Bridget Holmes is the Assistant Executive Director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG), which she has worked with since July of 2013. At the time of Hurricane Sandy, she was working as a youth group leader for a parish in Point Pleasant. In the aftermath of the storm, she become involved in recovery efforts, and in July 2013 joined the newly created OCLTRG. As part of that organization, she has been able to utilize her master’s degree and certification in counselling to help over 500 families recover from Hurricane Sandy. In her narrative, she discusses the role of the OCLTRG in the community and the many contributions it has made to people struggling to rebuild their lives.
My initial impressions of the devastation were rather shadowed. I didn’t know it was happening because I didn’t have any access to the outside world. It wasn’t until we made it up we made it to Bergen County, and we were able to, after a few days, get the television on, that we recognized that this was the biggest thing that had ever happened to our community. At that point I was still working at a church, doing counseling and running the youth programs. So I had several of the youth who were directly impacted. Unfortunately the parish as a whole didn’t really respond. We had to go out into other community resources, which was good practice for me in my new role. What drew me to the long-term recovery group was that I recognized that my role at the church was kind of sun-setting and it was important for me to do something next that would be meaningful, that would use the skills that I had and maybe wasn’t necessarily exactly one-on-one counseling. And so this turned out to be a really good fit. It turned out to be like nothing I had ever done before. I’ve never learned so much in one two year period, even in school. I just hit the group running, walked in the first day and got an education on disaster covering. We say it’s kind of like building a plane while you’re flying which is exactly what this has felt like. I’m just going to keep doing this and when I realize that there’s something wrong I’m going to change it and try something else.
Historically, long-term recovery groups are set up in response to a disaster and in a lot of places they are maintained. The long-term recovery group [in Ocean County] didn’t exist before Sandy, it was created in response to Sandy! Shortly after the storm… shortly after the power came back on, I should say, FEMA held a meeting in order to grow the long-term recovery group out of the existing non-for-profit, community agencies, and faith based organizations in the county. They pulled all these people together… I was not actually part of that. I was off in my old life.
Immediately following the disaster I can speak on behalf of the people that I’ve been working with, one of the challenges in the first couple of days is just trying to figure out what happens next. Still without power. There was no kind of prescribed path to take. You register with FEMA and you put in an insurance claim and then what? There was no next step to take and that was one of the most difficult things. The despair that came along with not only losing everything and any identity that they had wrapped up in those material things but also not knowing where their next firm step was going to land, was just so traumatizing.
They got multi-million grants to get started and set up and so three or four months later, in 2013, they started putting a staff together. They had all of these volunteers and all of these committees but they just really needed some people to coordinate the efforts, so originally the idea was that there were going to be four employees. There was going to be kind of an office manager just to make sure everything was flowing, a coordinator for construction, a coordinator for volunteers and a coordinator for case management and that’s what I was brought on to do. The idea was that we wouldn’t necessarily provide our own services, that we would help people tap into the resources and services that were already in the community because our first primary principled obligation is to utilize and coordinate the services that already exist in the community. The case management coordinator [would] make sure that all the different agencies doing disaster case management in the county, are working together. That’s what I was supposed to be, haha. I walked in and there were over a thousand files waiting for me there when I got there. It was overwhelming but at the same time we had to recognize okay I’m not getting through a thousand files today so I’m going to do the fifteen I can do today. We’re just going to take this in bite sizes because that’s all there is to do. If I try to swallow a thousand cases at a time I’m not actually going to help anybody.
We started out kind of as a mom-and-pop organization thinking that that would have to be enough and quickly recognizing it was not going to be enough. We very quickly realized that in Ocean County – which was Ground Zero for Super Storm Sandy – the need was so great that we needed to provide our own services. This was maybe nine months after the storm and so people were still very hopeful and people still felt like you know somebody was going to come in and save the day. We came to realize that there were so many people and so much loss like never seen before that there wasn’t going to be one agency or one grant or one solution that was going to fit everybody and so it took us a while to realize just how important collaboration with lots of different levels of organizations was going to be. So we flipped around some money for grants to get our own case managers and we partnered with agencies to actually do the construction and not just pair people up with construction crews; we [now] have about eighty different community partners everything from major global corporations down to little grass roots organizations. We [then] got an outreach team to make sure people knew we were out there. We realized we were in over our heads and we needed someone to steer the ship and so we actually hired the woman from FEMA, who was there at our first meeting and set up the long-term recovery group, to be our executive director. We just kind of blossomed from there and since then we’ve received our own 501 3C non-profit status. As new needs arise we create to the best of our ability new services that aren’t already existing in the community. It’s been phenomenal to see the way everyone comes together and does what they can.
Everybody’s really just trying to do their best to get everybody home, based on their capacity to do so. There’s nothing that’s not confusing about this whole recovery process. One of the beauties of non-for-profits [is that] we have that flexibility to be kind of the grey matter that gets in-between; the state didn’t have that flexibility because their money was coming from the federal government. So the state created construction programs and that’s what RREM is meant to be… Well if people had gotten the money that they thought that they should have received from their flood insurance in the first place – as it turns out they may have been fraudulently denied that money – then they wouldn’t have relied on RREM as much as they have had to. So when the state created this construction program and the grant to go along with it I don’t think they realized that it was going to be the budget. It wasn’t just going to supplement what people got from insurance it was going to be the entire pot of money that they had for their whole project and so they could only do what they could do based within that. It’s a governmental program so it’s always going to come with red tape. Doesn’t mean that we don’t get frustrated but there’s just kind of an understanding that that’s the way it is. You’ve got to figure out a way to provide services to as many people as possible in a limited amount of time and a limited amount of money so there is no step of the way where this hasn’t been challenging.
There was a snow storm a couple weeks ago and I happened to be at a hotel on the beach. The snow was coming in horizontally – I mean straight in off the water, it was a crazy storm in the middle of March – and there a guy on the beach riding his bicycle and I thought, if that’s not a metaphor for our work, I don’t know what is. As if riding a bicycle on the beach isn’t hard enough, the sand is constantly moving out from under you; now you’re doing it in a snow storm. That is what it feels like some days – most days. You know that we’re fighting this uphill battle knowing that not everybody is going to get home. We’re not going to be able to help everybody out there we don’t have enough time and we don’t have enough money.
We still have people calling in every day. New people who haven’t had resources provided to them yet, are still calling in every day. It’s not done, and we’re not done. We are still processing cases and assisting with cases that are providing services and funding that otherwise would never get finished. As far as myself even if the funding for this position and this agency does not last I would like to be able to stay in the recovery efforts to the best of my ability. This has been more than a job for me from the moment I took it. In some ways it’s been the best time of my life which sounds strange because for most people it was nothing but a nightmare, a devastation, but the fact that I have an opportunity to assist them [and] walk with them, and try to get to the other side of that nightmare has been a real blessing for me and so I want to stay in it just as long as I possibly can.
The state held a public hearing period when they were announcing how what their third action plan for the third action plan for the HUD funding would look like. Easily 90% of the individuals at this meeting got up and spoke about the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group and the services we provided and how it made a difference and how my wife didn’t sleep for two years until she met with her disaster case manager and then she finally got a good night sleep and you know you can’t put a price on that, there’s no way to quantify or put that into a statistic when someone got to sleep for the first time in two years. You know it’s been tremendously humbling to realize the impact you can have on someone. We get letters of gratuity from clients and kids color little pictures of their new bedroom in their new home it just it just its completely humbling to see the impact that a couple people in an office just trying to do the right thing can have.
There’s a saying that says “you’ve been to one disaster… you’ve been to one disaster.” Because the people who have been doing this for years and years recognize that they’re all unique. But I think there are kind of generalizations that we can learn from. First of all that the non-for-profit, the business, and the state entities have to work together. I don’t know that the state recognized the value of the non-for-profits to begin with and were kind of creating programs and policies and grants without recognizing that we were going to have to be a part of it. They set up some things [that] actually excluded our participation and yet everybody began to recognize no one was going to reach the finish line without our participation. I would hope in the future that the state would have someone on their team that was specifically designated to make sure that anything that they put out is done so with the collaboration with the nonprofits and the business communities at the forefront instead of having to go and adapt it later, I think that would be a very strong lesson that we could all take away from this. That and if we could have even a generalized kind of very generic kind of road map for people so that when they’re in the shelters the first few days or when they’re first getting those FEMA checks and not knowing what to do with them we could help them to understand the next step. I think we will be able to do that in Ocean County now that we’ve had a long term recovery group; we will have systems in place, we will have people on call, so that when something hits we can pop up and be mobilized and provide the community and those individuals who have been impacted with that next step.
Just this morning, every Tuesday we have a case manager meeting, all the case managers in Ocean County, and we run though cases and try to figure out who’s eligible for funding who still needs a little unsticking in their case and every week we hear about people who didn’t get the resentment grant cause they didn’t know about it or didn’t apply for the RREM grant cause they didn’t know about it. For some people it would have made the difference between recovering and not recovering. Going forward I think if we can have a system systematic way of providing individuals with that information from the forefront of the disaster instead of afterwards. I think we are in a better position moving forward just because we’ve been through it once and we’ve created this collaborative partnerships with so many agencies we all know who to go to and I’m hoping… I’m hoping we never have to do it again but in the event that we do I think we’d be a little bit better off than we were the first time.
Interviewed by Allison Jones
Assisted by Meghan O’Brien and Shannon Yeager
Edited by Allison Jones
Brick, New Jersey
Recorded April 7, 2015