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After the Deluge: South Jersey Jewish Communities Continue to Recover from Superstorm

April 23, 2013 By:
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“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel’s three questions form the mission statement of Jewish Family Service of Atlantic & Cape May Counties in Margate City. The biggest “now” in JFS’s 70-year history happened when Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. Whereas FEMA, the Red Cross and other aid organizations had million-dollar budgets and thousands of employees and volunteers at their disposal, JFS’s massive, long-term disaster relief and recovery operation has been orchestrated by an 80-person staff with no previous experience in natural disasters. Here’s how they did it — and what still needs to be done.

Oct. 22: “All Hands on Deck”

On Oct. 22, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued advisories that a low-pressure tropical depression in Jamaica had coalesced into Tropical Storm Sandy. On Oct. 24, Sandy developed an eye and was renamed Hurricane Sandy. She slowed, then accelerated and headed for the East Coast; where she would make landfall — and with what strength — was a meteorological guessing game. But Andrea Steinberg, executive director of JFS, didn’t guess and didn’t wait. She mobilized. 

“We had a plan in place that would take us through a bad storm and the two or three days after it,” explains Beth Joseph, JFS’s director of communications and donor relations. “But the Jersey shore had not prepared for something of this magnitude in decades, if ever. The forecast was for a storm like we had never seen. So it was all hands on deck.”

Advance preparations focused on securing people and property, and minimizing damage so that JFS could be up and running immediately after the storm. “We have a fleet of approximately 30 vehicles, and we moved all of them offshore so that if damage was bad on the island, we would be able to get out to the evacuation shelters,” Joseph explains. “We printed our client lists so we would have them if we lost power or lost the computers entirely. We did checks with our homeless population to make sure that they were in shelters, and made lists of which ones they were in so we’d know where they were.

“We also checked in with the members of our elderly population,” Joseph says. “The anticipation of any storm creates anxiety for them because they are dependent upon other people. We made sure that they were safe and comfortable. We also made sure that they had their medications in case their pharmacies closed, which is exactly what happened” — Margate’s two CVS stores reopened only last month.

Food was another concern. Anticipating power outages that would result in spoiled food, JFS organized its food pantry so it would be ready to distribute non-perishable items after the storm. “By the time we were done,” Joseph says, “the hallways of our building were lined with individual parcels, ready to go.”

Meanwhile, JFS staffers were preparing their own homes and families for disaster. At a certain point, preparations were still precautionary, Joseph says. Then the forecast changed. “Just in case” became “just in time.” On Oct. 28, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered a mandatory evacuation of the barrier islands from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Sandy’s eye was pointed directly at the Jersey shore. 

Oct. 29: Landfall

At 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 29, Sandy made landfall near Brigantine. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explained, the hurricane merged with a weather system arriving from the west and became a post-tropical cyclone, or what came to be known as Superstorm Sandy. Asked to describe what conditions were like during the storm, Joseph is quiet for several moments before finally saying, “I don’t have the words to explain how bad it was.”

Oct. 31: Deployment

Although the JFS office was closed during the storm, it did not sustain damage. Several staff members had not evacuated, choosing to weather the storm in their homes. It was those staffers who opened JFS’s food pantry two days after Sandy hit. Almost immediately, a line formed and snaked down the street. Very quickly, JFS staffers relayed the message that the need for help was more massive than they had anticipated. 

Because of government-imposed travel bans on shore areas, residents were not allowed to return to their homes. “Eventually, we got permission from the police to get a few executives on the island,” Joseph explained. “We then realized that a lot of people couldn’t get to us, so we retrieved the vehicles that we had safeguarded and started driving through the streets, going to shelters to provide assistance. In addition to distributing at our office, we also set up food distribution outside the local community building in Ventnor.”

Word spread from neighbor to neighbor and town to town that water, milk, food and household cleaning supplies were available from JFS. “We told radio stations and they broadcast our location,” Joseph says. “The mayors’ offices put it on their websites and Facebook pages.”

Donations of food, clothing, diapers and household items started coming in from food banks and other charitable organizations looking to JFS to distribute relief. The office was piled to the ceiling with donated goods. Everything needed to be sorted and packaged into individual parcels. More staff arrived to help, but the work was as endless as the need. 

“Three days after the storm, we realized that this was going to be a long-term relief effort and that we couldn’t run it out of our office,” Joseph says. “That’s when we called Sister Sheila.”

Nov. 1: The St. James-Jewish Family Service Center Opens

Located at Portland and Ventnor Avenues in Ventnor, the former St. James parish is now part of the Holy Trinity Parish of the Archdiocese of Camden. In its restructuring, completed in 2010, the St. James church and life center remained open, but the convent and school were closed. Because of the school’s size and proximity to Atlantic City and Ventnor City, where JFS was seeing the most need, the unused school was an ideal location for a donation and distribution center. 

Sister Sheila Holly, pastoral associate for Holy Trinity Parish, made the arrangements with JFS. “She said that as long as we were going to help everyone, we could use the building for free,” Joseph explains. “She basically gave us the keys and said, ‘Help as many people as you can.’ ”

There were some drawbacks. Because the school had been closed, there was no heat and limited lighting in the building. But within hours of getting access to the building, JFS had set up distribution areas for water, milk and food, household items and the piles of clothing donations. The Red Cross set up short-term meal service at the St. James. It became the go-to place for disaster relief in the area, remaining open for six months after the storm — long after Red Cross shelters had closed. 

JFS normally services 200 households per month. On the first day that the St. James center opened, they served 150 in five hours. Over the next six months, 7,600 households in the Atlantic City area — people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds — would be served at the St. James center. 

Meanwhile, back at the office, JFS staff members were fielding inquiries from people across the country who wanted to donate money and goods. To concentrate that effort on what was needed most, JFS created a website and Facebook page with a very specific wish list. Telephone hotlines and a Sandy-centric email address were created to handle donations and inquiries. One of those inquiries came from Eric Goldberg of AC Linen Supply.

Nov. 9: Operation AC Linen

As vice president of development of AC Linen Supply, Goldberg is a business partner in one of the Jersey shore’s largest companies. With approximately 600 employees in Atlantic County, and four locations, including the 70,000-square foot Atlantic City facility, AC Linen is a 24-7 operation that processes more than 250,000 pounds of laundry daily for every casino and most hotels along the Jersey shore and in Delaware and Pennsylvania. 

AC Linen’s facilities weren’t significantly damaged by Sandy, but the damage to the surrounding areas caused the company to close for six days. And on the seventh day ... “Food spoiled in refrigerators, flooding in homes, belongings destroyed … ” Goldberg lists the problems that his employees shared when they returned to work. 

“First of all, every single employee showed up for that first day of work, despite the fact that Atlantic City was still a complete mess,” Goldberg says. “Traffic lights were not working. Trees were down. Wires were down. A bunch of our employees were in temporary shelters because their homes were damaged. I knew a lot of that before I got to work, because we had been in touch with managers and with the union, Philadelphia Joint Board/Workers United. But when I walked through our facility and saw our hundreds of employees, their stories poured out. They said that they needed food and a place to stay. It was heartbreaking. My partners and I realized that the business problem was secondary. What came first was this urgent social problem. That’s when I called Andrea.”

Goldberg had recently met Steinberg, the JFS director, at a local charity event. Goldberg, his family and AC Linen are involved with many civic and charitable organizations, including the Milton and Betty Katz JCC of Atlantic County, Lightkeepers Society at Shore Medical Center, Atlantic City Hotel & Lodging Association and the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. “But I’m in the laundry business — I had no idea how to organize a massive food distribution,” Goldberg says. “I didn’t know the best kind of food to get for people, where to get it in large quantities, or any of that.”

“Eric called and said, ‘We have 500 employees who need help immediately,’ ” Joseph remembers. “What can we do — and fast?’”

JFS partnered with AC Linen to coordinate an enormous and immediate food distribution. Goldberg and his partners — with a contribution from the union — spent what he quantifies as “tens of thousands of dollars” to purchase 18,000 pounds of food from the community food bank. AC Linen sent JFS two 30-foot trucks; they returned to the plant stacked floor-to-ceiling with food. Volunteers from the company and the union sorted the items and packed them into individual parcels. 

On Nov. 9, distribution began. “The goal was not to give them enough for a day or two,” Goldberg says. “People walked out of here with enough to restock their refrigerators and pantries.”

“To provide all of that food for 500 employees in one day was a huge undertaking,” Joseph says. “It was amazing to see a company care so much about their employees. We were so proud to partner with them.” 

The food distribution was only the beginning of what AC Linen would do to assist its employees. “Everyone was very grateful — it was a great scene here,” Goldberg says. “Then I started hearing about people who lost all of their clothes. Then I heard about landlords kicking people out because of damage and people not being able to find housing. So I got on the phone with Andrea again and said, ‘What else can we do to help our employees?’ ”

Steinberg’s answer: Plenty. In the space of a week or so, JFS helped AC Linen set up a donation and distribution center that mirrored what was happening at the St. James school. AC Linen sponsored a clothing drive that netted over 30 boxes of donated items. The company’s cafeteria was turned into a distribution center and became lined with racks and boxes of clothes, organized by size and gender. 

To help with housing, AC Linen turned its conference room into a FEMA center. Working with the union and New Jersey State Sen. Jim Whelan, Goldberg made arrangements for FEMA representatives to go to AC Linen to assist employees in filling out paperwork for financial aid. AC Linen human resources executives and union representatives helped employees, providing translation services when needed. The different forms of assistance went on for weeks. 

“While I’m involved with different charitable groups, I had not seen one of them execute their mission like this, up close and personal,” Goldberg says. “JFS was amazing.” The feeling was mutual: Goldberg was nominated to and now sits on JFS’s board of directors.

Nov. 18: Jewish South Jersey Unites

While working on the ground at AC Linen, the St. James center and at various shelters in Atlantic and Cape May counties, JFS staff also coordinated donations streaming in from around the country. 

“There was one couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Stanton, who collected donations from people in their hometown of Shelby, Ohio,” Joseph remembers. “They then paid $900 to rent a box truck and drove it from Shelby to the St. James school packed with more than $30,000 worth of donated items. Diapers, cleaning supplies, trash bags, all sorts of things. It was fantastic.”

Other help came from closer to home. Volunteers from congregations in Camden and Burlington counties — Adath Emanu-El, Beth El and others — traveled to the St. James center to assist with the sorting and distribution of donations.

In the beginning of November, the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey partnered with its six agencies, the Tri-County Board of Rabbis and South Jersey synagogues to create The Hurricane Sandy Community-Wide Relief Project. A list of requested food items was spread by flyers and email, Facebook and phone calls. On Nov. 18, a caravan of 25 cars transported the donations from the Federation in Cherry Hill to the St. James school. On board were approximately 200 bags of canned food and household items, plus winter coats, blankets and diapers. Among them were 20 bags of winter coats donated by the Ravitz Family Foundation, the nonprofit organization created by the owners of the South Jersey chain of ShopRite supermarkets. That was only the beginning of what the Ravitz family would do to assist JFS.

December-January: Ravitz ShopRites’ Right Donations

“I know that Steve Ravitz has a home at the shore and I know that the Ravitz Family Foundation is very generous,” says Joseph, “but we were completely blown away by how much they helped and for how long that help continued.”

After the November coat drive, the Ravitz Family Foundation co-hosted a fundraiser in December. The celebrity bartending event was held at Redstone American Grill in Marlton and featured local politicians and business owners and former Philadelphia Eagles Ron Jaworski and Tra Thomas. Through ticket sales and a silent auction, the Ravitzes raised $12,000 for JFS. 

In January, the Ravitz Family Foundation designated JFS as the beneficiary for donations given at registers. At all five Ravitz ShopRites — in Cherry Hill, Marlton, Moorestown and Mount Laurel — cashiers asked customers if they wanted to donate $1 towards Sandy relief. They did: In one month, the ShopRites raised $17,000, one dollar at a time. 

“Our campaign was successful in raising both awareness and funds to support local advocacy services and support in an area that was hit so hard by Superstorm Sandy,” says Steve Ravitz, chairman of the board of the Ravitz Family Foundation and president of ShopRites of Cherry Hill. “Even though the storm hit almost four months ago, the harsh reality is that people are still suffering in very basic ways. We are honored to help our community in this small but significant way.”

There wasn’t anything small about it, Joseph says. “Not only is it a tremendous financial help to JFS, but it came at a great time,” she explains. “Going forward, Sandy will fade from people’s minds. But we are still down here picking up the pieces — and will be for a very long time.”

The Future: Long-Term Recovery

On March 29, five months after Sandy hit, Andrea Steinberg was still knee-deep in disaster recovery. With more than 4,000 people still displaced on Absecon Island, she worries about the lack of clean, affordable housing. Flood insurance payments have been slow to arrive for many landlords; many cannot afford to repair damage to their properties. 

To assist those people and many others, JFS partnered with the Atlantic City Long-Term Recovery Group, formed with the Atlantic City mayor’s office, emergency management agencies, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, North American Lutheran Church, Second Baptist Church and local businesses. The Recovery Group has acquired 2,800 square feet of space in Atlantic City to use for long-term assistance to Sandy victims. 

“In addition to supporting that group, we have hired a full-time coordinator, plus an intake person to deal with the increased caseload from Sandy,” Steinberg says. “Our goal is to support those who will be displaced in a long-term way and get them into stable environments.”

Among those people are the elderly, a particularly at-risk population. “Older adults already feel that they have a loss of independence, and many are living on fixed incomes and can’t afford certain home repairs,” Steinberg explains. “If they are living in a home where there is a leak and they don’t fix it, the leak gets worse. The mold gets worse. Everything gets worse. Our staff members are going into these communities and into these homes trying to help people resolve these problems. Many times, the elderly don’t ask for help. We’re on the streets in the communities, looking for people who are falling through the cracks of aid organizations.”

While physical things like food, clothing and property damage continue to be issues, the longest-term damage from Sandy will be psychological. “Post-traumatic stress disorder cases have hugely increased,” Steinberg says. “A lot of people we are serving were living somewhat marginally already and had some pre-existing trauma that PTSD from Sandy is exacerbating. One trauma over another affects people’s ability to function. It manifests in high anxiety, panic responses and insomnia. People who have no other housing options are living with family and friends and conflict arises there. Children are having recurring fears about another storm. They are having trouble functioning in school and socially. There is constant worry from adults about everything, from what will happen if there is a lot of rain this spring to mold that may show up in the summer heat.”

To meet the need for psychological counseling, JFS has ramped up its outpatient therapy programs. “It’s cognitive behavioral treatment — we have employees trained to help both adults and children,” Steinberg says. “We are looking for funding for these programs, and for other assistance that will be ongoing, long term.”

How long is long term? “Years,” Steinberg says, “and I honestly don’t know if we will ever be the same as we were before Sandy. Things have changed forever.”

Melissa Jacobs is the senior editor of Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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