A Tale of Two New Yorks

nylag mobile help unit

By Jessica Nevins

On October 25, 2012, I received an email from the Human Resources director at my placement, New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) alerting all staff of an impending hurricane.  Rather than worry or panic, I joked with a fellow AVODAH corps member at NYLAG, also from California, about missing earthquakes.  The threat of a hurricane was so unfamiliar to us that it did not register as a possible disaster that would disrupt our lives.  

Nonetheless, our house began to prepare for the hurricane the weekend before Sandy hit.  Some were anxious, stocking up on non-perishables, flashlights, and water.  Some did not worry.  Sunday, it was announced that all public transportation would be shut down.  Next came the call from work: without mass transportation, our offices would be closed.  At the time, this seemed like great news.  ‘Yes!  A free vacation day,’ we thought.  That night, we celebrated, and did not think much of a threatening storm coming through our city.  We ate our snacks that were designated for the possibility of a power outage and watched TV and movies on our fully charged laptops.  We texted and placed phone calls on our fully charged cell phones.

I did not think much of the people who had already lost power, or the clients whose needs would be delayed from my impromptu ‘vacation.’  Soon, the divide would become clear between those that were vulnerable to the storm and those that would not be affected.

Monday, my house kept looking out the window asking ‘Where’s Sandy?’  As the day progressed, we started hearing stories from other parts of the East Coast on the news.  Then we started hearing about the devastation in New York.

“14th Street is flooded!”
“A crane is dangling!”
“Manhattan is without power!”
“Someone was killed by a falling tree!”
“A tanker washed ashore on Staten Island!”
“The last time the Stock Exchange was closed for two days was in 1888!”

While these are some of the shocking headlines I heard after Sandy hit New York City, my house only had to endure a ‘hurrication.’  For us, the storm presented a vacation, as we were enclosed in our Washington Heights apartment.  Some of us attempted to volunteer in the area, but it seemed that there was more help than need.

The news portrayed horrendous damage and power outages in New York City and it was difficult to explain to my family at home that I was nowhere near what was being reported.  Our power never went out; there was no flooding in our area.  Eventually, when some of the subways began running in limited capacities uptown, I was able to travel to the gym and the grocery store, and home.  To me, life seemed normal.  I was in another world, only ten miles away.

For my placement and the populations we serve, this was anything but the case.  NYLAG provides free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers and is located between Wall Street and Water Street, an area that suffered extensive storm damage.  For days, NYLAG reached out to staff via social media alerting us that our building was closed and we would not be able to access our NYLAG email or phones.  Soon we discovered that due to severe flooding and damage, our office would be inaccessible for a number of weeks.

NYLAG executives worked quickly to find temporary spaces for staff to get back to work.  Other non-profits as well as private law firms generously donated space for NYLAG staff throughout Midtown Manhattan.  At first, we worked from our personal phones and computers with no access to our server.  Soon, we received limited access to our database.

During this difficult time of picking up the pieces of our operation, NYLAG also began to spearhead a new program for disaster relief.  The Storm Response Unit (SRU) was created to support victims of Storm Sandy with legal advice.  Composed of current NYLAG staff and volunteer attorneys, the SRU mobilized quickly and traveled to the hardest hit areas of New York offering assistance with FEMA claims, housing, public benefits, and other issues related to Sandy.

I am particularly proud of our organization during this time.  With support from private donors and the generous contributions of foundations, NYLAG has extended its reach to victims of Storm Sandy with no access to transportation, communication, and basic necessities.  You can read more about NYLAG’s storm relief efforts here and here.

As I discovered through my experiences at home and through my interactions with NYLAG’s clients who had been devastated by the storm, New York was divided.  Through my work with AVODAH, I am bringing these two cities together to close the gap between those that were unaffected and those that are in tremendous need.

While there are many ways to support the victims of Storm Sandy, I invite you to find out more about how you can support NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit to help ensure New York residents are offered the best solutions to a wide-range of disaster issues. 

Jessica Nevins is from Sacramento, California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in American Studies and a minor in Education.  As an AVODAH Corps Member in New York, she is working as a Paralegal with the New York Legal Assistance Group in the General Legal Services Unit assisting clients with public benefits. 

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