Six months after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Caribbean and hit the northeastern U.S., coastal community members continue to struggle through the difficult process of rebuilding their lives.
“The recovery is progressing slowly,” Father Richard Ahlemeyer, pastor of St. Camillus and St. Virgilius parishes in the Rockaway area of Queens in New York City told CNA May 1.
“This morning I was having breakfast with some of the parishioners over at St. Virgilius after the eight o'clock Mass, and they talked about watching houses now being knocked down which have been condemned, and how painful that is.”
“They're families we know in the parish and their houses suffered such severe damage that they cannot be repaired, they have to be taken down, and then there's the question of requirements that are gonna be made in order to rebuild. It's painful for people.”
The parishes are among the worst affected by Sandy in the Brooklyn Diocese. St. Camillus is located in Rockaway Park, about two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, and St. Virgilius is in Broad Channel, across the peninsula from the ocean.
Fr. Ahlemeyer estimated that 40 percent of people in Broad Channel have yet to return to their homes.
“You go down there, it's very desolate, and there's all these question now about the requirements that will be made for rebuilding.” There is a dizzying array of application rules from FEMA, Small Business Administration, and federal grants, and “the rules are changing as we speak,” the priest reported.
“There's a lot of anxiety, and stress in the community still about that, because people are trying to get ready to put their houses back together again because they want to move back home, get back to a normal way of life, and they're not sure what they can do, because they don't know what the regulations are going to be, and then also they don't know what money they may have to enable them to do this.”
“It's coming slowly. People are back, but not fully.”
St. Virgilius church was flooded, and the bottom four feet of the walls had to be cut out to remove the molded wood. The walls have since been replaced, and the parish is looking forward to a visit from Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, one of Brooklyn's auxiliary bishops. He will be doing Confirmations at the parish May 24.
“Back in November we were looking for something to give people a sense that we weren't going to close, to keep our sense of hope, and Bishop Caggiano was gracious enough to volunteer, to give the people something to rally about.”
“The church looks good, it really does, they did a nice job of restoring the church. That's coming back. But the other two buildings at St. Virgilius have not been touched yet. We do have heat, but no electricity.”
“Over here at St. Camillus, the building that was a distribution center is still not back yet. It will probably be September before its done,” he said.
“The floors and walls are all ripped up, the electric is being done and the heating had to be replaced. Now they're going to start doing the carpentry work.”
The parish school was unusable for roughly six weeks, and Fr. Ahlemeyer noted that the nearby Our Lady of Grace in Howard Beach, “were so gracious to give us some room.” Though St. Camillus school has been in its own building since mid-December, the kindergarten classroom was so destroyed that those students had to have classes in the library, and only returned to their classroom a week ago.
“Anything that was on the first floor had to be totally torn out and gutted. The kindergarten I couldn't believe, they had to take it all the way down to the cement foundation and the brick walls and then rebuild it, because they found mold on every single piece of wood that was underwater.”
Fr. Ahlemeyer said he's been thankful for the “overflowing support and generosity of people from around the country who have sent letters, donations, and came here to help. It's very uplifting for me personally and for the parish, and certainly for the community.”
Parishes in Brooklyn and Queens have sent supplies down to the Rockaway parishes, and a group of Jesuit volunteers who generally go to El Salvador to volunteer in the summer will be coming to help St. Virgilius and St. Camillus instead.
The picture across the 12 dioceses in the U.S. affected by Hurricane Sandy looks much like that in Queens.
“I'd sign up with what Fr. Ahlemeyer said,” Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities of Camden, told CNA May 2.
“The five Catholic Charity agencies in the state of New Jersey are heavily involved in this recovery, and probably will be for another two to three years.”
Hicky said Sandy's case “is complicated because of the multiple states, and that it impacted the coastline so much, which calls into question a myriad of policy issues – flood control, flood plains, the private insurance market, the different state policies, trying to get those in sync with federal policies.”
“So it' s immensely complex,” he added, “which is of no help to people who have lost everything. Or, right now, a lot of people in Jersey are faced with being displaced because of insurance issues, and of course, if you're poor, all this stuff gets multiplied by some factor of 10 or 20.”
Catholic Charities of Camden, he said, has experienced the “incredible response” of local Catholics as well as people of good will from across the country.
Catholic Charities USA distributed $5 million to the 12 dioceses in Hurricane Sandy's affected zone, and Catholic Charities of Camden was granted $800,000 of that for long-term recovery.
Short-term disaster response money was used in Camden to replace mattresses, particularly for undocumented persons “ who had nowhere else to turn...it's a blessing, what a wonderful thing.”
Catholic Charities of Camden will be distributing temporary financial assistance to help those whose employment was affected by the hurricane to meet rent and other needs.
Hickey said that the New Jersey Department of Human Services has given grants to the state's five Catholic Charities agencies which are providing funding for case managers, which “provides us with the ability to engage more staff in the recovery.”
“In the case of both disasters and ongoing work, our biggest challenge is how to fund the human resource, the people we need to be able to work with people.”
The grant has funded eight case managers for the Camden diocese, as well as a supervisor, which Hickey said is “tremendous.”
“It just multiplies our presence on the ground in the affected zones. Four of our six counties are among the 12 most affected in New Jersey.”
“Our damage is not the dramatic sites that you've seen, we're talking floods here. So if you drive around the Camden diocese, you won't see a lot of buildings knocked off their foundations, like in Trenton, or Queens and Staten Island.”
“Our destruction isn't as visible, or at least not as dramatically visible, we're talking a lot of flood and wind damage. And that's had a consequent impact on businesses.”
“It's slow,” Hickey reflected. “The long-term recovery began Dec. 1, and it will be two to three years.”