Larchmont residents Gunda Sabel-Sheehan and Sandra Wong Geroux spent the day at Breezy Point, Queens on Sunday, Dec. 9 along with Jim Killoran from Habitat for Humanity, documenting the relief efforts ongoing in a community hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Killoran was there for 38 days straight, coordinating hundreds of volunteers in an effort to rebuild enough to get people home for the holidays. This is their story (written by Gunda Sabel-Sheehan and photographed by Sandra Wong Geroux).
Two days after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York, the New Rochelle-based Habitat for Humanity of Westchester Executive Director Jim Killoran drove straight to the Rockaways in Queens. A veteran of flood relief from his experiences in Mamaroneck and New Orleans, he loaded the car with $800 worth of garbage bags on the way down. Fellow volunteer Keith questioned such an unusual purchase. But, sure enough, the bags were all gone within minutes.
Since the first day after the storm, people have been desperately trying to clean up their torn-apart homes, pulling out walls and throwing out most, if not all, of their household items and collectables. Whatever was left was most likely damaged, burnt or destroyed.
Where to begin, when your home has been burnt down by an explosion or filled with six feet of water? Killoran has the answer: "Let's do it."
Despite the drop in temperature, he shows up in his usual uniform of a worn Carhartt jacket and shorts. Towering over his crew, together, they pull out sheet rock and insulations; jackhammer the floors open and throw out toilets, sinks, boilers and stoves.
He takes every call from people who need help and from people who want to donate their services. He is a professional multi-tasker, not wasting time on over-thinking the issue but, instead, focusing on only one thing: How to get people back into their homes as safely and quickly as possible.
“Our immediate goal is to get the houses of seniors, elderly and disabled mucked, gutted and rebuilt," he said. At this point, they have gutted over 220 homes in the Rockaways and Breezy Point.
Whomever calls and needs help with demolishing and cleaning out debris, he takes their name and address and makes sure somebody will be there to help. He will himself stop by immediately if he is in the area, or he will pass the address on to his volunteers, who are working with him tirelessly on as many houses as possible.
The whiteboard at headquarters in the Christ Community Church in Breezy Point is covered with names and addresses, reflecting the continuous need for help. The houses they could not get to in one day, they will have on the list for the following day. Two Habitat for Humanity volunteers from New Rochelle were asked what the logistical detail meetings look like.
They smiled and said: “Our meetings take place in the car on the way down in the morning and on the way back up at night." Clearly, there is no precious time being lost for making complicated plans. The idea is: pick an address, roll up your sleeves and start cleaning and re-building these homes.
Representing Habitat for Humanity of Westchester, Killoran was one of the first relief workers in the Rockaways. Workers have been working tirelessly for over a month in an effort to have at least some of the families back in their homes for the holidays. The work seems enormous and impossible, but each person, each extra hand, each donated water bottle and cleaning supply brings them a step closer to their goal.
Westchester residents, as well as the construction company Murphy Brothers from Mamaroneck, have been supportive in many ways, and, as long as there is work to do, Killoran will drive down to the Rockaways from his New Rochelle home every day at 6 a.m. to make sure that donations and volunteers will benefit the rebuilding of people's homes.
So far, they have had 2,00 volunteers and are currently expecting a trailerload of donated sheetrock that Killoran calls the “sheetrock blitz." He is looking for sheetrockers and professional tapers to finish rebuilding as many homes as possible before the holidays.
Volunteers and donators can contact: email@example.com; call 914-403-4821 or visit the Habitat for Humanity website here.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article indicated that Jim Killoran was in Breezy Point for 25 straight days; it was actually 38 days. The article has been corrected to reflect the change.