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November 13, 2012

Guardsman, volunteers describe storm relief

By Richard Whitby and Joe Mahoney, Staff Writers
The Daily Star

---- — A fuller picture of the scope of recovery in downstate New York after Hurricane Sandy is emerging as local residents return from the area and others continue to help with the relief and cleanup effort.

Among the latter is Oneonta resident Maj. Erik Stevens of the 204th Engineer Battalion of the New York Army National Guard, headquartered in Binghamton. The heavy combat engineer unit deployed downstate Oct. 26, even before the massive storm had left the area, Stevens said Monday from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where the battalion has set up a forward operating base.

“We staged the engineer equipment … at Camp Smith (a training base near Peekskill), and took all of our high-axle vehicles down into the city,” he said. “Because, what we saw last year in Schoharie County is … the initial response is going to be with the high-axle vehicles and being able to ford the high water and actually rescue people and get to where most vehicles can’t.”

“Once we figured that the rescue operation was over with, we were instructed to get our engineer equipment and start a debris-clearing mission,” he added.

That equipment includes bulldozers, dump trucks, loaders and skid steers, he said.

About 300 members of the engineer battalion are working from Floyd Bennett Field, doing cleanup along the Rockaway Peninsula, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“We’ve got three shifts that are working 24 hours, around the clock in eight-hour shifts,” Stevens said.

“What we’re focused on as far as debris clearing is just getting the debris out of the streets so people can drive through the streets,” he said. “What we’re finding, though, is that as we clear the initial debris, they’ve already got contractors in their homes, ripping down Sheetrock and damaged building materials and throwing that into the streets for us to pick up.”

Stevens said that his battalion has the same equipment as private contractors who are moving into the area, and that he hopes his citizen soldiers can soon return to their civilian lives.

“After the initial response, we kind of get in the way,” he said. “The communities like us to stay, because we do provide a service, but it’s beyond the initial emergency scope of the work.”

Several Otsego County residents have also been working in the Rockways. They’re connected with the grassroots Occupy Sandy volunteer group, which has delivered truckloads of supplies to a makeshift distribution center set up at St. Francis de Sales Parish Hall in Rockaway.

There, the donations were parceled out to residents in the coastal communities of Queens that were devastated by torrential flooding, said James Dean, a Cooperstown stair maker and village trustee who, with his daughter, Janice, spent the weekend working alongside Occupy Sandy volunteers.

“There is a lot to be said for the young people down there who are making this work,” James Dean said. “What they are showing is that by cooperating they can get the job done. The people getting the contributions told us many times that everything was not only appreciated but also needed.”

Dean said his daughter, who works as an assistant state attorney general, was able to generate an outpouring of donations simply by posting on social media items that the storm-battered residents said they needed.

“You can’t just solve the problem with bottled water,” he said.