NY makes plea for volunteers

Last week's new flooding piled more damage and emotional stress on New York communities still recovering from June floods.

BY SUSAN KIM | BINGHAMTON, N.Y. | November 24, 2006

"With the first flood, the volunteers are completely worn out."

—Yvonne Newell

Last week's new flooding piled more damage and emotional stress on New York communities still recovering from June floods.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state representatives were assessing damages this week. Local officials say, in Broome County alone, hundreds of homes have water in the basement.

"I don't think we even know what the worst is yet," said Yvonne Newell, director of Project Recovery in Broome, Tioga and Delaware counties. Project Recovery, with funding from FEMA as well as local and state resources, is addressing the mental health needs of flood survivors in those three counties as well as Chenango, Montgomery and Otsego counties.

The ground can't hold any more water, reported residents. "The cracks that happened on people's foundations in June are now gaping holes," said Newell. "It's so saturated. The pressure of water and mud is caving in cracks in foundations. People have lost hundreds of furnaces. And it snowed last night in many areas."

Now that floodwaters have receded, house fires are beginning to strike as people who lost their furnaces use space heaters. "People are cutting corners because they don't have enough money to get the repairs done on their homes," said Newell.

Every day, she hears the individual stories that show how financial strain can balloon into tragedy. "We have a family in Binghamton. The son took his own life and it was flood-related. They had a funeral service for him last week and they haven't been able to bury this boy because they don't have the money to bury him."

There aren't enough crisis counselors to address an escalating emotional crisis, said Newell. "We're starting to prioritize where we send people," she said. "We used to be able to send our teams out door-to-door."

Caregivers who have been working on flood recovery since June are burning out, she said. "Today I spoke to someone at one of the community agencies, and this worker broke down. I sat here talking to her, reassuring her and telling her she's doing everything she can."

Before last week's flood, many responders were looking forward to a Thanksgiving break, she said. Now many of them will work. "We were so looking forward to Thanksgiving being a nice break for us. Well, this new flood took care of any peace of mind we might have had ourselves."

But the holiday is even harder on the flood survivors, she said. "We were anticipating that difficulty. We've done quite a bit of talking to clients about re-directing themselves and not expecting the holiday to be what it's always been."

The area badly needs volunteers who can help repair homes. A sea of volunteers helped out during the summer floods, explained Newell, but now many of them are unavailable or simply just tired. "We don't have enough hands. We need volunteers very, very badly. We can feed them. We can house them. With the first flood, the volunteers are completely worn out. They volunteered every day of the summer," said Newell.

The general public - and even national disaster response groups - seem to have little idea of the extent of both physical damage and emotional upheaval, said Newell. "I don't think people have a true awareness of how bad it really is here. Many people are looking at at least 18 months of rebuilding."

Last week's flooding wasn't as obviously visible as the June round of floods. "It doesn't look at bad because the river didn't overflow its banks," said Newell. "So the damages are hidden."

FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison Kevin Page said his teams are trying to boost awareness of the area's needs. "We want to get more of the national denominations aware of what's going on. Some of the people who got flooded out in June got flooded out again," he said. "It is really compounding a terrible situation. And temperatures are dropping."

Local churches - along with the Broome County Long Term Recovery Committee - have been addressing needs and boosting people's spirits, said Page. "The churches have done a wonderful job. A lot of the churches are getting together and holding Thanksgiving dinners."

As Newell fields calls on a crisis hotline, she said many people are saying that this latest flood is worse than the June one. "Emotionally, people just can't handle more water," she said. "Family members are losing it. Women are just crying their hearts out saying they just can't do this anymore."

Newell - along with other local responders - are hoping that last week's floods will be a federally declared disaster, a decision still being made. The June floods were federally declared, opening the way for people to receive individual assistance as well as loans.

Newell and other local responders reported they are pleased with the job FEMA has done in the area, as well as with state efforts to aid flood recovery.

"Every person I have worked with who is FEMA-related truly does care," said Newell. "They are willing to do whatever they can. And the state has stepped up as well."

Recovery is happening, she said - but more efforts are needed. "We're going to work people through to a place where they'll have a new normal."

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