Kevin Brown was delighted to see the bright blue jackets of the FEMA Corps volunteers as they went door-to-door in midtown Atlantic City Monday.
The city resident had registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recoup damages from his flooded home, but he kept missing inspectors because he was out all day helping others clean out their damaged homes. He wanted to know how to set up an appointment.
“I still don’t have heat or hot water and I lost everything on the first floor,” he said of the home he rents on Drexel Avenue. “But I’ve got a couple of Red Cross blankets.”
Brown was happy to learn he might also be eligible for unemployment and food assistance since his job was also on hold because of storm damage to the business where he worked.
When FEMA arrived after Hurricane Sandy the workers included young volunteers from a new FEMA Corps program started in March as part of a partnership between FEMA and the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program. The program’s goal is to train a corps of 1,600 young people ages 18 to 24 in disaster preparedness and recovery, to expand the reach of FEMA in a cost-effective way, provide training in emergency management fields, and promote public service.
The first group of 480 corps members trained over the summer, and about 250 were assigned to New Jersey’s storm-ravaged counties, said Ken Gay of FEMA External Affairs. Stationed at at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, for the last month they have been going door-to-door, handing out information on FEMA services in English and Spanish. While they don’t handle claims themselves, they inform residents of services that are available and link them to FEMA disaster centers.
“We are educating people about the process, what they need to do,” said Alex Bradt, 18, of Oxford, Conn.
“It’s so much more personal to have have someone come to you, than having to go to a center,” added Emily Roldan, 18, of Francisville, La.
The teams started in the most hard-hit areas, and are now making a second round of visits to see if they missed people who may have just returned, or have additional questions. When volunteer Rebekah Siddiqi, 23, of Ashboro, N.C., stopped into a market, clerk Nacer Quamer told her he knows someone whose application for FEMA assistance was rejected. She advised him to appeal and find out why they were rejected.
“Sometimes it’s just missing information,” she said.
Team members have visited thousands of homes and apartments and said they are impressed with how residents have supported and helped each other.
“It’s great to see families and neighbors come together to help each other,” said Maya Jordan, 23, of Hampton, Va.
As they walked down Baltic Avenue, some people in cars beeped, waved, and occasionally stopped to ask questions, one yelling “Hey, FEMA!” to get their attention.
“Oh, that’s so nice,” said Elizabeth Heenan, 20, of Medford, as a resident passing by thanked them for their work.
“Most everyone is really welcoming,” Siddiqi said.
Team members said they are still finding people who have not applied for assistance. Most usually say they didn’t lose very much, but the volunteers urged them to register anyway because sometimes what seems like a small issue turns out to be worse than they thought. If a resident has registered they will ask if they have received an inspection, and advise them on how long that might take.
“If we see something really serious we’ll go back and try to get them help,” Siddiqi said.
Resident Karalyn Schuck said the power came back on quickly and the water only came up to the second step of the home she has owned since 2007, so she feels lucky, and didn’t think she would need any FEMA assistance.
“We’re fortunate, we didn’t lose anything,” she said.
FEMA Corps members serve for 10 months and get a $5,500 stipend that can be used to pay for college or to pay down college loans. The local group expects to be in the area until at least Christmas before being reassigned. Some will get some time off to go home, but others will work through the holiday.
Team members said with jobs scarce, FEMA Corps is public service that has also provided training for a potential future job.
“I’d like to get a job with FEMA,” said Jordan who has a degree in public relations.
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