CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter Responds to Hurricane Sandy

Sheepshead Bay,Brooklyn, two weeks after Sandy. Credit Occupy Sandy

As Hurricane Sandy stormed up the East Coast on Monday, October 29th, students, faculty and alumni of the City University of New York School of Public Health at Hunter College faced the same challenges as other New Yorkers:  finding a safe place to stay and protecting their families and property.  But as Sandy moved north, some took on a new role: taking action to help others recover from the storm and protect their health. To profile these activities, the School of Public Health’s  Distinguished Professor Nicholas Freudenberg recently asked four individuals –of the many more who were active in Sandy relief—to describe what they did and what they learned.

Jolanta Kruszelnicka graduated from Hunter’s Masters program in environmental and occupational health science several years ago and is now based at Long Island University in Brooklyn. Like many of our alumna, she stays in touch with her former faculty members so  after starting to volunteer for Sandy relief, Jolanta  contacted her former professor at Hunter, Jack Caravanos, the Director of Hunter’s  Program in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences to ask for help. Caravanos responded by organizing  a team of students and alumni  to work with volunteers from Occupy Sandy,  a relief effort that was  distributing resources and volunteers to help neighborhoods and people affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Occupy Sandy was created by veterans of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration.    Freudenberg asked Jolanta how she got involved in responding to Hurricane Sandy.

Jolanta Kruszelnicka(JK): Two days after the hurricane I went to a local city shelter to help. When the shelter was relocated I went to a local volunteer organization where I met many people who were helping too.

Nicholas Freudenberg (NF): What did you actually do?

In the shelter, with the help of the Spanish interpreter, I gave a presentation about the methods of cleaning up flooded homes, the health risk of the floodwater and mold prevention. Next day, I printed my presentation slides, put them into the binder, and  printed many copies of the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions post-flood sanitizing instructions.  With the volunteers from Occupy Sandy, I went to New Dorp Beach in Staten Island, an area hard hit by the storm,  and walked from home to home, talking  to the residents about the dangers of cleaning up flooded home and mold prevention. Everybody wanted printed instructions, so I convinced organizers to copy my materials, give them to the volunteers to carry them the next day to the residents of the Staten Island.

Later I contacted Dr. Caravanos and the American Industrial Hygiene Association and asked for help in spreading the message about the need of the Personal Protective Equipment for the volunteers. Dr. Caravanos was extremely helpful. Not only did he organize a very successful drive for donation of personal protective equipment (PPE)   and a system to distribute supplies to many storm-damaged communities and volunteer groups, he also performed the first volunteer team leaders safety training.

NF: Professor Caravanos – Jack–   what obstacles did you encounter as you organized the training and supply effort?

Jack Caravanos (JC): The initial absence of the city health department  was disappointing but they also got flooded and needed some time to respond.  So many of the people we encountered needed information but because of the storm damage telephones and Internet were unavailable.  That’s why the printed materials that Jolanta, I and others prepared was so important. An old fashioned health educational medium served its purpose.  Initially, no persons of authority were  present in neighborhoods to get  out basic information.

NF: How did you address the diverse information needs of the many populations affected by Sandy?

JC: I prepared a two page public health bulletin that was printed and distributed  by the  thousands. Then we asked students to translate the bulletin and we are now distributing Spanish and Russian versions.

To get another perspective on relief response, Freudenberg asked Deborah Kaplan, a doctoral student in the CUNY School of Public Health, about her involvement.  Kaplan is Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health in the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

NF: So how did you get involved in responding to Sandy and what did you do?

Deborah Kaplan (DK): I work for the NYC Health Dept and I have an official role in the agency’s  Incident Command Response system. I also responded to the agency’s request for staff to report to nearby shelters.  In the Incident Command system, I helped to coordinate and report on the Health Department’s response related to clinical operations – surveillance/epidemiology, mental health and responses to medical needs identified by the agency.  For example, I helped to arrange for masks to protect people from exposures related to post storm clean-up and to identify operating pharmacies and mechanisms for people to get medication refills.  I also volunteered at the Park Slope Armory Special Medical Needs Shelter. There I helped the shelter manager to develop system for assessing, ordering and obtaining needed supplies – from adult diapers and blankets to eating utensils.

NF: What obstacles did you encounter?

DK: There were more than 500 people from three different nursing homes at the Armory shelter, sent to the shelter after their nursing homes were flooded. The environment made it very challenging to meet their basic needs. This was not a good environment for people with substantial medical or mental health needs, and the nursing homes had varying degrees of ability and systems in place to respond to their displaced residents needs. It was also very challenging to get supplies in the first few days after the storm, due to storm effects including a gasoline shortage, power loss and high demand for supplies. On the other hand, local volunteers, elected officials , faith-based institutions and community-based organizations came together to help fill critical gaps in resources,
Some School of Public Health students were already deeply rooted in communities hard hit by the storm.  To understand the experiences of this group, Freudenberg contacted Sonia González, a doctoral student in our School of Public Health and a National Institute of Mental Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Fellow at the school.
NF: Sonia, how did you come to spend two weeks in Red Hook after the storm, one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods hardest hit by Sandy?

Sonia  González (SG): I worked in Red Hook in 2005 and stayed connected to the neighborhood through various volunteer and work commitments. Since 2009, I have served on the Board of Directors of the Red Hook Initiative. A week after Sandy, I answered a call to volunteer from our Board President and spent the next 2 weeks on the ground in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

NF: What did you see?

SG: There was a disconnect between what I was reading coming from the Mayor’s office about restoring utilities (my primary source for information was twitter and the news) and what I was seeing and reporting back (on Twitter and Facebook primarily) from the ground in Red Hook.

While Red Hook as a community came together to bring supplies into the neighborhood, there were two different experiences: those who lived in private homes and those who lived in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing. Red Hook is home to the second highest number of NYCHA units in NY State. The scale of public housing in Red Hook created a different kind of challenge for NYCHA residents. When the electricity went out – it meant that residents living on the 14th floor of the “Trip Towers”, the tallest buildings in the complex were faced with particular difficulties.

NF: Can each of you say something about what you learned from your experiences responding to Sandy?

JK: It has been a very gratifying experience on multiple levels. Knowing that I was able to help people who have suffered so much and feeling of being a part of the community are the best rewards. I met so many fantastic people, who have been helping selflessly for many weekends and who inspired me to do more. I would not have been able to do most of the things alone. It is amazing how much can be done with few resources but lot’s of collaboration and help. My approach was simple: look for a need, try to resolve it and do not be afraid to ask others to help with one problem at the time.

JC: I learned that everybody can help. People were not getting in our way. Cops, firefighters, volunteers all worked together nicely –at least so far!

DK: Hurricane Sandy dramatically exposed major inequities that exist in this city. While many people from all classes lost homes, power, heat, and hot water, for the most part the middle and high income folks were able to leave buildings that lacked heat while low income folks remained in these environments, with limited or no good alternative options.  I gained a renewed appreciation and gratitude for what I have and was reminded of what’s most important – home, family, friends.  I also learned that responding to a natural disaster requires short and long term responses.  In the short term, we needed to identify, prioritize and address the immediate needs of the people living in the neighborhoods most affected by the storm  by  supporting temporary solutions such as mobile medical vans and  “pop-up” clinics.  In the longer run, the goal was to reestablish the usual health care delivery system. Finding the right balance between these two was tough.  One thing I concluded from this experience is that we need to use events like Sandy to advocate for local, state and federal policies to address global warming and social inequities, and to make improvements in the city infrastructure. An emergency like this is not only incredibly costly and a major drain on resources, but it is very disruptive to ongoing public health (and of course many other) activities.

SG: Despite feelings of personal desperation and despair, Red Hook residents were grateful to have the external presence of the volunteers and quick responses to provide food, water, and a sense of public safety. This is a personal lesson in perseverance that left a great impact on me. I am also personally proud of the reaction from the Red Hook Initiative. This is a youth development organization that began with a focus on reproductive health, but when faced with a disaster responded to the neighborhood’s needs.  I was also reminded that partnerships are essential in the aftermath of a natural disaster. One of the reasons that we were able to organize a quick response to bring supplies into the neighborhood was the support we had from some city’s elected officials, Occupy Sandy, residents, police, local CBOs, and businesses large and small.