MDS settles into Staten Island for recovery

by Steve Kriss,

Two weeks ago Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast Corridor, landing near Atlantic City, NJ with high winds and high tides that pushed water into New York City neighborhoods, reshaped New Jersey’s barrier islands, and caused widespread wind damage and power outages across eastern Pennsylvania.   In the days after the storm, the scope of damage continues to emerge.   The needs in the midst of clean-up and recovery change day-to-day.  But undoubtedly, the recovery is going to take awhile.

Mennonite Disaster Service has established a binational project in Staten Island’s hard hit Midland Beach neighborhood, which, according to the New York Times, contained the highest concentration of deaths from the storm.  Midland Beach is a collection of cottages densely packed together along New York Bay with views of the Verrazano Bridge in the distance.  It’s a tight neighborhood of long-term generations of residents alongside newly arriving immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Neighbors were trapped by what some residents call a tsunami wave that rolled in from the bay to the east, through marshes in the north and from a large field that had been an aircraft landing area in the south.   Water poured through the streets, rising rapidly, trapping neighbors in houses for hours.   New York Police evacuated residents stranded on rooftops and in attics by boat while neighbors helped neighbors by evacuating with four wheel drives and canoes.  Some residents died in their sleep as the water rose quickly.  Bodies were still being recovered last week, wedged amongst furniture and debris.

Mennonite Disaster Service teams began arriving in Staten Island from Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church in Brooklyn a few days after the storm.   Within the first week an assessment team from Mennonite Disaster Service New York came to survey storm damage in Staten Island and Queens.  The team quickly recognized the extent of damage and bumped up responsibility to the binational office.  A week after the storm, teams from Pennsylvania began arriving at Midland Beach’s Oasis Christian Center.

Oasis was formed from the merger of two congregations, one of which had been a member of Lancaster Mennonite Conference.  A member of the church whose house had been damaged had served on a MDS team in Arizona a decade ago.  The church buzzed with activity as they received donations from various sources and reached quickly into the neighborhood by offering food, clothing, and guidance.  Pastor Tim McIntyre made sure that the space could be used as an aid center.  The church’s sanctuary was turned into a makeshift warehouse with weekly worship moved off-site.  Food was cooked outside in the church’s courtyard.  Bottled water and cleaning supplies overflowed onto the church’s porch.

Mennonite Disaster Service followed the lead of New Yorkers in lending a hand, including NYC Mennonites.  A group from United Revival Mennonite Church responded to needs in Coney Island a few days after the storm.  Volunteers from Followers of Jesus Church went to work in Staten Island, helping with cleanup and organizing the cleanup efforts.   After initial surveys, MDS sought to establish an operation center in Staten Island, bringing in volunteers from upstate New York along with Ray Zimmerman, Region 1 coordinator and Mel Roes from Lowville, New York who leads MDS New York.  Isaac Zehr and Vernon Long have moved south to organize the operations.

Meanwhile, volunteers began to trickle in from Southeastern Pennsylvania, coming from Allentown, Lancaster, and Philadelphia regions for long days of travel and work.  Lodging options on Staten Island are limited.  Many persons affected by the disaster are bunking with other family members.   MDS efforts are beginning with a focus on families in the neighborhood near the church building and with families involved in Oasis Christian Center itself.

MDS expects to be in the neighborhood awhile; they pulled in a RV for temporary lodging and made some negotiations for housing for long-term volunteers in the neighborhood angling toward some possible facilities for week-long workers as well.   The devastation across the city is extensive.  Many families expect to be displaced for months.  Some homes have been condemned.  Other families aren’t sure they want to return to their once-flooded homes as they recognize their beautifully-situated neighborhood will always be vulnerable.

Staten Island is one of New York City’s five boroughs.  With a population of nearly a half million people, its only connection to the rest of the city is by the Verrazono Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry.  Its bridge crossings to New Jersey provide easy access to groups coming from the south or west.  To schedule a day of volunteering in Staten Island, call (800) 241-8111.  There are no options for longterm volunteers at this point beyond day trips.