From Katrina to Sandy

By Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen, Director

The last week has been a frustrating one. I am frustrated because I very easily could have had a normal, routine week, oblivious to the destruction and confusion inflicted on the Northeast by Hurricane Sandy.

In the hours, days & weeks after Katrina, I was deeply attuned to what the storm had wrought, and deeply bothered when I interacted with people who didn’t seem to get it.

Many of you know that Jacobs Camp both served as an evacuation shelter of sorts for many; and, under the banner of “Jacobs’ Ladder“, collected and redistributed two tons of relief supplies to many in need across affected areas of the Deep South.

I learned a lot during my Katrina experience – a lot about myself, to be sure (and those emotions have been exposed this week) – and much about the disaster relief cycle. Am I an expert? Far from it. But I learned enough to, I think, be helpful to others who are out of the loop.

What can you do right now?

Photo by Rabbi Hara Person

Celebrate the first responders, and those relief organizations whose mission is to be first on the scene. If you hear that those organizations and groups that support first responders need specific things, help out. They are experts in immediate needs.  But do NOT clean out your closets and pantries! If you want to give stuff, honor specific requests from established organizations; but do not flood them with your stuff.

What can you do soon?

In the next few weeks, circumstances will evolve. Once emergency cleanup is completed – utilities restored, roads cleared, transportation systems on their way to normal – then the real recovery begins. The real short- and long-term needs of families, local institutions, and service organizations are identified, and that’s when real help is needed. Unfortunately, this is also when people start forgetting – once normalcy seems possible, we get to move on, right? For those in need, our proclivity towards having short-attention spans becomes the issue.

Three categories of need will emerge in this phase:

1.  Supplies and equipment. People will need things, and first-responders will need to restock.

2.  Labor. Across the Northeast opportunities will emerge for people to be hands-on. Cleanup, restoration, rebuilding – these will go on for awhile, and hands will be needed. Many organizations will be mobilizing to do this, so there are plenty of ways to help out if you want to give the time and energy.

3.  Expertise. If you have special skills and training, there may be a need for them. After Katrina, medical facilities were short-staffed because so many of the people who staffed those facilities were displaced. Thousands and thousands of people had to deal with the insurance industry, which can be complicated; lawyers, insurance experts, and other financial professionals were vital to families, and that will definitely be true with Sandy. And, caring professionals – social workers, counselors, therapists – will be needed for weeks and months to come as so many to through the stages of loss as they try to restore their lives and return to normal.

Most importantly, though, please remember that a disaster of this scale – in truth, all disasters of any scale – don’t get tidily wrapped up in a few days. Life is not like the movies. As those who were directly impacted by Katrina know, it takes weeks, months, even years to get your life back – and, the truth is, those touched by disaster are changed forever.

If you are moved to action now, make a personal commitment to take action when what you have to offer is needed. When the story moves off the front page, don’t for a minute think it’s over – you can make a difference in the lives of those affected by Hurricane Sandy for a long time.

The URJ, our parent organization, has setup a relief fund that will give grants and support to affected congregations and important organizations. Consider donating to the URJ Hurricane Relief Fund.

It is a tenet of the Jewish faith to help those in need. Seven years ago, we at Jacobs Camp – and so many individuals from across North America – came together to respond to Katrina.  When it comes to a disaster like Sandy, just remember that the needs will be there long after the news stories fade away.

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