More than five months after Hurricane Sandy tore into the coasts of New York and New Jersey, many people are still feeling the effects. One neighborhood that suffered great losses and is still digging out is Rockaway, Queens, where the nonprofit organization Respond and Rebuild is working to repair damaged homes and get residents back inside.
Shanna Snider and Terri Bennett, two founders of the disaster response nonprofit Respond and Rebuild, met when they were volunteering with relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Neither woman had any prior field experience with disaster relief, but they both took an instant liking to it.
Terri Bennett (all photos courtesy of Respond and Rebuild)
“It’s a weird kind of work to enjoy,” says Terri. “The world would be a better place if it wasn’t needed.”
After months spent helping in the Caribbean, Shanna, Terri, and three other good friends they’d made on the island scattered around the map. They watched from different vantage points in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy drew closer and closer, and then struck—hard.
The five friends, soon to be joined by another they’d meet in New York, dropped what they were doing and, in 24 hours, made tracks to the Rockaway Peninsula—11 miles of beach at the southern edge of Queens whose neighborhoods were devastated by the storm. Nearly 100 homes were completely destroyed and many more seriously damaged, over ten thousand residents were displaced, and the power was out for weeks.
“When we came out here, we just wanted to help,” says Shanna. “We didn’t intend for it to become an organization—we all had other plans.” When the hurricane struck, Shanna was weeks away from leaving the U.S. to serve with the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and Terri was halfway through a Ph.D. program in international development and humanitarian relief. “But this took off,” Shanna says. “So why would I leave? This is obviously where I’m supposed to be.”
Respond and Rebuild is now the leading volunteer group working side-by-side with homeowners and community leaders in Rockaway to safely clean out and repair damaged homes so their owners can return to them. The water removal, mucking, and (their specialty) mold remediation they perform is funded by donations and comes at no cost to the residents.
“Organizationally, we wanted to do something different than we’d seen done before. We wanted to be community-led and centered—not to drop in and tell the community, ‘This is what you have’ and ‘This is what you need,’ Shanna says. “The community here has really shaped what we do; they’ve led us to be able to meet their needs very directly.”
Respond and Rebuild’s success has not come without challenges. Here are a few Shanna and Terri have come across:
Obstacle: Living conditions
Solution: For the first five weeks of their operation, the initial members of Respond and Rebuild all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment near the beach. At times, it was hard for the crew to keep the organization running without going crazy.
But when they reached out to the community for help, they quickly secured two larger apartments to live in rent-free. “Everyone is vulnerable to disaster. So it’s a cause that touches people in a different way: it’s very personal,” Shanna says. “When we asked for assistance, people really opened their hearts and homes.”
Obstacle: Narrowing focus and asserting expertise
Solution: Given that there are a lot of needs in disaster response, Shanna and Terri knew they needed to give a focus to what they were trying to do.
“One thing we identified early on was our signature ‘cause’,” says Terri. “Mold. We became ‘the mold people.’ We researched and outfitted volunteers, waged a public health campaign, reached out to experts and other city orgs who had experience… We were the most organized group you could speak to about it, and that gained us trust.”
Obstacle: The ebb and flow of a volunteer-led group
Solution: “Especially in the first few months after a disaster, people come and go,” says Shanna. “And that can be a very emotional experience. But the group that remains, the core that’s left behind, is the one that works best together. It can be hard to hang on and not burn out; to recognize when to step back and breathe and when to give 150 percent. The ones that are left are the ones who figured out the balance. And as things formalize and become more structured, it gets easier.”
Volunteers pose in their ‘Mold Buster’ suits
Since the end of October 2012, Respond and Rebuild’s hundreds of volunteers have logged an average of 1,800 hours a week to bring more than 100 homes back to livability. And the work continues.
Currently, Shanna and Terri are developing a blueprint of their organizational model, which they plan to share with others. In the meantime, here’s their advice for people who want to coordinate their own disaster response effort:
- Just do it. “Trust yourself and the people you work with,” says Shanna.
- Share skills.“We all had different skill sets and experiences that complemented each other: logistics, construction, management, communications, fundraising. And we also worked to partner right away with other organizations, which was a great way to take what we all had and make it most effective.”
- Ask for and accept help. “Never be so arrogant as to think you don’t need help,” says Shanna. “I make a lot of calls and ask for a lot of favors. No one has all the answers by themselves, but together, you can get close.”
- Be open to advice. “If someone else has already learned the lesson, don’t waste time relearning it yourself,” says Shanna. “Take advice openly, then decide if it’s right for your mission.”
- Maintain balance. “Initially, adrenaline pushes you forward in disaster relief,” says Terri. “But as the immediate relief period comes to a close, the pace changes. Now we’d like to focus on employing local people, moving forward with partnerships, and developing a case management system for homeowners.”
“In five years, I can see us doing this work around the world,” Terri says. “But having the patience to take on all these things can be difficult. We’ll have to balance focusing and growing.”
Inspired to help with disaster relief in a community you’re close to? Read more about Respond and Rebuild’s successful model on their website, or contact them through Idealist. In the NYC area? They’re always looking for new volunteers and donations.
Respond and Rebuild is also always looking to make their nonprofit better. If you have experience with disaster relief, they would love your advice about what surprise obstacles they might expect to encounter down the road. Or if you have experience with volunteer management, they’d love to know your ideas on best practices to retain volunteers, and on the best volunteer and donor tracking solutions.