"We Woke up to a Different World."

Emory alumni led life-changing relief projects in the aftermath of Sandy.

By Michelle Valigursky

Just two blocks from Stephen Kunen’s 11L home in Staten Island, the Atlantic Ocean surged forth with a fury, ripping homes from their foundations, leveling structures, and wreaking unprecedented havoc on neighborhoods. “The morning after the storm, we woke up to a different world,” Kunen says. “The area I grew up in was destroyed. Parks I played in were washed away. Restaurants had fallen apart. Sidewalks had collapsed. On our block, the fire department staged rescues in boats, trying to find survivors and pull people from the wreckage. People had stayed in their homes to prevent the same looting that happened after Hurricane Irene. They weren’t prepared for what came next.”

Kunen’s family home was spared the storm’s wrath, situated on a hill at the edge of the evacuation zone. In an area that had seen a renaissance of reconstruction, investment progress was eliminated. “Entire houses were washed out to sea. We were in a new age, and it was really sad.”

Without reliable communication, Staten Islanders heard little of governmental intervention in the tragedy. The first day, “We were on our own,” Kunen recalls. “People stayed inside. Nobody could get off the island and everything was shut down or covered in thick mud. Gas stations couldn’t get fuel and roads were impassable.” By day two, when local police officers, firemen, and sanitation workers had become local heroes, “we knew we had to rely on our own. People who have never spoken to one another were suddenly working side by side. We started helping each other, as neighbors.”

Kunen mobilized efforts and used a local bowling alley as a gathering point for essential goods. “We got such a great response we started sorting items into categories to make distribution easier.” Later, he and fellow volunteers assembled care packages to deliver. “We trekked through mud to find people who needed help. Trash was everywhere. Sanitation was there with bulldozers and trucks simply trying to clear the roads. Safety was a huge concern.”

About this time, government agencies began to set up help stations. When Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis organized everyone to meet up at a local church, Kunen responded. Sandy Team Yellow was founded. “We cleared streets full of debris and went house to house. By this point, people were exhausted,” he says. The team developed a system to clear homes stable enough to enter. “We’d undo the gas line, undo the water line then use brute force to make our way through broken glass and wiring to the basements. We’d clear out entire houses to find anything salvageable.”  The team removed heavy appliances first and personal goods second. They’d put items to the curb, and sanitation crews would follow with bulldozers to take away debris. “My neighbors simply couldn’t lift things anymore they’d been working so hard. They were beyond grateful.” When roads became treacherous, Kunen carried out his mission on bicycle with supplies on his back. 

After nearly a week of steady volunteering, Kunen returned to work as a lawyer in Manhattan. He experienced what he terms survivor’s guilt. “Things were still such a huge mess.”  Taking additional vacation time, he shifted his focus to providing storm victims with contact numbers for legal assistance in dealing with insurance, FEMA, and other agencies. 

“My fiancée Handie Peng 12PhD and I and another friend volunteered two weeks later at a small church sorting and unloading supplies that began coming in from all over the country. The support has been amazing! There were so many supplies coming in that these trucks (vans, cars, and even eighteen wheelers) were being turned away at other drop-off points, but this church would not turn anyone away, so we kept unloading supplies until late in the night on the street corners because there was nowhere else to store them. Whatever extra supplies there are will be given to New York's homeless. There was no power either, so we worked as long as the light-powered generators would hold out.”

In the midst of the chaos, the United States presidential election took place. “We had to go to our poll centers on Election Day. So I went to vote in the morning then biked to another neighborhood to join Team Yellow to help out. It was amazing that makeshift polling centers were set up in the midst of disaster areas and people went to vote.”

Kunen’s efforts to raise awareness continue. “Real people were affected by Superstorm Sandy. Real lives were torn apart. No one should forget that.” He adds, “The storm puts things in perspective for Thanksgiving. Even given all the economic uncertainty facing the country, we are just grateful to have what matters most -- our families and our health.”

Packing backpacks for kids in need

Superstorm Sandy did far more than just crush spirits as it wiped out beaches, homes, and businesses. The powerful storm stole the basic materials used every day by schoolchildren across the east coast. Anna Lacarerre-Moine 87C sprang into action “to get backpacks full of supplies to kids and families in need.” With the cooperation of families in her daughter’s school PS 116 (which was without power for a week), they collected socks, gloves, diapers, underwear, cleaning supplies, games, toys and coloring books, and also sold gift cards for The Home Depot and American Express.

“We ended up filling 300 backpacks the day of the event and ultimately raised $3000 in donations and an additional $900 in gift cards,” Moine says of the collective effort. To deliver the backpacks, the NY Runners In Support of Staten Island were called in to help. Backpacks were picked up and delivered to the Steven Siller Foundation. “We have 116 more to go that will be sent to Far Rockaway.” The children of PS 116 wrote notes to include to the children. Moine reports, “We also were contacted by schools in MD, NC, and CO who sent their backpacks & supplies directly to Coney Island & Far Rockaway.

She reflects on the experience. “This ultimately was about kids helping kids and it was so fulfilling to see how our community came together in such a short time. We just received our first thank you from a 10 year-old boy who got a backpack, and his heartfelt gratitude touched us immensely and reminded us that small gestures are so appreciated.”

Happy Hour for Hurricane Relief

With so much destruction in the community, New Yorker Alex Tange 07MBA knew he had to help. Within days, he set in motion a plan to gather Emory alumni and friends at a fundraising happy hour event arranged via his sustainability think tank A Clean Future. As co-founder of nextsociety.com, Tange knew he already had the perfect networking tool in place to gather the group. “We joined forces with the communications channels of GreenSpaces,” Tange explains, “and our turnout was great.”

Proceeds would benefit WorldCares, a charitable organization that has taken an active role in storm relief. With a goal to collect daily living essentials like blankets, batteries, toothbrushes, and canned foods, the group rallied. “The event was proudly sponsored by Brooklyn Brewery, whose executive director was also attending. Also present was a representative of WorldCares, who gave a short presentation about their initiatives and how they would use the proceeds,” Tange explains. The end result? “We collected four bags of donations (snacks, jackets, toiletries, and cleaning supplies) as well as raised $180 of monetary donation,” Tange said. “This may have been a small fundraiser altogether, but it was worth it all the same.”

Every Effort Makes a Difference

Emory alumni everywhere found creative ways to help storm victims. Author Jeremy Goldman 00C turned the launch party for his book Going Social into a fundraising hurricane relief effort.  Alumna Rena Grossfield 68C graciously offered rooms in her home to displaced alumni families.

Even thousands of miles away from the heart of the storm, Emory alumni responded to the call for help. Rachita Bhatt 05C is in her third year of Washington University Law School.  She wrote, “My family is from Edison, NJ, an area that was severely impacted by Superstorm Sandy.” With the help of similarly impacted students, Bhatt organized a fundraiser to benefit two charities local to NJ and NY. She shared, “We are also providing information to classmates, faculty, and staff who are interested in contributing monetary donations in other ways (i.e. providing a list of reputable charities that are on the ground helping victims). Finally, we are providing information to those who are not capable of donating money but can donate either goods or time. We have many students from the affected regions, so we are giving them names of specific places that have volunteer opportunities during Thanksgiving and over the winter break holiday. In terms of goods, we found several charities that are collecting warm clothing like coats and sweaters, blankets, towels, batteries, and hand warmers.”

Editor’s Note: Though the storm may have passed, the rebuilding is just beginning and will continue for quite some time. Please share your stories and images with us by writing to michelle.valigursky@emory.edu. For additional imagery and insight, please visit thepost.emory.edu. For more information on the New York City Emory Alumni Chapter, please contact Chapter President Tiffany Wollin 96BBA at tiffanywollin@gmail.com.

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Michelle Valigursky