By Carol Fouke-Mpoyo
A visit last week to the Ironbound District of Newark, N.J., by Church World Service Emergency Response Specialists Joann Hale and Susanne Gilmore illustrated CWS’s commitment to finding disaster survivors having the hardest time recovering and to making sure their recovery needs are met.
Hale and Gilmore spent the past two weeks visiting five southern and four northern New Jersey counties especially hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. Their mission was to follow up with the long-term recovery and other community groups that took CWS disaster recovery workshops earlier this year. They also wanted to seek out those that didn’t and offer material and technical assistance.
Located in Essex County, the 4-square-mile Ironbound is so named because it is bordered by active and historic rail lines. CWS heard that many of the community’s more than 56,000 residents were still struggling to recover. So it reached out to the Ironbound Community Corporation – a multifaceted human services agency active in post-Sandy relief efforts.
The Ironbound is a diverse community that includes people whose ancestors resettled more than 100 years ago from Portugal and Spain. It also is home to African Americans, and to recent Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking immigrants from Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil, many of them undocumented.
It’s “a wonderful community with a will to overcome,” as Reina Esteras, the corporation’s disaster case manager, describes it. But the enormity of Sandy’s impact has left hundreds of residents hungry, sick, depressed and on the edge of survival. This has stretched this tight-knit, mostly working class community’s “we-can-do-it-ourselves” spirit beyond its limits.
The residential community is squeezed into a mere 2 square miles amidst Ironbound’s industrial areas, which include Newark Airport and Port Newark, one of the nation’s largest seaports. Every day, 10,000 trucks stream in and out of the Ironbound, spewing diesel fumes.
The Ironbound also houses the nation’s fifth largest sewage treatment facility, a large power plant, an incinerator, several chemical refineries and multiple toxic waste dumps, including two “Superfund” sites so dangerous the federal government has targeted them for mitigation efforts. One of these is the Passaic River, which flows around Ironbound’s northern edge and empties into Newark Bay to the east.
When Sandy slammed the New Jersey coast, it created a tidal surge that forced the Passaic River and Newark Bay over their banks and into the Ironbound. The water converged in the mostly low-income neighborhood called “The Island.” Terrified residents had to flee as what they described as a tsunami invaded their homes with over 8 feet of polluted water, contaminated sediment, sewage and oil from surrounding industries.
Many homes were severely damaged, with 10 of them condemned as uninhabitable. Many exhausted families are still struggling to access adequate funding to remediate, repair and rebuild and have not yet returned to “The Island.”
In Sandy’s immediate wake, the nearly 45-year-old Ironbound Community Corporation was well placed to offer emergency relief. It began by reaching out to its 800 daily clients in programs ranging from pre-natal care to services for senior citizens, and also including Early Head Start, children’s after school programs, family services and an environmental justice initiative. It also sought out others in need in the Ironbound community.
Initial relief included food, clothing, baby formula, diapers, blankets, space heaters, cleaning kits and hot meals. Beneficiaries included about 300 families at Terrell Homes, a low-income housing complex operated by the Newark Housing Authority, who were without electricity, heat or hot water long after power was restored just across the street.
Subsequently, the corporation has helped survivors with case management and material aid, including FEMA and other claims; mental health counseling; rental and mortgage payments; housing structural and environmental assessments; clean-up and repairs; furnaces, refrigerators, and furniture; replacement of lost tools to allow workers to return to regular employment, and more.
But today, eight months after Sandy, the Ironbound community is still struggling to move from “relief” to “long-term recovery.” Nearly 100 Ironbound families are still hard pressed just to get their basic needs met and many more are in need of long-term support services. A thorough assessment of the Ironbound’s long-term recovery needs has yet to be conducted.
“A lot of people in this area are poor,” Esteras said. “Even if they have homes, they are barely making it. They cannot afford to rehabilitate their homes and keep up with the mortgage. I am running just to get people food. We are struggling to keep people from becoming homeless, or starving.
“Disaster relief is a new thing for us,” she said. “We are trying to get into long-term recovery and do this well.”
CWS’s Joann Hale said establishing a long-term recovery committee is the key. “Bring in faith-based partners and anyone who deals with human services in this area. That signals the community is working together to recover,” she said. “This frees up more external resources than any one group can raise on its own.”
CWS promised the nascent committee training and support. In the meantime, it quickly linked the corporation to partners who can provide emergency food aid, systematic assessment of the community’s long-term recovery needs, expertise in recovery from technological disasters, and reliable volunteers to help with cleanup, mold remediation, repairs and reconstruction.
Accompanying Hale and Gilmore in New Jersey was Heriberto Martinez, FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison for New Jersey, who said, “CWS is an expert in bringing people to the table. And when it comes to finding and serving the most vulnerable, I look to CWS.”