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Disaster Relief: Master’s Candidate Alaina Bearden

By Rachael Apfel
11/16/2012 12:45 PM
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The Rockaways after Hurrican Sandy

The Rockaways after Hurrican Sandy (Photo by Randy Le'Moine Photography/Flickr)

Imagine blocks upon blocks of crushed and leaning buildings; boats washed up on sand covered streets; homes lifted off their foundations and transported yards down the road; basements filled with water, sometimes rising up past the first floor; several missing persons and over 100,000 residents without electricity as winter marches in. This is a snapshot of what Special Studies Program master’s candidate witnessed on the ground as she engaged in disaster relief work immediately following Hurricane Sandy. Skipping over a week of classes at HGSE, Bearden first traveled to New Jersey to set up a Voluntary Organizations Acting in Disasters (VOAD) database, then moved on to Staten Island with relief organization All Hands Volunteers to set up a headquarters for their volunteer-based clean up and recovery project. Splitting her time between Staten Island and the Rockaways, she engaged in activities that ranged from hands-on relief work — such as pumping water out of basements and clearing out debris — to more organizational and technical tasks, including the development of handbooks for team-leader training sessions that contain materials aimed to keep teams of relief workers safe and responsible in the field. “The work was difficult, but I’m no hero,” she states modestly. “The heroes are the residents who are piecing their lives together and soldiering on strongly and passionately in the face of great losses.”

How do you even begin to tackle a situation like this?
After a disaster, hundreds of volunteer nongovernmental organizations of a variety of sizes and levels of accountability come into the disaster-impacted communities to try to assist the community during their recovery and rebuilding phase. In order to provide oversight and decrease the redundancy of assessment, regions create alliances called VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Acting in Disasters). VOADs consolidate the data around homes and public properties that are assessed into a database that is accessible to its NGO member organizations.

I went down to New Jersey to help set up the database and do assessment on homes for the New Jersey VOAD. I worked on that for the majority of the week after the storm until we launched a web platform to consolidate all the data and a web-based inventory sheet that feeds assessments straight onto the database and mapping program. I also had the great opportunity to negotiate a new application for Google software. I used my network at HGSE to connect with Google and ask for an expansion of Google Voice so that we could do a web-based hotline, which allows community residents to call in orders to file work request assessments of their homes. I was so grateful to be able to get connected with Google and they were so supportive and helpful. They developed the application for the hotline within 12 hours of my first email to my HGSE network, and the hotline allowed the New Jersey emergency service to funnel some of their calls to our VOAD database so that the real immediate emergencies can be addressed by emergency services.

What are some of the greatest obstacles facing the relief efforts you were engaged in?
One of the hardest parts of disasters is what the relief community calls the “second disaster” — that is the donations that end up in a place after the disaster that are not only unwanted, but they are a waste of manpower for relief organizations. This includes tons of unwashed used clothing, spoiled canned goods, and other big truckloads of things that people are obviously just trying to give away but we cannot use. For example, within the first week after Sandy, the Red Cross and FEMA shelters were all overwhelmed with used blankets that they could not distribute because of bed bug regulations. It’s sad because volunteers and relief staff end up using valuable time to inventory, unload, and reallocate these unusable donations.

Another difficult part of this particular disaster was the extenuated period of immediate and acute needs. The fact that people remain without electricity and gas in the face of imminent cold weather has left help hotlines and emergency services encumbered and unable to move into the clean up and recovery phase of response. When the nor’easterhit during the second week of relief work, the teams and organizations had to shift efforts to re-evacuating those without power in New Jersey. In the Rockaways especially, many relief workers have spent a number of days running food and water to elderly and physically disabled residents stuck in tall apartment housing due to a lack of working elevators and fears of looting.

What sparked your interest in this line of work?
I got involved with All Hands Volunteers during their project in Leogane, Haiti, after Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010. I lived in Haiti for the project and worked as a base manager and volunteer coordinator on base in Leogane. We were running a school building project. It was amazing to build schools, but after a few months I went back to visit sites where schools had been built to find that they were often unused. The children were still too traumatized from the earthquake to be corralled by their teachers. From that moment we started to do a Disaster Risk Reduction and Creative Therapy Seminar with all the staff members at the schools we built, but it’s when I become committed to improving the link between disaster response and schools.

Schools have a connection to everyone in the community and can be used as places of best practice in resource allocation and community outreach following a disaster. I also firmly believe that if teachers are given better resources to integrate the child’s holistic healing after a disaster the children can get back to learning and in turn communities can get to healing, living, and flourishing.

Any advice for those who are looking to contribute to disaster relief efforts from a distance?
Find responsible ways to get involved after disasters — one of which is staying present and remembering what happened. Communities always get a big push from outside funds in the immediacy of the disaster, but come another month or two, the communities impacted by Sandy will still be slowly re-piecing their lives and most everyone on the outside will have moved on. Consider donating later or writing yourself a reminder to check in with a family you might know in the impacted area in another few months.

Also, give responsibly. The idea of giving physical things is antiquated and results in wasted man-hours in the relief efforts. It’s hard to know what’s needed at a specific time. It’s better to donate money online to a reliable organization (there are a ton of them out there doing fantastic and niche targeted work) rather than sending things that might not be able to be used.

Furthermore, don’t just go down and volunteer. If you want to get involved physically, get involved with an organization, follow their rules, and go through their training. Debris cleaning and even shelter work can be very dangerous and result in emotional, if not physical, wounds. Remember that emotions and pressure are high after disasters and it’s not appropriate to dive in and make residents of impacted communities feel like zoo animals or a tourist attraction.

Finally, stay engaged and stay connected. While its important to find ways to help, its also important to remember that it’s a long and messy process and more than anything the people of communities hit by disaster need to feel advocated for and heard.

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