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September/October 2013 Issue

Schools Assist Residents After Hurricane Sandy
By Kate Jackson
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 5 P. 8

October marks one year since Hurricane Sandy devastated regions of New Jersey and New York. While the catchy media jingle “Stronger Than the Storm” became an earworm, social work students in these affected areas were busily demonstrating their strength in helping survivors heal throughout this challenging year.

When disaster strikes, social workers always are part of a response team to help the injured, displaced, and beleaguered. In the wake of Sandy, however, some social workers and their academic communities found themselves among those needing help. Still, they mustered their spirits and marshaled their skills to help each other, their university associates, and their community partners and clients. While often reeling themselves, they tended to people’s needs in the areas hardest hit after the hurricane cut a path up the eastern seaboard, decimated the New Jersey shoreline, battered the coast of New York, and flooded much of Lower Manhattan on October 29, 2012.

Social workers throughout the affected regions waded in to help, especially in the parts of New York and New Jersey most affected by the storm. Among them were the students, faculty, and administrators at Rutgers University School of Social Work, with campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, NJ, and those of Adelphi University School of Social Work, in four New York locations—at two campuses on ravaged Long Island, one in sodden Manhattan, and another in the nearby Hudson Valley.

A grant from the Robin Hood Foundation and a partnership with the New Jersey Association of Mental Health allowed direct outreach to community members in counties most damaged by the storm—Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May, NJ—through a project called the Sandy Disaster Relief Initiative (SDRI).

“First, we wanted to provide disaster relief services to community members by connecting them to various organizations, such as our field placement training agencies,” says project coordinator Sandra Moroso. “Second, we wanted to be especially sensitive to those community members who were newly vulnerable and in need of social and mental health services for the first time. So many New Jersey residents were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and Rutgers School of Social Work was eager to provide support to them.”

The project team developed training programs for the initiative’s disaster relief fellows, partnering with local service agencies: Arc of Atlantic County, the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, CPC Behavioral Healthcare in Monmouth County, The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey in Ocean County, and Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “The fellows were trained to respond to the unique needs of individuals who are survivors of disaster and trauma,” Moroso says. “Using the agencies as launching sites, our fellows began outreach to community members in need of service.”

With the enormity of the disaster and the magnitude of the need, it’s not surprising that the initiative faced challenges from the start. The fellows were tasked with learning what resources were available and quickly finding the ones with which to help. “By developing strong relationships with community organizations,” Moroso says, “the fellows were able to provide services to people in need.”

Disaster relief fellow Rachel Alvarez is particularly proud of one of the many SDRI projects: a community-building event held this spring in Sea Bright, NJ. “We had dessert and coffee, and a local high school band provided music, but the main purpose was to create a venue where neighbors could reconnect and spend time with each other.” Alvarez brainstormed with Frank Lawrence, a volunteer coordinator, to decide what mental health needs were most urgent. Together, they created a process by which they could mold services to individuals’ specific needs. The event, she says, led to the creation of focus groups to determine the specific nature of the services that would help the Sea Bright residents move forward both socially and emotionally.

The disaster relief fellows and community outreach workers continue to provide outreach and case management to the four devastated counties, Moroso says, and are helping community members with a long-term recovery plan. The grant project ends in September; however, “Rutgers University School of Social Work plans to continue to train students in disaster and trauma relief through additional private funding,” she says.

Both Survivors and Service Providers
Adelphi University itself was affected and, in part, temporarily shut down by the superstorm, suddenly making its students, faculty, and administrators clients as well as service providers, explains Carol S. Cohen, DSW, an associate professor at the School of Social Work.

In the early days, they galvanized attention and took action to help provide immediate relief and moral support and to get students and the school up and running again. For example, the school immediately started a Facebook page to help people stay in touch; the university lent laptops to people who’d lost their computers; and a relief drive, including direct aid and support, was spearheaded for survivors, which included the members of the School of Social Work community themselves as well as clients in the wider community.

A team worked to transform a student lounge into a respite area where students and faculty could process how they viewed the posthurricane experience “through their social work eyes,” as Cohen describes it. Workshops on disaster relief were held, and students and faculty also gathered forces and rolled up their sleeves to help with demolition and rebuilding.

Two students in Adelphi’s School of Social Work who participated in these community-building activities observed how the storm brought out both the best and the worst in service providers and, for them, the opportunity to bring a social work sensibility to these activities not only helped other storm survivors in the community but also contributed to their own healing.

Student Sara Matos’ childhood experiences made her no stranger to “being displaced, without resources, and dealing with hardship.” When Hurricane Sandy devastated her family and community, she reached out for resources and was stung by some of the harsh responses she received by those in a position to help. With a social worker’s perspective, however, she was able to turn a deeply disconcerting experience into a source of inspiration. “Being a part of the school’s social action efforts around Sandy brought me some comfort in knowing that there is a possibility to change these large systems so that others will not receive this kind of treatment in their times of need, when they are most vulnerable and distraught.”

Student Deborah Turhan took advantage of the Sunday morning guided meditation that helped students relieve the stress that comes with disaster recovery. “The social and emotional support that I received through the Adelphi community helped inspire me to create a public ‘speak out’ in Long Beach [NY] in order to identify the real needs of the community in which my family’s business is located.”

Being part of the school’s social action committee, she says, “was an essential part of my Superstorm Sandy recovery process. It offered a forum in which to discuss both the storm’s impact at the micro and macro level as well as its effect on a personal and professional level.”

Out of the discussions, the Oral History Project was created. One of the more unique responses from social work communities, this ongoing project allows everyone involved to share their impressions of the ways in which the professional and the personal have collided. Cohen, along with other volunteers, began to collect oral histories of any students, faculty members, or administrators who were directly affected by the hurricane and who could “use their social work lens and their personal lens” to create a record of the storm’s impact. “We hope the project will tell us a lot about service delivery, help influence policy, and make a difference in future disasters,” Cohen notes.

She says every time disasters strike, it’s a learning experience. Because social workers and social work students in this tragedy were both survivors and service providers, Cohen suggests they have a unique point of view that will help inform future disaster relief efforts.

— Kate Jackson is an editor and freelance writer based in Milford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.