Jersey City Sandy Recovery Group Gives Lesson in DIY Disaster Relief

This week, a man hit harder than most by Hurricane Sandy saw the power of the modern neighborhood. The man had lost his vehicle to a downed tree, clothing and coats to a flooded basement, and had mounting bills due to a medical condition. He felt he was getting few answers.

That was when he posted on the Facebook page Jersey City Sandy Recovery. Within minutes, two members of the all-volunteer group were offering help. Shortly later, another member of the 1,800-plus-strong group asked to confirm that he had been helped. Not yet, he responded. Shortly after, other volunteers gave a time and a place: they’d be coming to his home the next day with boys’ clothing for his kids, who now had no winter coats. Still more people chimed in with words of encouragement and reassurance, and more offers of clothing.

This man’s story is one of many in the city. Just watch the site function for a few minutes — the updates aren’t “what I ate for breakfast,” says Bob McHugh, the (volunteer) press person for the group and go-to person for all inquiries JCSR-related. Every few minutes the site is updated with advice, what donations are needed, and requests for help. It’s as organic as it is efficient in a way that Facebook rarely operates.

It’s been one week since JCSR formed, and in that short timespan the all-volunteer group has become a social service organization of de facto amateurs with distinctly professional skill sets.

It’s also one of the few instances of an effort that has lived up to the promise of social network’s potential.

In addition to the Facebook group, there’s a Twitter account and a website through which members, organizers and those in need can communicate instantaneously. Anyone can place an order, find volunteer opportunities, or donate money.

But JCSR’s origins are distinctly non-technological.

When Van Vorst Park resident Dana Schilling, one of thousands affected by Hurricane Sandy last week, lost power and heat in her home, the freelance writer took to the most advanced technology available at the time: pen and a notepad. Putting up a sign on her house, Schilling urged residents who could lend a hand to meet in front of City Hall on Friday, November 2nd at noon.

It’s not that there aren’t social services in Jersey City, but in times of natural disaster, there’s simply not going to be enough to go around right away, noted McHugh.

So when 80 people showed up that Friday — some, like Schilling, without power or heat, others with, but all ready and able to help — a group was born.

The mob scoured the neighborhood for those in need, knocking on doors, taking requests, and spreading the word that help was here and more volunteers were needed.

Now less than a week later, McHugh, says the group operates out of two floors of Barrow Mansion (83 Wayne Street), where supplies come in and out daily.

“We have clothing to the ceiling,” he said, noting they no longer accept clothing donations because the response has been so great.

It’s also a place where those still without power can make walk-in orders from bilingual volunteers.

“Things have been literally falling out of the sky,” says McHugh, pointing to the team of 40 Dutch marathon runners who, finding the NYC marathon was canceled, somehow heard about the group and came to help.

There are other examples as well, such as the woman from Houston who set up an Amazon registry for the group’s needs. The registry operates much like a wedding registry: JCSR posts their needs and anyone who wants to can purchase those items for the group.

The group’s main organizers include Schilling, Tiby Kantrowitz, a digital strategist, and Candice Osborne of C&S Strategies. Osborne is also running for City Council as the Ward E candidate on Councilman Steve Fulop’s 2013 slate in his run for mayor.

McHugh acknowledges it’s impossible to ignore political connections, especially in a city like Jersey City — he, after all, has worked as a press spokesperson for numerous politicians. But as he points out, the need is real, and so is the help.

The group will continue to operate as long as the need is there, he says. But with an infrastructure in place, he muses about the possibility of continuing their services. “There’s not been any long-term strategizing,” he says, but as the goods and goodwill continue to pour in, there’s certainly the possibility.

Photos by Catherine Hecht

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.