Though its winds have long died down, the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy are still palpable throughout the northeast. Homes have been completely destroyed, cars remain overturned or crushed beneath fallen trees, and thousands are still struggling to find food and shelter.
But since the hurricane swept through the region last month, ICNA Relief Disaster Relief Services has been leading recovery efforts on the ground.
“Can you imagine the time it takes to pump 6 feet of water from a basement with a small pump, or to get hot meals to an elderly lady on the 19th floor of a building with no working elevator?” asks Umber Siddiqi, a staff member of ICNA Relief. “There have been startling stories of people holding on to fences to avoid being swept away in the current, watching in disbelief as their cars rush by in a flood of water. This is what our team has been dealing with in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.”
“This is the first time the East Coast has faced a natural disaster at such a large scale,” adds Maqsood Ahmed, Executive Director of ICNA Relief. “New York and New Jersey residents have never seen news headlines like ‘Sandy Leaves Behind ‘Monstrous’ Financial Burden,’ ‘Sandy aftermath challenge: Clearing tons and tons of trash,’ or ‘Hurricane Sandy Barrels Region, Leaving Battered Path.’ We know that residents are struggling to cope, and we’re here to lend a hand.”
As the social services and disaster relief branch of the Islamic Circle of North America, ICNA Relief has responded to 19 disasters in 15 states over the past 18 months. The organization’s disaster recovery program consists of disaster preparation, disaster relief, and long-term recovery and case management. Considered an expert in the field of disaster relief, ICNA Relief’s efforts have been recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Voluntary Organizations Assisting in Disasters (NVOAD) as well as numerous national and local relief agencies.
According to its website, ICNA Relief “seeks to alleviate human suffering by providing caring, compassionate, and practical assistance to survivors of natural and man-made disasters, in the United States [and] strive[s] to accurately represent Islamic values and compassion, serving humanity regardless of race, religion, or culture.” The organization also works to ensure victims of disasters have fully recovered before leaving the affected areas.
Within days of Hurricane Sandy, ICNA Relief’s Disaster Response Services team pooled together its resources, calling in members from Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida. After deliberating and taking previous disaster management cases into account, the organization created an action plan for recovery in New York and New Jersey.
“Our team has been trained in handling disasters, managing large groups of volunteers and most importantly being sensitive to the needs of a natural disaster victim,” says Ahmed. “From years of experience in dealing with disasters like Katrina, Ike and the Joplin tornado, we know that there is a lot of management and paperwork involved in assisting disaster victims. It takes a great amount of time, energy and teamwork to respond to people’s needs in an efficient manner, but we’ve brought together a great group in New York and New Jersey that will do its best to help those affected by Sandy.”
In the past four weeks, the team has spread out across the region, distributing thousands of hot meals and meeting hundreds of individual needs. Outreach in New York and New Jersey focused on the areas of Brighton Beach, Far Rockaway, Staten Island, Long Beach, Irvington, Atlantic City, Somerset, East Orange and Newark.
Victims speak about their experiences
Helping the heavily damaged Masjid Omar, Brooklyn, NY
The New Jersey effort
Armed with its own truck, trailer and tools, ICNA Relief has conducted block-by-block home assessments, distributed food packages, water, coats, blankets, scarves, socks, heaters and clothing to affected residents, and helped sweep, clean and gut homes, mosques and Islamic schools and centers.
In New York alone, the organization has distributed over 600 pantry-food packages, 1,300 bottles of water, 1,200 blankets, 80 coats, and hundreds of heaters to families without heat. Families who’ve lost their clothing in the floodwaters have been provided with 500 pairs of warm socks, 100 winter scarves, and 75 children’s kits, which consist of towels, blankets, hats & clothes.
In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a team of doctors sponsored by APPNA (Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America) and PTI (Pakistan Tareeki Insaaf) has set up a medical clinic and offered physical check-ups, blood pressure readings and sugar tests, as well as prescriptions and free over-the-counter medication.
ICNA Relief has also provided disaster crisis counseling and offered important FEMA information to residents on its hotline and at ICNA Relief neighborhood booths managed by volunteers from various organizations.
There has been no shortage of individuals and organizations willing to help the victims of the hurricane. Thousands of volunteers have descended upon local recovery headquarters to aid in relief efforts. The Muslim American Society (MAS), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), Islamic Center of NYU (ICNYU), the Hidaya Foundation, Islamic Relief USA, the Zakat Foundation, Life for Relief and Development, the American Muslim Consumer Conference (AMCC), Al Ghazaly School and numerous local mosques including Masjid Omar, ISCJ, MCMC, NHEIC, NBIC and Masjid Shuhada have come together under the umbrella of ICNA Relief to rebuild the homes and lives of their friends and neighbors.
As a member of NVOAD and NY and NJ State VOADs, ICNA Relief has worked with numerous partner organizations, periodically reported quantitative updates via conference call and submitted written reports to FEMA directors.
ICNA Relief has established connections with many local mosques, centers and individuals in the affected areas, and Ahmed says the organization will continue its work in the region for at least two more months before reassessing the needs of residents and reevaluating its own plan for long-term recovery.
For now, the physical and emotional toll of Sandy is still vastly evident across the region. Volunteers describe what they’ve seen on the ground, saying, “Some homeowners have lost everything. Their homes were flooded floor to ceiling with seawater and sewage flooding. Some have lost their cars in the flood waters, and those with cars were without gas for days. Families of 20 or more people have been living in a single house without heat or electricity; some of them have little kids who haven’t been able to return to school because their schools were destroyed.”
“Many of these people have had their sentimental, valuable items strewn across their backyards. They’re so overwhelmed by what’s happened that they don’t know where to start,” says one volunteer. ICNA Relief’s teams have been focusing on mass debris, trash removal and mold remediation to help get these families back on their feet.
Clearing efforts in Piscataway, NJ
Hot Meal Feeding in Irvington, Piscataway and East Orange, NJ
Distribution for victims in Atlantic City, NJ
Atlantic City Mayor, Counselor and others thank ICNA Relief
What has struck many after Sandy is this spirit of community and cooperation that has pulled neighbors together over the last few weeks. “We’ve been out here helping, but there have been several families that have refused aid because they feel like others need it more,” says Shahid Farooqi, a volunteer manager in New York City. “It’s incredible. Landlords are allowing their tenants to live with them while they recover from flood damage; people with no electricity are reaching out to help those who still lack heat and power.”
“People have sent checks, cash, clothing, supplies and food; others are donating their time and effort, traveling hours just to help out. In all honesty we’ve been really overwhelmed by the amount of support we’ve received. We’ve even had days where there are too many volunteers because everyone just wants to pitch in and help out.”
Volunteerism has been its own reward for many of those who have joined ICNA Relief in recovery efforts post-Sandy. Volunteers of all ages have stood outside in their bright yellow shirts, braving freezing temperatures, delivering blankets, providing food, water and much needed information and generally giving victims of the storm the sense that they’re not alone.
“Sometimes all that’s needed is a kind word or a hug. People are still reeling from their loss, and they want to feel like they have a strong support system,” said a volunteer from Harlem, NY. “I’ve been really lucky to be able to help them through ICNA Relief’s efforts. It makes me feel really great to know that I’m helping someone else feel better about what they’ve endured in these weeks. I’m looking forward to coming back out again.”
This spirit and support is not limited to the residents of one neighborhood alone. As a blog post on the Al Ghazaly school’s website mentions, “Sandy taught us to appreciate every little thing we have. The ability to switch on a computer and send an email, the ability to work in light, to be wise and frugal but Sandy taught us an even bigger lesson. It brought humanity together in an hour of need. Whether it was looking out for our neighbors or sharing some gasoline with a total stranger, Sandy taught us that we are all connected through our basic human needs.”
To support ICNA Relief’s Sandy Relief Efforts, or to find out how you can get involved, visit www.icnarelief.org.
Article by Umber Siddiqi, Rida Fozi, and Moviz Siddiqi.
Photographs and videos by ICNA volunteers.