to Sandy relief efforts, Sharma continues to oversee the Volunteer Center's dozens of community programs, including the Business Volunteer Council, Bergen LEADS, Mentoring Youth, Mentoring Moms and the Chore Service.
Sandy, though, is never far off her radar.
"People who aren't involved in it don't realize it's still going on," Sharma says.
Executive Director, Rebuilding Together Bergen County
[back to top]
Just days after Sandy, Gretchen Viggiano, the longtime executive director of Rebuilding Together Bergen County, left for Orlando to attend the national conference of Rebuilding Together – but not before she and Lynn Buckingham, the organization's community outreach coordinator, drove to Moonachie to survey the damage.
"I felt so uncomfortable driving down the streets as residents piled the entire contents of their basements and first floors onto the sidewalks," Viggiano says.
Though the trip was unsettling, it gave Viggiano her first glimpse at the job ahead.
The timing of the conference was fortuitous, as it offered her an opportunity to meet personally with Rebuilding Together's national executive director as well as her colleagues in Jersey City, Newark, Long Island, New York City and New Orleans.
"My first call went out to the executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, with whom I'd had regular contact in the years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through Louisiana," she says. "Over a period of three or four years, we recruited and sent teams of volunteers to New Orleans but we never imagined that we would need to one day take what those volunteers had learned there and put it into action in our own community."
Aware that members of the Little Ferry Volunteer Fire Department had helped hundreds of residents in the weeks after the storm, despite sustaining several feet of water in both the Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 and Hose Co. No. 1 buildings, Viggiano felt strongly that helping those volunteer firefighters restore and reclaim their 100-year-old buildings should be the organization's first mission.
"As we looked for rebuilding projects right after the storm, the stories we heard about these brave firefighters really moved us," says Viggiano, who is also a member of VOAD.
Following the ribbon-cuttings on those two special buildings, Viggiano says it became clear that their niche was repairing the most severely damaged homes in Moonachie and Little Ferry. Currently, the organization has completed or is working on 25 homes.
"Our goal is to create safe and healthy homes for people who are a part of these communities," she says.
Through a combination of donations, grants and generous volunteer hours, the organization has been able to turn every $1 donation into $4.
"As long as we have funding and our volunteers are willing and able, we intend to stay," Viggiano says.
Rebuilding Together Bergen County is a national nonprofit with a 15-year history in the county. It was founded by the Junior League of Bergen County, of which Viggiano was a member and past president, and now operates independently. The organization's staff of six manages a volunteer database of 2,000 people who have donated more than 12,000 volunteer hours to Sandy rebuilding projects.
Director of Financial Assistance and Residential Services, Greater Bergen Community Action Inc. (formerly Bergen CAP)
[back to top]
Already juggling an extraordinary number of programs and services targeting low-income families in Bergen County and beyond, Alison DuBois' reaction to Sandy was characteristically calm and in control.
"We are the county's designated anti-poverty agency," says DuBois, a social worker and 24-year veteran of Greater Bergen Community Action Inc. "Dealing with homeless people in crisis is very similar. I am comfortable in situations like this."
The agency went to work immediately, raising funds to help residents who had lost their homes and cars.
"Our goal was and is to help people get what they need without a lot of red tape," she says.
For more than 45 years, the agency (until recently known as Bergen County Community Action Partnership Inc.) has administered a broad range of anti-poverty programs, adding new ones as needs arise. Under DuBois' direction, the agency provides financial education for low-income families and individuals, home weatherization assistance, special needs housing for homeless youth or people recovering from substance abuse, and permanent housing for the homeless, among dozens of other programs. One of the newest is SAFER Home Improvement, a post-Sandy initiative to help residents repair their flood-damaged homes.
The agency turned to its trusted weatherization team to launch SAFER Home Improvement, a service designed to provide rapid reconstruction and disaster recovery. As the agency's director of financial assistance and residential services, DuBois estimates that the agency spends approximately $5,000 per home making repairs that would otherwise cost homeowners thousands of dollars more. The program is funded through the agency's fundraising initiatives and grants from The Robin Hood Foundation and the American Red Cross.
"It's been overwhelming, the number of people, especially low-income seniors, who need help and don't know who to call or what to do," DuBois says. "They are afraid they will be cheated and they are so grateful for the help. We want to make it as simple as possible for people to get back into their own homes."
The agency is working on homes primarily in Little Ferry and Moonachie, fielding requests from the VOAD and directly from area residents. On the sheer number of residents who need help, she praises the VOAD team for managing "organized chaos."
Asked when the work will be done, DuBois is matter-of-fact: "Only when the last house is back to the way it was before the storm. We'll keep working until the money runs out."
Director and Health Officer, Bergen County Department of Health Services
Bergen County Executive
[back to top]
When Kathleen Donovan, Bergen County Executive, and Nancy Mangieri, the director and health officer of the county's Department of Health Services, look back on Oct. 29, 2012, they recall a gut-wrenching evening spent together at the county's Public Safety Operations Center on Campgaw Road in Mahwah.
Though Donovan says they had prepared for hours before the storm to ensure "we were as ready as we could be," a 1 a.m. call from the mayor of Moonachie reporting "a wall of water coming through town" confirmed their worst fears, springing Donovan and her team into well-rehearsed action.
"We sent all that we had to help the town," she says. "The county people who worked on the storm were magnificent, people doing two or three jobs at once."
Since then, Donovan continues to advocate for preparation.
"No matter how much you have prepared, you have to keep preparing," she says.
To that end, she has overseen the installation of a new statewide computer system that will provide real-time emergency information to residents and the purchase of 25 dry rescue suits and three 5-ton high-wheeled vehicles capable of driving through 4 feet of water. In an emergency, those are available to any of the 70 municipalities in Bergen County.
She and Mangieri have learned some important lessons, as well.
"Across the state," Mangieri says, "there is an effort to reevaluate the way we shelter people in an emergency, and we are very involved in that. For example, we never dreamed that cots would not be sufficient, but very quickly we got creative with sheltering. We found hotel rooms and empty beds in nursing homes for the elderly, a space in Spring House [the county's halfway house for women] for families and launched a program to provide prescription medication to those who fled without theirs.
"We've learned that during extended evacuations," she adds, "we need to provide sheltering options that keep families together. We learned many elderly have difficulty sleeping on cots and people can't be without their medications."
Mangieri, who praises Donovan for making funding immediately available for those initiatives, also worked with the National American Humane Association to bring in 40,000 pounds of dog food, made arrangements for dogs to be reunited with their owners and found homes for those dogs that could not be reunited.
"We learned through Hurricane Irene that people don't want to leave their pets behind," she says, "so we made sure that every shelter in Bergen County is pet-friendly."
Mangieri and the Department of Health Services work hand-in-hand with Janet Sharma of the VOAD to address the health issues related to mold, a major problem in every community that received flood water.
"Our job is to directly connect with the people," she says, "making sure they know about the health dangers of mold and how to remove it safely."
"There were innovative things that we did to help calm the situation," Donovan says of the county's wide-ranging efforts.
From providing eight pallets of infant formula and diapers or some much-needed gasoline to keep municipal generators running, the county came through.
"Any town that asked us," Donovan says, "we were able to get them fuel."
In the aftermath of the storm, Donovan organized three job fairs to help Bergen County residents who lost their jobs as a result of Sandy find work. She and Mangieri are also actively seeking to help storm victims suffering with mental health issues.
"People are really weary," Donovan says. "They need more help now than they did at the beginning. No one should feel alone. The health services department is here to help them. We're not going to stop until everyone who needs help has gotten it."
Project Manager, Bergen County VOAD Hurricane Sandy Long Term Recovery Committee
[back to top]
Despite long days that stretch all the way back to the first morning after Superstorm Sandy, Tess Tomasi remains optimistic. She is hopeful that in the aftermath of the storm, something good will come out of it.
"It brought a lot of resources to the south Bergen community and helped to spotlight the existing need for better housing here," she says. "Another positive is that the community now knows how to address this. We'll be better prepared for the next storm, if there is another one. We're a good model for hurricane recovery and we will be able to share that with other communities."
As the project manager of the VOAD's Hurricane Sandy Long Term Recovery Committee, Tomasi spends nearly every day at the Recovery Information Center in Moonachie, a church basement-turned-command center where she and her team handle needs assessment and case management, hold meetings and workshops and serve as a reception center for groups of volunteers working in the area.
"We are grateful to the First Presbyterian Church for offering the use of this space. It's so important to have a presence right here in the community," she says.
Although still a Volunteer Center staffer, Tomasi has temporarily traded her post in nonprofit training and corporate volunteering to lead a team of four Long Term Recovery Committee case managers, Ana Chawla, Craig Eccles, Lisa Ewart and Eric Hugo, as well as Marisa Santiago, the volunteer manager, and Mariedyth Gayas, a VISTA volunteer and Recovery Information Center coordinator. Together, they've logged more than 550 cases, and "people are still coming in," she says. "People who thought they would be okay but are now realizing that they've spent their insurance or FEMA money and their homes still need work."
With a professional background in affordable housing development, grant writing, social services agencies, homeless shelters and community development, Tomasi seems tailor-made for the job.
"Even though I'd never worked in disaster relief, I was able to tap into a lot of those skills and apply them to this situation," she says.
Tomasi is proud of her team and how closely they work together.
"We are fortunate to have lots of resources, but in most every case, we're cobbling together a solution," she says. "A resident may come in whose first floor was gutted. They need construction work, appliances, maybe some painting. We might refer them to a nonprofit home builder for the structural part and another nonprofit agency for the appliances and another that can coordinate volunteers to paint. Every case is different and that's why each one takes so much time. The needs are so varied."
Though her office is based in Moonachie, Tomasi is quick to point out that the Recovery Information Center serves all of Bergen County.
"I don't think people here know the scope of the damage right in Bergen County. There were almost 14,000 FEMA applications filed here," she says. "Though most of Little Ferry and Moonachie were flooded, there was also significant flooding in other towns like Hackensack, Ridgefield Park and especially Lyndhurst."
One of the hardest parts of the job is handling cases in which the homeowners don't qualify for a state program or grant. For one such grant, homeowners are required to have at last a foot of flooding in their home.
"That's a hard thing to explain to someone who only had 8 inches of water," she says. "They still lost everything."
Assistant Executive Director, Northeast New Jersey Legal Services
[back to top]
Despite state budget cuts and an ever-growing case burden in the wake of Sandy, Anna Navatta exudes grace under pressure. A legal services attorney for more than 30 years, she and her staff adhere to one philosophy: We are not under the stress that our clients are under.
In her position as assistant executive director of Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, Navatta works alongside executive director Jack Fitzgerald overseeing three offices in Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties. A social security and disability specialist, she also directs the agency's pro bono program, which encourages private attorneys to donate their time and expertise to help the agency's underprivileged population. Peter Mueller, a partner in Harwood Lloyd's general and insurance litigation department, is among the attorneys Navatta has signed up to conduct ongoing legal workshops with Sandy victims.
"Peter's expertise has been invaluable," she says.
"We are readying for an avalanche of Sandy-related cases," Navatta says. "These things take time to develop, and now, a year after the storm, we are just beginning to see the cases come in."
Among the issues she and her team are poised to address are disputes between landlord and tenant (people who were displaced by the storm might have difficulty getting their security deposits returned), insurance settlements and FEMA appeals. Though she is quick to note that "nothing happens quickly," she is undeterred.
"Every case turns on its own set of facts, and sorting through them takes time," Navatta says. "To best serve its clients, the agency is set up in four units, including consumer, housing, public benefits and family."
Each, she expects, will juggle a significant case load in the coming months.
"As the cases come in, they are assigned to the unit best equipped to handle them.," she says. "Even the family unit, which deals with domestic violence, will see a spike. When stress levels rise within the home, it creates family strain. Domestic violence, unfortunately, follows crisis situations."
Navatta is particularly concerned about senior citizens who "may fall victim to unscrupulous contractors who will either take a deposit and never return or perform shoddy work." Cases such as those are often referred to Navatta and Naznin Saifi, director of the Bergen County office, through the VOAD's Long Term Recovery Committee, on which both women serve.
Navatta also serves on the VOAD's Unmet Needs Committee, meeting twice a month to access a range of individual cases.
"These meetings are like networking opportunities," she says. "I have a chance to hear about people who need our help."
"As short staffed as we are, there are no complaints here," Navatta says. "No one is whining. We are extremely sensitive to what our clients are experiencing."
New Jersey State Senator and Mayor of Wood-Ridge
[back to top]
On a typical day, Paul Sarlo juggles more than a few roles. He's a state senator and chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, mayor of his hometown of Wood-Ridge and chief operating officer of Joseph M. Sanzari Heavy Construction Company. He's also a licensed professional engineer, certified municipal engineer and licensed professional planner. And yep, he's also a husband, dad and enthusiastic coach on local Little League baseball, junior football and junior basketball teams.
To say he's a busy guy is an understatement. He's also tenacious when it comes to his community. In the days before Superstorm Sandy, he was focused on the low-lying areas on the border between Wood-Ridge and neighboring Moonachie, with which the town shares services.
"The weekend before the storm hit and really right up until the eye came through, we were preparing by evacuating our DPW, which is located in the flood zone, preparing generators at our public buildings and sewer pump stations, and cutting potentially dangerous trees," says Sarlo, who rode out the storm at Wood-Ridge police headquarters.
In the days and weeks after the storm, "it was all hands on deck as we made arrangements to accommodate Moonachie's kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students in our elementary schools and in makeshift classrooms at the recreation and senior centers," he says. "I applaud the residents of Wood-Ridge for their willingness to welcome these kids. They were so patient and so cooperative."
Wearing his legislative hat, Sarlo evaluated the immediate and long-term needs of 36th Legislative District communities like Moonachie and Little Ferry, witnessing "devastation unlike anything I had ever seen," he says. "South Bergen County was one of the hardest hit areas in the state."
In an effort to ensure that the rebuilding process leaves the state in a stronger position to face future storms, Sarlo and fellow lawmakers convened a series of hearings and tours of the hardest hit areas of New Jersey to educate colleagues.
As a civil engineer, Sarlo feels strongly that serious and significant investment in the region's infrastructure must be made.
"We have to shore up the berms, make sure streams and tributaries are dredged and cleaned of debris and branches, and make sure all sewer pump stations and electrical substations are protected from storm surges," he says. "It's about hardening our infrastructure, and I will always advocate for that."
Though no longer involved in the "day-to-day aspects of storm recovery," Sarlo remains a committed public servant and realist.
"Where state government is falling down is in bureaucracy," he says. "When I see that, I kick it around a bit. The state needs to adapt its rules to the situation on the ground so people get the help they need. We can't ever forget what these people have been through."