2016-05-05 / Other News

Canarsie Residents Still Digging Out Sandy’s Muck With Non-Profit’s Help

By Forrest Muelrath


Janney and Lester Harvell standing outside their home. Janney and Lester Harvell standing outside their home. They say that Canarsie was overlooked in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. There wasn’t the visible damage to homes that was seen in Rockaway or areas of Staten Island, and less homeowners in the neighborhood received funding from many of the programs that were helping with recovery. Nonetheless, many homes were inundated with raw sewage caused by storm surges, basement and ground level floors were left in ruins, and mold began to creep up through the walls.

Three-and-a-half years after the storm, one nonprofit is still helping homeowners dig out their basements. Rebuilding Together is a national organization with the mission of bringing volunteers and communities together to improve the homes and lives of people who are having difficulties making necessary home repairs on their own. They are not typically a disaster relief organization, but after Sandy, they saw a need for their services and established a special initiative with the purpose of assisting those affected by the hurricane.


Brianna McKinney, Program Manager, RT NYC; Kimberly George, Executive Director, RT NYC; Margaret-Ann Cole, President, Board of Directors, RT NYC; State Senator Roxanne J. Persaud, Councilman Alan Maisel. Brianna McKinney, Program Manager, RT NYC; Kimberly George, Executive Director, RT NYC; Margaret-Ann Cole, President, Board of Directors, RT NYC; State Senator Roxanne J. Persaud, Councilman Alan Maisel. The stories of those in need of home repairs vary, and in many cases, specific hardships were overlooked by FEMA, Build It Back and other organizations. Take the story of Grace and Lloyd Thomas, for example, whose basement was ravished by storm surges, and their front yard was left in disarray. In the midst of their recovery from Sandy, Grace also became wheelchair-bound in a home that was not wheelchair accessible. The immediate storm relief had helped with mold prevention and reconstruction of the wrecked basement, but the Thomas’ were losing money on heating through the uninsulated ground level, and now Grace was unable to move beyond one room in her home. “When I have to go out to the doctor,” Grace told the Canarsie Courier, “I have to get two guys to lift me down the stairs.” Due to a heart condition, her husband cannot do much to help. “I’d like to get outside and go to church,” Grace added.


Grace Thomas Grace Thomas After Build It Back denied the Thomas’ application, Grace kept searching for relief. Eventually, a case worker led her to Rebuilding Together, who not only were prepared to help with Sandy recovery, but also had pre-existing initiatives to assist with making homes wheelchair accessible. Now, as volunteers go about finishing the Thomas’ basement, and replanting grass in their yard, they also are beginning to build ramps and electronic lifts that will allow Grace to move about in her home under her own power and also get out to church and the doctors.


Photos by Forrest Muelrath and Rebuilding Together Photos by Forrest Muelrath and Rebuilding Together Rebuilding Together’s motor is powered primarily by volunteers, and these volunteers are driven by a small and dedicated staff. Director of Construction Terry Scott is one staff member who exemplifies the vivacity of the organization. Teeming with exuberance, Terry was hopping around between six Canarsie locations last Saturday during Rebuilding Together’s “National Rebuilding Day.” The Canarsie Courier caught up with Scott at Janney and Lester Harvell’s home — another basement reconstruction project in Canarsie.

Scott first started working with Rebuilding Together in Seattle and came to New York with the organization after Sandy struck. He left his family and general contracting business in what he thought would be a six-month stint in NYC. That six months has turned into three-and-a-half years, and he’s still going strong. “I’ve been so fortunate to be so involved in the recovery effort,” Scott told the Canarsie Courier. “I still make it my one-man mission to inform the entire world that we ain’t done yet.” Scott not only brings an upbeat attitude to the construction site — his contracting experience has lent itself to the education of many unskilled volunteers in a workforce training program, which teaches students how to drywall and paint as they rebuild homes. Many of Scott’s students have gone on to find jobs in construction. “We’re not talking flipping burgers, either,” Scott said. “We’re talking entry level construction jobs getting $16 to $22 an hour.

It’s that kind of spirit that brings Rebuilding Together to homes like the Harvell’s, whose income bracket and particular storm damage seemed to skirt around all the other recovery-based organizations. The Harvell’s once-finished basement — which Lester described as his “man cave” — was stuck in limbo halfway between demolition and reconstruction for nearly three years, and like the Thomas family, the Harvell’s were suffering from high heating costs. “We were like a forgotten community,” Janney Harvell told the Canarsie Courier. “The water came up real high, and then after it evaporated, it was like people thought nothing had ever happened.” After being denied by several organizations, Janney read a Rebuilding Together ad printed in the Canarsie Courier. “We were searching for a long time,” Lester said, “but we got it now.”

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