Written by Adrian Brune
A call came in; an urgent dispatch went out. A far Rockaways resident – partially blind and in declining health – on one of the top floors of a high rise had gone without his diabetes medication for days. He needed urgent assistance.
Nurse Margie Simmons and Jeff Lichorobiec, a mental health specialist – both volunteers with the Red Cross – contacted area pharmacies for an emergency supply. After one pharmacy turned them away, the NAACP Disaster Relief Team took the case: Driving over to the apartment of Rabbi Melvin Williams, the team – known internally as the “strike team” – loaded Mr. Williams into the van and took him to a local Duane Reade where the prescription was signed, sealed and delivered without a hitch.
Williams’ invitation to Christmas dinner was just a bonus for the strike team, a crew of about 100 members from chapters across the country that has been on scene to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy since two days after the devastating storm made landfall on Oct. 29. With a 1981 mandate to work in tandem with the Red Cross whenever and wherever disaster hits – including New York 31 years later – the NAACP has helped put the city back together by feeding victims in Breezy Point, distributing supplies in Coney Island and, on occasion, triaging a convalescent in the Rockaways.
“The strike team enables us to be flexible and respond to the most urgent needs,” explains NAACP team leader Gene Collins who came from Odessa, Texas to assist in the Sandy relief effort. “The American Red Cross has been partnering closely with the NAACP – they do the work and we show up with the goods!” In addition to the emergency aid, another NAACP coalition of state leaders, volunteers and staff also apprised the Red Cross of unmet needs in underserved and isolated communities overlooked by disaster first-responders. African-American communities are disproportionately vulnerable to and impacted by disasters, according to the NAACP, and their socio-economic vulnerability is based on multiple factors, including pervasive lack of wealth, compromised quality of housing stock and a relative lack of mobility.
The strike team, the local NAACP and the Red Cross aim to change this dynamic. To that end, they have dispatched volunteers like Sheila Johnson, who has acted as the eyes and ears of the cross-cultural disaster effort, ensuring the marginalized are not forgotten.
“Red Cross disaster work takes me back to my college days when I felt I could make a difference,” said Johnson, a former probation officer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who worked with the NAACP-Red Cross Community Partnerships program in New York. “This is an important role in which I can utilize my education and life experiences to do my part.”
Because of the strike team’s ability to connect with the communities it serves, it can act fast. When one housing project in Brooklyn reached out for support in early November, the strike team reached back with hot meals and 5,000 blankets. In mid-November, the strike team turned up at a Rockaway community meeting with the Long Island Power Authority to advocate for expedited power restoration to one of the most heavily damaged areas hit by Superstorm Sandy.
“Everyone of the Red Cross members has been angelic in their desire and efforts to serve this com-munity that somehow was not initially flagged as hard hit by the storm,” wrote Tanagra Bledman on the NAACP’s Disaster Relief Team’s Facebook page. “In particular, the NAACP partnership with the Red Cross has been instrumental in directing the aid – and the delivery drivers – who have been patient and strong,” added Ms. Bledman, a resident of Rosedale, Queens, which lies directly between the outer borough and Long Island.
In another instance, Collins and Johnson teamed with Dr. Edward Williams, president of the NAACP Far Rockaway Branch, to bring much-needed goods to one of the most isolated communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. Dr. Williams’ relationships with local groups allowed for flexibility in finding last-minute distribution locations. The team gave out thousands of clean up kits, relief items for coping with the cold dark nights, diapers and other necessities.
“The NAACP is thankful for the partnership with the Red Cross and all that you’re doing,” Dr. Williams commented on the collaboration. “You’re like a godsend and great effort for this community.”
One of their most memorable missions came two weeks after the storm. During the team’s roving operation, it came upon a family concerned about their 79-year-old aunt who had not reported to them since Sandy struck. After finding out she lived on the 17th floor of a high rise apartment building in Queens, the NAACP and Red Cross volunteers climbed the 17 floors. Collins and two others, Leonard Favorite and James Richardson, reached the woman within minutes.
“I knocked on the door and told her ‘I came all the way from Texas to rescue you,’” Favorite said.
He then carried her to the ground floor and re-united her with her family.