Only weeks into a brand new program, Samantha Hawke, John Tamariz and their inaugural FEMA Corps teammates were in Baton Rouge helping FEMA wind down recovery efforts from Hurricane Isaac when Superstorm Sandy began barreling towards the East Coast.
FEMA Corps members were immediately sent to the front lines of recovery, putting the new partnership between FEMA and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a collaboration projected to save taxpayers $60 million per year, into quick action following the second-costliest hurricane in American history. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, FEMA Corps quickly proved how integral national service programs are to meeting the needs of our country, a point that should not be forgotten as Congress prepares to debate funding levels that could have serious consequences for this essential tool.
This time last year, Samantha was placed in Breezy Point, one of New York City's hardest hit neighborhoods. The storm had moved through the area only days before and triggered an electrical fire that burned more than 100 homes to the ground. Samantha and her teammates navigated the horrific destruction for six weeks following the storm, making contact with survivors as they returned and ensuring their critical needs were met.
In New Jersey, John served as the face of the agency in some of the most devastated areas. While going door to door offering information and assistance, he encountered a husband and wife whose home, like so many, had been practically destroyed. The husband was battling cancer and was having difficulty getting his medication. Imagine how relieved they were to find John on their doorstep ready and willing to offer advice on programs that could help. While theirs are the faces most vivid in John's memory from that challenging time, the couple is just one of thousands of examples of the life-changing work done by the 300 original FEMA Corps members in the aftermath of Sandy.
All in all, FEMA Corps teams provided 419,207 hours of assistance to the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, according to CNCS. Like Samantha and John, they connected survivors to local resources, distributed more than 19,000 preparedness kits, registered victims at shelters and organized volunteers from all over the region. They also worked in 21 elementary schools across New Jersey to stress the importance of disaster awareness and preparedness for future storms.
FEMA Corps members were part of the more than 3,600 national service members deployed to the East Coast in the aftermath of Sandy, adding to the strong record of service by AmeriCorps members in the face of natural disasters. Together, national service members scattered across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to manage more than 30,000 volunteers, muck and gut 3,700 homes and manage 45 shelters. Their work has been invaluable to communities affected by Sandy, and has earned the vocal support of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
"I will tell you from traveling the state that what AmeriCorps volunteers did was not just the work that needed to be done and is still being done by AmeriCorps volunteers to get people back in their homes, but what AmeriCorps volunteers did was lift the spirit of the people from our state," Gov. Christie has said when discussing the role national service played in the recovery of his state and the way service unites us all in times of need.
In addition to the urgent relief and recovery work done on the ground during and after Hurricane Sandy and disasters in communities across the country, FEMA Corps is saving taxpayers money by providing a cost-effective approach to disaster response, while building a pathway to a career for young people.
As we mark one year since Sandy, just weeks after a fiscal battle in Congress that shut down the government, national service offers an opportunity to unite the country and rekindle the American spirit of service and sacrifice for a cause greater than self. "This [national service] knows no partisanship," Christie has said. "When people are suffering, we're Americans."
For a community in Queens flooded and burned to the ground or a couple in New Jersey hoping to find answers, service members like Samantha and John are a source of relief and hope. Hundreds of thousands of young people like them across the country stand ready to serve. It's up to us, and to Congress, to make sure the opportunity is there for them before the next disaster strikes.