Bonnie Sirower is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in being a Rotarian.
Like the lead character in Hello, Dolly!, I’ve always been a woman who arranges things. So when Hurricane Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey area at the end of October, I knew that I had to do something to organize all of us to provide relief for all those who had lost their homes and their belongings and to start the rebuilding efforts. Our Rotary Districts in New Jersey and New York have a long history of working together on projects such as a Vocational Assembly that honors those who use their occupations to help Rotary and group public relations projects, so we already had the mechanism in place to work together.
The hurricane ruined more than 300,000 homes and businesses within a 300 mile radius from our location in northern New Jersey. More than three million people were, like me, without power, Internet, computers, phone or cable for weeks. The day after, trees were down everywhere and roads were blocked. In my own Rotary District, two towns were completely flooded when the Hackensack river overflowed a berm that had protected Moonachie and Little Ferry for years. Hoboken was underwater, as was Jersey City. Many of the Rotarians in our district had to be rescued from chest-deep water or had their homes and businesses destroyed.
But even before the storm, I started to receive messages from around the world expressing their concern for us from as far away as my friend, the District Governor in Vladivostok, Russia, saying that they were praying for us. We used our website, www.nynjrotary.org, as disaster central to let everyone know what was happening. Over the next four weeks, we had nearly 4,000 hits.
On Thursday after the storm, when we could finally drive a little, I visited the neighboring town and my phone blinked on with over 250 messages and 600 emails from people all over the country and the world asking what they could do to help. We quickly learned that we had to communicate, collect, and then collaborate together on rebuilding. I started reaching out by phone and e-mail and Facebook to my fellow Rotary Governors, those who had contacted us, and the Rotary Clubs in our area hardest hit by the Hurricane. We have a great Rotary District here in northern New Jersey, and four Rotarians had already donated their warehouses. On Saturday, I addressed the 1,500 participants at Rotary Day at the United Nations to let them know how they could help.
By Monday night the next week, the first truck rolled in – from Maryland – laden with food supplies, diapers, bottled water, blankets, cots, and linens. In the next six weeks, more than 130 trucks from as far away as Orlando, Vancouver, Maine, and San Diego dropped off supplies at our warehouses. More than 225 volunteers from Rotary and the Volunteer Center of Bergen County worked every day and weekend for six weeks to sort what had been donated and to deliver the goods all the way down to the southernmost parts of the New Jersey shore and the eastern part of Long Island.
We worked in concert with Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters run by the Volunteer Center of Bergen County to plan all of the relief. Peter Wells, an architect from the Park Ridge Rotary Club, and our District’s Disaster Chair, did a yeoman’s job of coordinating all of the deliveries to the warehouses, sorting everything, and directing deliveries. Peter’s efforts kept our warehouses open for six weeks with weekend deliveries each week to more than 400 destinations until the Rotary Districts down the Jersey Shore and out in Far Rockaway, Queens, could open their own warehouses and accept donations. We received more than $18 million in donated goods, including 84,000 pounds of used clothing that we couldn’t even distribute.
People from all over the world were very generous, too. We received more than $600,000 in cash donations plus tens of thousands of dollars in gift cards that were distributed throughout the six Rotary districts most affected. We received donations from Canada, Turkey, Australia, Israel, and from virtually every state. CBS Radio donated $5,000 worth of ads broadcasting “Help Rotary Help Hurricane Sandy victims” and urging folks to visit our website. These donations were split among the six most affected districts, but monies donated within each district stayed there.
Our work is not done. The rebuilding effort will take two to three years. We are still working together with organizations like VOAD, Habitat for Humanity, and Rebuilding Together. So far, in our District, we have helped repair and refurbish two firehouses, donated equipment to the ambulance corps in two cities, and helped pay for renovations to the recreational fields in Secaucus. We will be painting another firehouse next week and just paid for the development of a volunteer reception center and a hostel in Moonachie where volunteers from all over the country can stay. Other districts are helping individuals rebuild home, working on homes of families with disabled children, and building day care centers and gardens. Many people are still homeless, even five months later, and still have no power or heat. Residents in southern NJ and Long Island/Brooklyn/Queens still need supplies.
Thank you again for this great honor and the opportunity to share. Hurricane Sandy brought together all of the Rotarians in our District, in the other Districts nearby and throughout the world to share in easing the pain of those who had lost their homes and businesses.