Editor's Note: Two Mamaroneck women—Danielle Sajous Yergo and Cari O'Leary, a registered nurse—stepped in to assist the poor, the elderly and the infirm of Coney Island as they struggled to live in what seemed like a post-apocalyptic world after Hurricane Sandy left countless residents without heat, water, electricity or any link to the outside world. Help was slow to come, said some residents.
Here is the story of two women who recognized that, for many, the offer of a warm home or a meal was not forthcoming for those without close friends or family in the area.
As written by Danielle:
My friend, Cari O’Leary, is a registered nurse living in my community in Mamaroneck, NY. She gathered supplies donated locally and volunteered in Coney Island on Friday, Nov. 9, and posted the following account of her experience on her Facebook page on Saturday, Nov. 10, which moved us to action:
Friends, this is how I spent my day yesterday. Let me explain that I have been to the Ninth Ward post-Katrina and I've set up a medical core in war torn Nicaragua, so I am no stranger to disasters. What I was not prepared for was the lack of an official coordinated effort here in the poor neighborhoods of New York. While many of us have complained about a lack of power in our suburban communities, we had friends and neighbors who opened doors with hot meals, abundant wine and offers of warm guest rooms. I went to a central hub in Brooklyn to be "deployed" on a medical team. I was greeted with near-rock star status as my credentials were discovered. I was asked to get down to a donation site in Coney Island where I would be deployed. When I arrived in Coney Island, I was shocked to find that *I* was the medical relief team-along with a few other volunteer doctors and nurses. There was no intake area. There were no Red Cross tents or mobile units. There were no open pharmacies or any meaningful supplies except band aids and random bottles of Tylenol and children's Motrin (clearly from peoples medicine cabinets). We were handed scraps of paper with handwritten notes from generous volunteer canvas workers who had identified residents that required medical assistance. The project buildings are still without electricity! The hallways are completely dark and there is stagnant seawater still in the buildings. It is COLD! The elevators don't work and you must climb cold, dark stairwells with only a small flashlight. The smell of gas is overpowering as remaining residents use stovetop flames to try to get warm. The wonderful people I met had simple requests for hot food and more water. They asked over and over when help would be coming, why had they been forgotten. I monitored blood pressures and assessed blood sugars, but felt helpless when I couldn't offer refills of medications or insulin. Most of residents were elderly or disabled, some immobile or wheelchair-bound. There were infants wrapped in blankets with coughs and no way to get warm.
After reading this, I contacted Cari and offered to join her on a return trip to Coney Island and together we recruited other families to donate supplies and seven other women from our community to help us on the ground on Sunday, Nov. 11. We brought along Rachel Cauvin to photograph and we were also joined by another photographer, Matt Richter, who had been a member of Cari’s team on Friday.
All of the volunteers are regular citizens like myself and the members of my group of Mamaroneck women who just walk in to help out. Some are nurses and doctors, some are moms squeezing in time between school hours before heading home to get their kids. Many of the volunteers are from Occupy Wall Street which has temporarily changed its name and focus to Occupy Sandy.
During this time, Cari joined a team of medical professionals and began responding to families that have been identified by volunteers as in need of medical attention. The system is less than efficient, but Cari blames no one; she just tries to work within the parameters of the task.
Yesterday, she set out with Susana Valera Pukit, a local Mamaroneck mom who happens to be bilingual. Her native Spanish came in handy as Cari assessed a 17- year-old bed-bound boy with cerebral palsy. His family was taken in by a neighbor when their first floor apartment flooded. All of his medications are gone, as is his nebulizer machine for breathing treatments. His mother was unable to find a drug store open for Tylenol when her son spiked a fever. The Coney Island Hospital where they receive care is closed. It received extreme storm damage and its closure has left an enormous gap in the delivery of health care to many.
Cari and her team found the neighborhood Rite Aid which had just re-opened the day before. Only the pharmacy area was open with a pleasant but tired pharmacy staff. Cari and Susana paid for the medications themselves and drove them back to the boy. They continued to do this throughout the day seeing more residents and encountering similar stories. A large “clinic” has been established back at the church-it looks like a giant storage container and arrived on Saturday from Missouri. It will be staffed by a rotating shift of continuous volunteer doctors, nurse, EMTs, medical students and others but without medical records, funding or much in the way of high-tech equipment, their capabilities are extremely limited.
As Cari worked in a medical capacity, several volunteers and I visited the Coney Island Houses on 3030 Surf Ave. We loaded up my van with some supplies from the church and went door-to-door asking people if they needed assistance. When we arrived at the housing project, we found Occupy Sandy had set up a table at street level to distribute items as well. Those residents who were able to get downstairs in a short period of time were able to secure some items, but supplies ran out very quickly. Many were turned away as supplies were depleted.
I was concerned about the elderly and special needs families within the building who could not easily come outside. As my team and I knocked on doors, I met an 82-year-old woman named Dora Turetskaya who lives with her 104-year-old mother. She told me of their struggles after being without power for almost two weeks. In particular, it was very difficult to keep warm and to attend to her elderly mother’s special health needs. She seemed very grateful that we had stopped by with food and told us she was most in need of cleaning supplies. Since Occupy Sandy downstairs had run out of all cleaning supplies almost immediately after their arrival, we headed back to the church to secure what Dora needed and delivered it back to her.
As we walked around the debris lined streets we only encountered one small Red Cross truck in the afternoon that was handing out hot food and water to a long and steady line of people. I did not see any FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] presence. The church volunteers informed me that big aid deliveries of blankets and water had just begun to arrive from the Red Cross on Saturday. Yesterday’s challenge was sorting these donations as the volume was high and the organization of the effort scattered and inefficient.
As many other communities in the NY and NJ area, the situation in Coney Island is dire with many businesses still closed, many still without power and many unable to get aid in a timely and efficient fashion. The residents are remarkably patient and are full of gratitude for the ad-hoc grassroots help that has been offered to them so far. I admire their resilience and their hope, but I know that assistance for them should be provided on a much larger and more organized scale. I was particularly disturbed to hear Gail McGovern, CEO of the Red Cross, say in an NBC 4 interview this morning that their response has been “flawless,” as I feel nothing can be further from the truth.