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Despite different backgrounds, students unite to help clean up Hurricane Sandy

Breezy Point, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2012 -- In the wake of Hurricane Sandy debris and destruction can be seen in and around the houses in Breezy Point, N.Y. Over 100 houses burned to the ground as flood waters isolated the community from fireman. Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and caused the most damage in New York and New Jersey Oct. 29, 2012. Courtesy; U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade.
Breezy Point, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2012 — In the wake of Hurricane Sandy debris and destruction can be seen in and around the houses in Breezy Point, N.Y. Over 100 houses burned to the ground as flood waters isolated the community from fireman. Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and caused the most damage in New York and New Jersey Oct. 29, 2012. Courtesy; U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade.

By Marina Weis

Point Park News Service

Their backgrounds vary, but they share a humanitarian cause.

McGreehan is an army veteran and student at Point Park University.

John Breitweiser is a retired downtown Pittsburgh United Postal Service worker.

Bryan Musser is a student at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute.

Betsy Myers and Michael Riemer are professionals and alumni of Point Park.

And Roy Cox teaches business courses at Point Park.

All of them took time from their school, work and families to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. They did it with different organizations ranging from the Salvation Army to the federal government, some responding within hours of the disaster. Despite different motives, they all had one thing in common: the desire to give back.

Early on Monday, Oct. 29, East Coast residents began to feel the effects of Hurricane Sandy. Wind speeds up to 90 mph began sweeping through the coastal states in the hours before the 900-mile wide storm’s center was expected to reach the Mid-Atlantic coastline, home to 50 million people. Forecasters renamed it a “superstorm” as it collided with a cold front that generated flash floods, snowstorms and massive power outages, according to CNN.

McGreehan was one of the first people on the scene.

The 33-year-old served in the Army from 1997 to 2004. He was involved with the first wave of troops to hit Afghanistan in 2001. He is now in his third year at Point Park studying public administration. McGreehan took leave of his studies to help the relief effort through Team Rubicon, an organization that takes advantage of the skill and experience of veterans to deploy emergency response teams into crisis situations, according to its website.

“Military veterans … know teamwork, leadership,” McGreehan said during a recent interview. “They are able take those, what are called soft skills, and apply them directly to disaster response, and it’s only the perfect match.”

McGreehan joined Team Rubicon months after it was founded in 2010. He is the director of region three, which covers Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. He readied six teams for the storm that was predicted shoot straight through West Virgina and Virginia and middle Pennsylvania. The day after the storm, McGreehan redirected all of the teams, which consisted of more than 100 volunteers, to New Jersey. They spent almost three weeks there.

“We don’t limit ourselves saying we can only deliver meals or we can only deliver water or set up cots,” McGreehan said. “We do everything.”

Many of them, McGreehan said, got “down and dirty,” digging up debris with sledgehammers and shovels. They pulled down decks and trees off of houses along with removing walls that were soaked or flooded. Other teams sifted through debris looking for personal belongings. Overall, Team Rubicon deployed thousands of volunteers for the relief effort.

“There aren’t many other organizations that really do what we do,” McGreehan said. “… organizations will not come out and help you dig out your homes.”

Within 24 to 48 hours of the storm, volunteers from the Salvation Army were on hand as well, living in rough conditions without a place to stay for the first five days of deployment.

Riemer, an alumnus of the public administration program at Point Park, is the Western Pennsylvania director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army.

“I’m proud to be an American because when something happens here, people step up to the plate, and they want to help. But they have to understand that if they want to go out, there is three or four months of training that has to be done first,” Riemer, who is currently serving as the logistics chief for the relief effort in New Yoark and New Jersey, said during a recent interview.

Seven trained volunteers from Allegheny County and Punxsutawney separated into three teams and were deployed with local food kitchens to cities in New Jersey that included Union Beach, Jersey City and Hoboken. They left with nearly 1,500 meals and worked with the American Red Cross, FEMA and local agencies.

Musser was one of those seven volunteers in the Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania district.

A second-year student at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute, Musser worked for a week in New Jersey, cooking and preparing meals for more than 150 people a day.

As a college student, Musser encouraged young people, who he said are mature enough to handle volunteer work, to join the relief effort.

“It teaches them to be thankful for what you have and what you have to earn in your life,” Musser said in a recent interview. “It makes you really think about everything given to you.”

Riemer said volunteers run the gamut of professions.

“We do it in an extremely cost-efficient manner,” Riemer said. “Eighty-nine to 92 cents of every dollar we give back out to the community.”

According to the Chicago Tribune Wire reports on Oct. 30, almost 8 million people were without power in the Northeast.

“You would drive down a road, and it would look like somebody took all of the telephone poles and bent them over like a 45-degree angle,” said Cox, a federal disaster medical assistance team worker. “You could drive for hundreds of miles and no one had power.”

Cox, an adjunct faculty member at Point Park, worked as the operations sector chief to a team of 40 federal medical professionals at an ad-hoc hospital set up on a football field in Neptune Twp., N.J. The medical shelter tents, containing 250 beds, were up for 13 days and were equipped with everything found in an emergency room – except for X-rays. Because the local hospital emergency waiting room time was nine hours, at the least, the team functioned as a supporting triage center, treating non-critical, short-term patients, mostly for illnesses caused by living without power. Sometimes patients needed a place get hydrated and to keep warm.

A similar operation was set up in Long Beach, N.Y. on Nov 19, according to The New York Times. The team treated patients complaining of rashes, asthma and coughing resulting from digging through debris, inhaling dust and exposure to toxic hazards in the water.

“You must remember when you have a disaster that you must be self-sufficient as a person, as a family, as a community for four to five days on your own,” Cox said.

Cox explained that a communication gap existed between the local communities attacked by the storm and the federal teams initially sent to help.

“That’s where emergency management and the courses we teach here [at Point Park] are crucial to have a stronger educated emergency worker and local government to understand what do when there is a time of need and disaster.”

Growing up as the son of a soldier, Cox said public service is not new to him. He joined the Red Cross when he was in high school.

“When it was time to do service, putting on the uniform, which is a military-type uniform … I feel like I’m carrying on the tradition,” Cox said.

On Nov. 17, The New York Times reported the death toll due to Hurricane Sandy had reached more than 100 people – still considerably fewer than Hurricane Katrina’s 1,836. Close to half who died were 65 or older.

In New York City, the majority of deaths occurred in Queens and Staten Island, where people drowned in the water surge that accompanied the height of the storm. Many also died after the storm trying to clear away damage or when using poorly ventilated generators to stay warm, particularly in New Jersey.

Although Sandy only had Category 1 winds, it created a storm surge over hundreds of miles wide. Katrina, a Category 3 storm, was more concentrated, according to The Washington Post.

Myers was deployed only five days a few days after the storm as one of the 45 local American Red Cross workers sent to the east coast.

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency evacuation order, several housing units in New Jersey were evacuated to the University of East Stroudsburg, Pa. which was 20 miles from the damage. Its gym was converted into a large shelter designed to host several hundred people. Evacuees used the university’s facilities for laundry, showers and food. The Red Cross provided services that included setting up cots and counseling victims. Also in the shelter, the volunteer-based Certified Animal Recovery Team handled pets and animals.

“A lot of disaster work in the immediate first week to 10 days, everybody is just looking for information, not for a magic wand, not for a great recovery or an easy fix. They hope for that, but they just want to know, ‘When’s the power going to come back on?’ ‘When am I allowed back in my home?’ ‘How can I contact my family and let them know I’m safe?’” Myers said.

Myers said finding a place to stay, even if the person had money, was a challenge. The shelter housed many people who could not find a hotel room, as every hotel within a 100-mile radius around New Jersy and New York City was booked.

“The tricky part about people not having a housing situation is if you donate tons of canned goods or durable goods or clothing, they are still living in a shelter and probably in a space allocated to them, maybe 8-by-20,” Myers said, adding that it is nearly impossible for victims to stock up materials.

Not all Red Cross volunteers help in shelters, however. A few weeks after the hurricane hit, Breitweiser, a Red Cross volunteer for more than four years, was deployed to Manhattan, his fifth disaster deployment.

For about 11 days, Breitweiser distributed food, cooked by members of local Baptist churches, out of an Emergency Response Vehicle and also mentored victims in traumatic states.

“This is where I want to be in this particular point in my life,” the 65-year-old said. “The nice part is I don’t expect anything in return … I don’t need anything other than a good heart and to be kind with people, and that’s what it’s all about.”

A consensus among volunteers and public service workers is that much still needs to be done for hurricane victims, in varying degrees between communities.

Debris is especially problematic in areas such as Union Beach, N.J. The storm took houses off of their foundations and moved them several blocks away. Many others are cracked open and in shambles. The Chicago Tribune reported that storm damage was projected to hit $10 to $20 billion, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.

As winter approaches, many places still do not have power. Shelter remains a vital need along with food and even the distribution of welfare checks. Homeowners are waiting for their insurance claims to be processed, which could take months.

“Best thing you can do for these people is to go through your organizations that have structure,” Cox said in a recent interview in the Academic Hall lobby at Point Park. “They are not only there for the hurricane; they are there for when we have big fires and local disasters. So if you give to those humanitarian organizations, you are giving to them to help us today, tomorrow and in the future … because they are suffering in this economy just like the rest of us.”


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