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disaster relief

Hurricane Harvey caused devastation across Texas and neighboring states last week. Stock photo

By Alex Petroski, Rita J. Egan, Kevin Redding, Desirée Keegan and Sara-Megan Walsh

Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern coast of Texas as a Category 4 storm, dumping historic floodwaters on the region and leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes, injured or worse. About 1,700 miles away several efforts to raise money and accumulate food and supplies for those affected sprung up across the North Shore this past week into the weekend. Business owners, nonprofits, citizens and even kids pitched in to try to help in the early stages of getting victims back on their feet.

Port Jefferson

Tara Higgins, Kate Higgins and Joseph Higgins, owner of Tara Inn in upper Port, during a fundraiser Sept. 4 at the pub to benefit victims of Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Alex Petroski

In October it will be 40 years that Joseph Higgins has owned Tara Inn pub on Main Street in upper Port. When Higgins heard of the devastation in Houston and the surrounding region as a result of Hurricane Harvey, he said it resonated with him in a way that left him feeling like action was required. The pub owner decided to hold a benefit Sept. 4, Labor Day, to raise money for people affected by the massive storm. In addition to the sale of raffle tickets and Harvey relief T-shirts donated by Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, Higgins pledged to donate 100 percent of the bar’s food and beverage sales from the day to a group providing aid for victims in the region.

Tara Inn amassed more than $15,200 in sales and donations during the course of the day, which will be donated to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which was created to honor the memory of Siller, who was a firefighter killed in the line of duty Sept. 11, 2001. The organization is asking for donations to help Harvey victims on its website, and 100 percent of the money raised will go toward supplies and helping those affected.

“Forty years ago I had eight kids, my wife and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I said, ‘God, help me raise these kids,’ and he did,” the 86-year-old Higgins said during the event, while seated near the pub’s front door with a container for additional donations. “And I can’t thank God enough for all he has given me and that’s why we give back. I’ve had a great life, and I like to give back. There have been times in my life where I had an opportunity to do something good and I didn’t do it, and I always regret that. Every time something comes along that we can do for somebody else, I want to do it.”

Tara Inn was filled with guests and volunteers throughout the day, including two of Higgins’ daughters.

“This is the family business, and we’ve done fundraisers in the past, and we just thought it was our small contribution to people that have been really devastated,” said Tara Higgins, whom the bar was named after. “Our customers are very loyal and really step up when we do fundraisers.”

Bubba Davis, a Port Jefferson Village resident for 78 years, was among those in attendance for the fundraiser at Tara Inn.

“This family here, they’ve always done that — they’re fantastic people,” Davis said.

Higgins’ wife of 65 years, Pat, was also at the pub for the event.

“He has the biggest heart in the world,” she said of her husband. “We feel so sorry for all the poor kids.”

In addition to the Tara Inn fundraiser, an emergency clothing drive will be hosted Sept. 9 at the Avalon Park barn in Stony Brook from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. by Knead 2 Feed, an organization that works with Port Jeff elementary school students to help the homeless. The organization, which was founded by former Port Jeff resident Jane Parker, features about 40 kids from the local area ranging from 5 to 14 years old who typically meet once a month to fulfill their mission of collecting goods to donate to a homeless shelter in Manhattan. This month their meet up will be the clothing drive.

“It’s a great group of kids who we’re really just teaching how important volunteering is and just trying to inspire them to be altruistic and help other people,” Parker said in a phone interview. She added the group has plans to drive a U-Haul truck to Texas in the coming weeks to deliver the bounty from the clothing drive.

Port Jefferson high school graduate Shaughnessy Harrison and her team at Keller Williams Realty Homes & Estates also collected donations of supplies to fill a truck  headed to Texas Sept. 7.

STAT Health Urgent Care centers, including the one in Port Jefferson Station, also accepted donations of supplies and nonperishable foods through Sept. 4, which were loaded into a truck and driven to Texas this week.

Setauket

Eric Cohen, president of True View Window Cleaning and Power Washing, with donations he collected and plans to drive to Texas to donate to Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A few days after Hurricane Harvey left devastation behind in its wake in southeastern Texas, a Setauket business owner sat in his office surrounded by boxes and bags of much-needed staples.

Eric Cohen, president of True View Window Cleaning and Power Washing, said he was watching news coverage of the hurricane with his 12-year-old daughter Jamie when she turned to him and said, “That’s not going to happen to us Daddy, right?”

The Port Jeff resident said he started explaining to her there was no need to worry because volunteers would bring the flood victims food and help rebuild their houses. It was then he said he realized he needed to do something.

“I figured she’d grasp it better if I did something than explain it,” Cohen said.

The business owner decided he would collect food, toiletries and clothing, load up a truck and transport them to one of the drop-off centers in Texas. He said this is the first time he has organized a drive like this, but as soon as he made the decision to do so, he posted on social media and called clients. In the days that followed, dozens of people stopped by with donations, and a few of Cohen’s clients have helped store items in their offices.

This past weekend, he loaded a 24-foot enclosed trailer with cases of water, granola bars, Ramen noodles, canned goods, diapers, toothpaste, deodorant and blankets.

Cohen said he’s excited and the donation drive has been satisfying, but he is a bit nervous about the trip. Before choosing a day to drive down, he was monitoring the weather, availability of gas in Texas and safety issues. Cohen plans on posting updates about the trip on his business Facebook page, www.facebook.com/trueviewcleaningservices.

“I kind of have butterflies in my stomach thinking about the trip down,” Cohen said. 

His daughter said she thinks Cohen’s volunteer mission is cool.

“It’s nice because we have a lot of things that they used to have, and now they don’t have anything, and now he’s going to help them,” Jamie said.

In addition to Cohen’s Hurricane Harvey relief drive, Alchemy Martial Arts and Fitness of Setauket, located at 254 Main St., will be accepting donations for flood victims until Sept. 16. All contributions will be dropped off at U.S. Rep. Tom Souzzi’s (D-Glen Cove) office in Huntington.

The school owner, Nick Panebianco posted on Facebook he was approached by 7-year-old student Josh Rossler who asked: “What are we doing to help with what’s going on in Texas?”

“He really impressed me today, and I hope all my students can take this act as an example of how a martial artist holds themselves in and out of the classroom,” Panebianco wrote. 

The board of Jefferson’s Ferry life plan community in South Setauket was moved to donate $5,000 to the LeadingAge Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief Fund after a photo of La Vita Bella Assisted Living Home residents awaiting rescue in waist deep water appeared in various news outlets. LeadingAge represents organizations serving older adults in 38 states, and in the past members of LeadingAge donated $1.3 million in total for victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy.

“Seeing the footage and photos from Houston, particularly of some of our most vulnerable populations, quickly moved us to action,” George Rice, chair of Jefferson’s Ferry’s board of directors, said. “Knowing that LeadingAge would target 100 percent of our donation to help seniors in need made it easy to help.”

Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai Fire Department volunteers box up assorted items to be shipped directly to shelters in Houston. Photo by Kevin Redding

A cardboard sign spray-painted with the words “Help Texas” greeted residents who stopped by the Mount Sinai Fire Department over the weekend.

In an effort dubbed “Help Us Help Texas,” volunteer firefighters collected hundreds of items — including cases of water, pet food, nonperishable foods, diapers, contractor bags and paper towels — from members of the community, who dropped the goods off to the firehouse on Mount Sinai-Coram Road Sept. 2 and 3.

As residents pulled into the parking lot with vehicles full of much-needed supplies for those suffering in the wake of the storm, all members of the department from junior firefighters to chiefs helped carry them in, while other volunteers got to work boxing them up to be delivered to shelters in Houston.

“It’s so encouraging that everybody can get together and do what needs to be done under these types of circumstances,” said safety officer Dan Desmond, who has been a volunteer with the Mount Sinai department for 30 years.

Desmond said he wasn’t surprised to see so many people stopping by to help.

“There’s nothing stronger than the bond that Long Islanders have,” he said. “Whether it’s for somebody in Alaska or down in Texas, if somebody needs help, Long Island’s going to come together.”

Adam Thomas, an 11-year volunteer who organized the event, said he immediately sprung into action because he has friends who serve as firemen near Houston. As he and other Mount Sinai volunteers couldn’t make the trip to Texas, he thought of the next best thing.

Through Facebook, emails, phone calls and word of mouth, Thomas promoted the donation drive in the week preceding it.

With a direct contact on the scene in Houston, Thomas was also able to compile a specific list of supplies for residents to contribute. Rather than clothing or cash, the most crucial supplies included batteries, flashlights, cleaning supplies, mops, hygiene products, masks, goggles and bug spray.

“My friends down there, they’ve been working all night, and sent me a text saying, ‘We need mosquito sprays’ because they’re getting slaughtered by them — they have fire ants all over the place too,” Thomas said.

As another car full of items pulled in, Thomas said the initiative felt wonderful.

“It’s not just me doing it, it’s everybody that’s helping,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

Department lieutenant Rob Pobjecky, who helped Thomas get the event off the ground, pointed to another storm’s relief effort as inspiration.

“I think that the outpouring of help that we got from around the nation with Hurricane Sandy really helped spawn this idea that we can give back and help others in their time of need,” Pobjecky said.

The lieutenant said  the event was evidence of social media being put to good use.

“I’m not the biggest fan of social media, but in instances like this, I think it’s when it really is tremendous,” Pobjecky said.

As one resident dropped off water, baby wipes, cat food and paper towels, she said of her donations: “It’s the least we can do, right?”

Wading River

The New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing, based in Westhampton Beach, traveled to Texas to help with rescues.

The group rescued nearly 300 people by boat and helicopter as of Aug. 29, military officials said, though the number has grown substantially since then.

Wading River’s Ryan Dush, a 32-year-old staff sergeant, was one of about 140 members of the 106th Rescue Wing to help in Texas.

Dush’s rescues included an airlift of an extended family of nine, including a 1-month-old child. The family members, three of whom were adults, were inside of a partially submerged pickup truck. Dush led the group members to the roof, where he strapped them into harnesses that hoisted them 60 feet up to the helicopter.

According to Capt. Michael O’Hagan, the helicopter was already filled to capacity when the group was spotted.

“A male was spotted waving for help,” he told CBS News. “It turned out to be a family of nine.”

Dush can be seen in a video on the 106th Rescue Wing’s YouTube channel holding the infant as he was pulled back up to the helicopter.

It hit home for Dush, because he’s the father of a 1-year-old girl.

“It was definitely an emotional rescue, going after an infant that was that small,” Dush told CNN. “I rescued another infant today. It’s an amazing feeling to come out and help people in their time of need.”

In multiple YouTube videos on the channel and elsewhere, family members can be seen smiling and waving to Dush, mouthing “thank you” as they are dropped off at the George R. Brown Convention Center in West Houston, which is serving as a shelter.

“We as a New York wing are very well-acquainted with this type of a disaster, having lived through Hurricane Sandy only five years ago,” O’Hagan said. “We remember that in our time of need others came from around the nation to help us out, so we’re happy to do so. Everyone that’s here is a volunteer. This is the very definition of what we do as the Air National Guard — these things we do so that others may live.”

Smithtown

A Smithtown-based charity has sent volunteers down to Texas to make sure man’s best friends aren’t forgotten in a time of need.

Volunteers from Guardians of Rescue, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that works to protect the wellbeing of all animals and come to the aid of those in distress, have been rescuing pets affected by Hurricane Harvey and reuniting them with their owners.

“The Guardians have been taking rescued animals to the Montgomery Animal Control where Best Friends have set up an emergency intake shelter to care for animals displaced from the hurricane and flooding, and to get them reunited with their owners,” Guardians of Rescue posted on their Facebook page Sept. 6. “And while we didn’t rescue the dogs in the video, we did get to witness the happy moment of a woman who had just picked up her dogs that had been brought into the shelter.”

In addition, the Smithtown Fire Department joined others across Long Island in collecting donations for Hurricane Harvey victims at their main fire house on Elm Avenue through Sept. 6. All donations will be packed up on a tractor trailer for delivery to Houston residents.w

In Saint James, Sal’s Auto Body also opened its doors as a drop location for non-perishable and other donations for Hurricane Harvey victims.

Huntington

Halesite Fire Department coordinated with two Huntington business owners to serve as a drop-off point for donations to Hurricane Harvey victims through Sept. 6. Photo from Dom Spada

Two Huntington auto-shop owners found themselves unable to stand by without taking action after watching televised news broadcasts of the widespread flooding in Houston. It struck a painful reminder of Hurricane Sandy, five years ago this fall.

“I was watching the news with my wife, that morning, and my kids were very upset,” said Huntington resident George Schwertl. “We’re sitting here right now very comfortable and as we saw on the news, it’s a mess down there. We have to help.”

Schwertl, owner of Schwertl Auto Body in Islandia, and Andre Sorrentino, owner of PAS Auto Body in Huntington, coordinated as massive donation drive for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in coordination with Dom Spada, second assistant chief of Halesite Fire Department.

Halesite firefighters are particularly sympathetic to the damage flooding can cause, Spada said, given the area’s flooding in past storms and rescue missions of stranded automobile drivers.

“Water can be a nasty thing and wreck havoc on people’s homes and their lives. We had to do something,” Spada said. “We know how water can be, as we’ve had it with our own residents. We know what they are going through and it’s probably at least 10 times what we have gone through.”

Halesite’s Fire Chief Greg Colonna sent out a mass email to local residents Aug. 30 calling for donations of nonperishable food, toiletries, hygiene products, water, blankets and dog food to be dropped off to one of the participating businesses, the firehouse or one of its sister fire districts — Dix Hills, East Northport or Huntington Manor — by Sept. 6.

Schwertl said he and Sorrentino originally rented five Sprinter vans to be driven by local volunteers down to Houston Sept. 7, but that number had grown to eight trucks and tractor trailers, and was still growing.

“We’ve had a great turnout everywhere with the businesses, the fire departments,” Schwertl said. “It’s an incredible turnout, to see everyone coming together. People are volunteering to drive down with us, they are volunteering and offering trucks.”

The group has been coordinating with a legislative aide from U.S. Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) who previously lived in Texas, Suffolk County Legislator Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station), and state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) to get the specific locations of shelters in need of supplies, according to Schwertl.

“We want to be positive that when we get there they will take the donations and it will go into the right hands,” Sorrentino said.

The convoy of trucks and trailers driven by a mixed volunteer of retirees, construction workers, servicemen from Hauppauge to Huntington plans to depart late Sept. 7 for Texas.

A Huntington nonprofit has collaborated with the Town of Huntington to make sure that all of Hurricane Harvey’s victims, big and small, are getting aid so desperately needed.

Little Shelter Animal Rescue & Adoption Center of Huntington reached out and made arrangements with an animal rescue group in Rockwall, Texas, to accept shelter dogs and cats for adoption to make more room for more four-legged refugees.

“We are giving more room for the shelters down there so they can do the right thing, take in and reunite pets that they are still finding in the floods right now,”  Little Shelter executive director, David Ceely, said.

Ceely said Sept. 1 that the plans were underway to arrange transportation of approximately a dozen shelter animals up to Delaware where they will be handed off, and driven the rest of the way to New York with their expected arrival on Labor Day. The animals were then going to be split up for lodging with five dogs and three cats going to stay at Little Shelter, according to Ceely, while the Town of Huntington’s Animal Shelter was going to accept three to five dogs.

“Town municipal shelters don’t normally do this type of thing,” he said. “For Huntington Animal Shelter to do this is groundbreaking.”

The plans to transport these animals hit a speed bump earlier this week, according to Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter, who said the transportation of the animals was delayed due to legal issues with getting health certifications needed to allow pets to travel across state lines.

If the legal issues can be sorted, Ceely said the animals will be required to be put under a two-week quarantine period for medical and behavioral screening before being put up for adoption.

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