When Hurricane Sandy began assaulting the Midland Beach area of Staten Island, Jesus Maria Aguilar, his wife Patricia and son Allan did not imagine the devastation that it would leave in its wake.
They lived in Midland Avenue right in the middle of a flood zone area but did not receive any warning or evacuation advisory leading up to the super storm. If warning signs were posted they did not understand because they were not in Spanish. “The day of the storm we were scared because we were feeling the strength and power of the storm. The wind and rain was like nothing we had ever experienced. By the time we decided to leave our apartment the water was already up to our thighs,” recalls Patricia.
The Maria Aguilar family went to stay with a friend on Tompkins Avenue. Less than an hour of being in their friend’s home they received a call from a neighbor informing them that their apartment building was on fire.
The family was not able to see the damage until days later after the flood waters had receded. They were told that the fire department tried to stop the fire but could not get near the building because the flood waters were too high. When the family was able to go back to their home they were totally devastated. “Nothing was left but ashes. We lost everything but the clothes on our backs and the few things we packed to weather the storm,” recalled Jesus.
“I ran into the freezing water towards the building thinking that there was something I could save,” said Patricia. “We work so hard for the few things we have. To see everything that we have worked for gone was incomprehensible. I was stunned.”
The fire occurred when 90 mile per hour winds and rain caused an electrical short in the power line in front of the Maria Aguilar’s apartment building.
For months the Maria Aguilar family lived with their nephew with no help or direction on where to go for help. Since they are undocumented they were not able to receive any federal government aid including FEMA.
“We were desperate. We had no money. I worked when I could find it. Because of my arthritis and diabetes acting up it made it very difficult to find work during this time. A neighbor told my nephew about El Centro del Inmigrante, (El Centro), about the services they provided and that it was all confidential. We immediately went and started our recovery process,” said Jesus.
At El Centro the family met with Catholic Charities disaster case manager Melba Rodriguez and received immediate help, gift cards for food and basic necessities as well as the down payment for their new apartment. What they urgently needed was a refrigerator and air conditioner. The family was using plastic coolers and ice to keep their perishable food cold and edible. In early September, Jesus received $1,300 in Home Depot gift cards to purchase his refrigerator and air conditioner.
El Centro is one of the community-based agencies subcontracted by Catholic Charities to provide a locally-based disaster case manager for each family that have unmet needs related to Hurricane Sandy. El Centro addresses the needs of newly arrived immigrant day laborers and their families. Through immigrant and labor advocacy, educational workshops, labor leadership training, and emergency intervention for hunger, homelessness, health and safety needs, El Centro provides opportunities for economic empowerment, community-building and organizing.
Catholic Charities has a proven track record of managing disaster cases beginning with the 911 terror attack in 2001 then Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in late 2011. The NYS Division of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Management, (OEM), has an existing contract with Catholic Charities to manage the DCM program for the 34 counties that were impacted by the Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee and requested that Catholic Charities expand on this experience and manage the long term disaster case management program for survivors of Sandy.
The program is designed to provide a locally-based disaster case manager for each family in the 13 impacted New York counties that have unmet needs related to Hurricane Sandy. By funding networks of community-based agencies, NYS hopes to provide easy access to support residents seeking help and to avoid duplication of services.
Catholic Charities has subcontracted with 20 locally-based not-for-profit organizations with demonstrated expertise in the provision of case management services to serve impacted communities. El Centro is one of these community-based agencies funded.
Through this program Catholic Charities case manager Rodriguez has laid out a long term plan for the Maria Aguilar family that has assessed their immediate and long term situation. She has assisted them in receiving the aid that they need to get back on their feet. “The Maria Aguilar family has gone through an extremely difficult life altering situation, but they are resilient and hard working people,” said Ms. Rodriguez.
“We finally feel that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we are feeling better emotionally, physically and finally feeling hopeful for a good future. We are extremely grateful for the help that Ms. Rodriguez, Catholic Charities and El Centro has given us. I don’t know what we would have done without the help” acknowledged Patricia.
“I thank God everyday that we are alive and that we suffered no injuries, material things can always be replaced. We came to this country from Acapulco, Mexico nine years ago with nothing and we have always worked hard. We will continue to build our lives. It is the only thing we can do,” concluded Jesus.