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UUs give money and muscle to Sandy relief efforts

Disaster-relief fund tops $306,000.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
1.7.13

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The Murray Grove Retreat and Renewal Center in New Jersey sustained extensive tree damage in Hurricane Sandy. It is making its facilities available to Unitarian Universalists doing disaster-relief work in the area. (Louise Ille)

Hurricane Sandy is a cascading crisis.

That’s how the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt describes the aftermath of the late October storm that decimated parts of the New York and New Jersey coastlines. The superstorm’s flooding and wind destroyed houses and neighborhoods, killed at least 110 people on the East Coast, and caused billions of dollars in damage. And that was just the beginning.

Now communities are facing a massive cleanup operation and struggling to provide housing to displaced people in some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the nation. Mold is rampant. And already marginalized people are suffering most. Some are losing jobs because the public transportation infrastructure is still damaged and they are unable to get to work. Undocumented people are unable to apply for any government relief.

“This has all the makings of a second disaster,” said McNatt, senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City. “Faith communities are trying to work against that.”

Unitarian Universalists throughout the New York/New Jersey area, as well as UUs around the country, have been turning out in force to provide Sandy relief—raising money and donating supplies as well as physical labor. The efforts are likely to go on for years as damage from the initial storm generates long-term economic and social problems.

The Rev. Susan Karlson, minister of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island, has been at the epicenter of the storm and its aftermath. Her congregation became a staging area for disaster relief not long after Sandy’s winds subsided.

Organizers with Occupy Sandy, which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement (and was first known in Karlson’s neighborhood as Staten Island Recovers), contacted her about using the church’s facilities as a hub for relief supplies. With the approval of church officers, Karlson agreed. The storm hit on Monday, and by Friday the church was filled with donations as trucks dropped off clothes, cleaning products, and tools, and volunteers came from neighboring states to search out ways to help. “Everyone’s hearts were opened,” Karlson said. “People flooded in that hadn’t ever come here. They came and volunteered and sorted.”

Karlson chokes up with emotion as she remembers the volunteer response. “I can’t describe this to you,” she said. “I’ve been in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. I’ve done social work and ministry. But I can’t tell you what this is like—to know this island was falling apart and people would come in and donate.”

After the storm, the needs of locals would change daily. Too many clothes and too much bottled water arrived. But word went out that cleaning supplies were in high demand and volunteers started to send them. Then residents needed masks, cough syrup, and pain relievers. Insulin for diabetics was in short supply, as was refrigeration for it. Karlson spent much of those first weeks on the telephone. So did her husband, Alan Kindler, who would speak with contacts in neighborhoods throughout Staten Island to get donations where they needed to be.

Karlson said that the most helpful donation now is money or gift cards. Prior to Christmas, she was tallying checks and donations that have flooded into her congregation from around the country.

Some checks are made out to the CERG UU Disaster Relief Fund. The fund was started by the Central East Regional Group, which serves UU congregations in the Joseph Priestley, Metro New York, Ohio-Meadville, and St. Lawrence Districts. The fund assists UUs with storm damage cleanup and members’ immediate needs, and in the rebuilding efforts. As of early January, the fund had raised more than $306,000.

Others send checks directly to the Staten Island congregation, Karlson said. She puts the money into her discretionary fund to help people with immediate needs.

Karlson was heartened by the outpouring of support from the UU Congregation of Susquehanna Valley in Northumberland, Pa. The congregation, with just more than 100 members, has donated $7,000 worth of gift cards to the Staten Island congregation. Karlson has been distributing them to local folks with particular need, especially undocumented immigrants who are not able to apply for government benefits in the wake of the storm, despite having lost their homes and/or their jobs. The Staten Island church has a longstanding partnership with El Centro del Inmigrante, which has aided them in distributing the cards for local grocery, hardware, and department stores.

Money donated to the congregation and the CERG UU Disaster Relief Fund has come from private donations. And it has also come as congregations across the country have hosted bake sales, taken up special collections, and hosted benefit concerts.

Three congregations in New Jersey joined forces to create the Bergen UU Relief Group. The UU Congregation of the Palisades, the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, and Central Unitarian Church—all in Bergen County—have raised nearly $10,000 through concerts and fund drives. And members of those congregations have donated supplies and physical labor to help clean up devastated neighborhoods.

Murray Grove

In Lanoka Harbor, N.J., the UU conference and retreat center Murray Grove sustained significant tree damage during Sandy and lost the wooden sign at its entrance. The camp also suffered damage to fences and building roofs. The facility was without power and water for nine days after the storm. It now has a long-term goal of purchasing generators, according to Executive Director Louise Ille.

After the storm, the Murray Grove board decided to make its facility available to UU volunteers who come to New Jersey to do storm relief work. The initial UU volunteer group was scheduled to arrive at Murray Grove over the first weekend in January. Forty-two volunteers from the Capital Region UUs of New York, which includes congregations in Albany, Schenectady, Glens Falls, and Saratoga Springs, planned to come to Murray Grove to put in sweat equity, according to Kathy McGowan, who helped organize the trip.

“We picked New Jersey because of the housing situation,” said McGowan, adding that she had hoped to go to Staten Island, but there was no place for more than 40 volunteers to stay. She thought it was important for all the volunteers to stay together in one place so they could discuss the religious aspect of the work they were doing. “It’s really important to reflect on how this is part of our faith work, why it’s important and how it’s living out our faith in the world.”

Ille said that CERG is helping Murray Grove fund a grant writer. The group hopes to apply to FEMA for funding for a volunteer coordinator for the retreat center’s relief work. Such a coordinator is necessary, Ille said, to best utilize the UU volunteers she expects will want to help. CERG has also funded a $12,000 grant to Murray Grove to remove fallen trees.

Since the storm, Murray Grove has also hired a new assistant director, Tom Brown. His one-story home in Keansburg, N.J., took on 31 inches of water in the storm. A member of the UU Congregation of Monmouth County, Brown said he was already behind on the house’s mortgage and decided not to go back. He had been involved with Murray Grove for many years, doing physical labor and playing music. Brown plays baritone saxophone and the clarinet, and he has taught Latin percussion and drum workshops at Murray Grove for several years.

When Murray Grove staff learned Brown was homeless, they offered him room and board in return for his help in maintaining the camp.

“I had the great good fortune to be taken in by Murray Grove,” Brown said. “The atmosphere I found here is one of participatory hospitality—make yourself at home and help us make Murray Grove great.”

Ille knows that the center can’t become a homeless shelter, but she does envision it becoming an emergency response facility for UUs involved in social action.

Occupy Sandy

Relief work in New York and New Jersey will be needed for years, the Rev. McNatt, at Fourth Universalist in Manhattan, said. “New York City is incredibly dense. In terms of the amount of impact, it will be worse than Katrina.”

Fourth Universalist and other New York City congregations are mobilizing members not just to provide relief, but also to pressure state and local governments to provide necessary support, regulations, and guidance for rebuilding. She wants to see UUs be a part of that “because of our tradition of acting on behalf of the marginalized,” McNatt said. “People respect people who work out of their faith commitment, whether that faith is rooted in the Bible or the inherent worth and dignity of every person or the Torah or the Qur’an.”

Prior to the storm, McNatt was working with the multifaith advocacy group Occupy Faith, which aimed to eliminate economic injustice. That work has grown to include Occupy Sandy.

Fourth Universalist has gathered clothing, food, and supplies and driven them in rented trucks to Staten Island. They monitor Occupy Sandy’s Twitter feed to track which supplies are most needed at different times.

McNatt is particularly concerned for undocumented people who cannot apply for disaster relief or unemployment insurance. Her congregation is working with the New Sanctuary Movement and PICO to help assist that population.

McNatt worries about the growing mold problem in soggy homes, unemployed people in the outer boroughs who cannot reach jobs because public transportation has not been restored, insurance companies failing to pay homeowners’ claims, and the many repercussions of this cascading disaster.

“There is more than enough work for everybody,” McNatt said. “Even people who feel like they can’t do anything right now. Just chill and stay tuned.”


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