A frigid spring break amid superstorm's ruins

by Barbara Denman/Florida Baptist Convention, posted Monday, March 23, 2015 (2 years ago)

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. (BP) -- Braving temperatures that barely reached 20 degrees, a team of Florida collegians formed a human chain to haul moldy and mildewed personal belongings from Caren FitzPatrick's cramped basement.

When Superstorm Sandy hit her Long Island home in 2012, the storm surge left three feet of rancid salt water in the basement of the family's home located two blocks from the ocean.

In the months since the rare October storm, the family has been overwhelmed by debilitating physical and emotional illnesses, a daughter's military deployment and a tangle of bureaucratic red tape required to repair the house. They had not touched the ruined furniture, clothes and family treasures rotting away in the basement. For more than two years, the young adult children whose bedrooms had been located there slept and ate in the family's only living space upstairs.

The collegians spent hours passing the garbage along the snow and ice-covered driveway to the street. Their contagious joy drew attention from neighbors in the Long Island community of Long Beach who questioned why the students would tackle such a nasty job.

Such inquiries did not daunt the students who seized opportunities to voice the Gospel to all who would listen during the week-long trip.

"In Florida we see what hurricanes can do," said Rhett Thomas of Groveland, Fla. "By doing this we are helping someone with needs in their home who have been devastated, while at the same time sharing the love of Christ with them."

"I can help so why shouldn't I?" added Eric Turner of Deland, Fla. "As a bonus, we get to share the Gospel while we work."

The group was among 27 Baptist Collegiate Ministry students from the University of Florida who, along with campus minister Eddie Gilley, spent spring break week, March 1-7, volunteering with Superstorm Sandy Rebuild, an outgrowth of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief's response in the immediate hours after the storm. From meeting emergency needs with food, water and basic survival items, SBDR now is helping homeowners with no place else to turn to rebuild their homes and, they hope, their lives.

Rebuild project coordinator Bill Johnson and his wife Donna from Grayson, Ky., have served since the first day of the storm, initially helping with the mass feeding kitchens. Their involvement grew from the short-term essentials to long-term needs. Recent funding from the American Red Cross and the New York Institute of Technology enabled the rebuild work to continue through August.

Southern Baptists are the only active recovery group still here, Johnson said. Baptists' long-term involvement has been noted by government entities and social workers, who refer the needy to the project.

Two years later with 4,287 volunteers giving more than $5.2 million valued in volunteer hours to rebuild 159 homes and assist another 636 homeowners with chainsaw and repair projects, needs are still being met, he said. At least 40-45 homeowners unable to find help elsewhere have recently requested assistance from SBDR.

While homes may appear to be back to normal on the outside, Johnson said many residents are living in damaged homes. SBDR is working along the southern coast of Long Island east of New York City in an area where scores of communities line the Atlantic Ocean.

Homeowners who have been helped at this point, Johnson said, are among the most vulnerable -- 80-90 years old on fixed incomes, paying as much as $35,000 annual in property taxes, with no other resources.

While they should be living their golden years in homes they have sacrificed all their lives to pay for, these seniors are spending their last years among the ruins.

Elena, who asked her last name not be used, is one of them.

Elena lives in Bellmore, N.Y., along one of the many canals that run through the Long Island region. Safe on the top floor during the storm, the 91-year-old widow never imagined the storm surge would sweep a six-foot wall of water into her basement, causing mold to sprout in the walls. She was without flood insurance and repairs she tried to make proved insufficient.

The Baptist College Ministry volunteers laid concrete in her basement, a skill one BCM student likened to frosting a cake. Other SBDR volunteer teams had framed, hung drywall, painted and built a bathroom in the underground portion of the home.

"If it wasn't for the Baptists, I don't know what I would do," Elena said. "It's unbelievable what they are doing for this house. They are the most wonderful persons in the world. As a Catholic I shouldn't say that, but it was the Baptists that came to help."

The Florida students helped four other homeowners with repairs in their houses, including one elderly widow whose home was about to be condemned by the city. The home had never been touched since the storm and she was living among the damage and debris. The students started the work, with other volunteers to continue cleanup in the weeks ahead.

Chuck McCabe welcomed the collegians into his working-class Massapequa, N.Y., home where he had lived since 1967. It was once a beautiful home, he said. "This place was fantastic until the storm hit," causing the rain and wind to destroy its contents and walls.

Students repaired drywall, taped and spackled ceilings and painted walls in the living room and den. "They are God-sent. They are my little angels," McCabe said of the BCM students, who took time to befriend and pray with him during their work.

So, while other collegians across the United States flocked to the sun-kissed Florida beaches during their spring break, why did these Baptist students fight the cold, snow and nastiness of a job to minister in New York.

Ryan Kaufman a senior criminology student from Largo, Fla., who organized the trip, explained. "I came here two years ago with a smaller team. I saw the devastation, the look in people's eyes when they told you their story. There was fear in their eyes," he said.

"These are people who can't help themselves, and I can help," he said.

Mission trips are second nature to Mandy Devane, a 20-year-old from Kings Baptist Church in Vero Beach who has participated in 16 trips. "Our church didn't go to camp; we built houses through World Changers and took international mission trips."

She recalled paying $350 for the trip "to sit on a scorching hot roof in Alabama" to nail shingles on plywood. When she was not on the roof, she was walking around a strange neighborhood verbally sharing her faith with people she had never met.

"When you can show the love of Christ and give the gift you've received from Him, it's the best gift, and gives you joy like none other. It becomes a passion."

Barbara Denman is the Florida Baptist Convention's director of communications. Persons and churches interested in helping with the Sandy Rebuild can contact project coordinator Bill Johnson at bljohnson@namb.net or 1-606-225-0067. Or go to www.namb.net/sandy.
Download Story