Willington volunteers help Staten Island hurricane victims
By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Willington - posted Thu., Nov. 29, 2012
Occasionally, the town of Willington's leadership asks its residents to “put the 'Willing' in Willington.” Recently, First Selectman Christina B. Mailhos sent out an appeal seeking residents to travel to storm-ravaged Staten Island, N.Y., to help residents there with recovery efforts. She received enough responses to fill a bus - and even start a waiting list. On Saturday, Nov. 24, 57 Willington residents traveled to Staten Island to help local residents with post-storm clean-up.
“My husband's family lives in Staten Island... we have ties to there,” said Mailhos, adding that although they were not affected by the hurricane, her in-laws have been supporting relief efforts in their New Dorp community. A few days after the hurricane, before planning the Nov. 24 trip, Mailhos made a trip to New Dorp to contribute a carload of donations. She recalled thinking, “It's worse than I thought.”
As a result, Mailhos quickly pulled together a trip, sought volunteers, gathered donations and coordinated a day-long volunteer event that paired Willington folks with Staten Islanders.
As a town leader, Mailhos said she is becoming familiar with coping with weather crises and how they impact communities. “The way I look at it now is from a municipal management kind of way,” she said. On Staten Island, she added, the scale is much larger. “When you look at the pictures from the media, and you see one house that's destroyed - you see a lot of different houses, but you don't get the whole picture of how big that area is.”
Homes close to the water, said Mailhos, show signs of external structural damage, but she said the water gushed inland about a mile, in turn flooding the interiors of all of those homes as well. “It's hundreds and hundreds of houses like that,” she said. Older residents on Staten Island told some of the Willington volunteers that they had never seen such weather damage on the island in their lifetimes.
“The first time I went [Veterans' Day], I did see the National Guard. They were cleaning out houses and cleaning up the streets, too,” said Mailhos. On Nov. 24, she said the amount of rubble piled in the streets had been reduced. “It was a little bit better, but the people still don't have power, and they can't just hook up power because all their electrical systems within their houses were compromised by the water,” she said.
Some houses are condemned and will need to be torn down, but other houses can be saved through repair work by removing flooring and sheet rock and overhauling electric systems. These demolitions are projects that Willington residents took up on Nov. 24.
Mailhos said that on Staten Island, grassroots groups are springing up to help ease the situation for the residents by setting up food and clothing distributions, randomly, on street corners and lawns and in churches. Other groups help with physical labor. For instance, a group calling itself the “Brown Cross” conducts demolition and clean-up. They joined forced with the “Silver Tapers” (volunteers who have silver tape on their arms to identify themselves). Together, these volunteers, and others like them, are delegated in groups to help homeowners with structural work.
Willington volunteers spent the day with Brown Crossers and Silver Tapers by breaking up into five sub-teams, each team in turn identifying itself with a different color tape – red, blue, green and such. “We had a meeting right before we left, with the five team leaders, to make sure they knew what to do,” said Mailhos. A safety instructor gave them tips, and each volunteer was issued a respirator mask, safety goggles and contractor gloves - items which were donated.
“We were able to pay for the bus through donations. The town didn't have to put in a dime,” Mailhos said. Other donations toward the effort included equipment, such as brooms and tools, as well as gift cards, which were issued to the Staten Island residents that Willington's volunteers assisted on Nov. 24.
Mailhos said that volunteers were impacted by personal stories they heard from the island's residents, many of whom literally had to run for their lives. “They were hearing about people's neighbors who actually died,” she said.
Teri Gareau, director of Willington Parks and Recreation, volunteered at the event. “It was more than I anticipated and very overwhelming, but the work we did was very humbling and rewarding and I think valued by the residents we did help. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.
Some Staten Islanders are remaining in their homes by living in the upper levels, Mailhos said, while others are staying with family in other communities. Some displaced families are striving to get to work and place their kids in interim schools.
“We're far enough removed from it, and if you don't have family that lives in New Jersey or Long Island or in New York, you're probably not hearing how bad this is, and how long this process is going to be, and how many people have been affected,” said Mailhos. She
commended the Willington volunteers, saying they are friendly “go-getters” who brought positive energy and even a little friendly competition to the situation.
Mailhos said that the town had so many volunteers for the Nov. 24 event that they had to turn people away. Still seeing a need for volunteers on the island, Mailhos said the town will probably offer another trip. For more information, visit www.willingtonct.org.