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Mike “Loco” Hoffman is being honored as a Champion of Change for the leadership he demonstrated in his involvement in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy.

Mike HoffmanMike “Loco” Hoffman is being honored as a Champion of Change for the leadership he demonstrated in his involvement in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy.

My name is Mike “Loco” Hoffman and I am proud to have been selected as a Champion of Change recipient, though there are many, many people I have worked with under unbelievable conditions for almost six months now - who are 'champions' too - whether officially selected or not.

I was born in Staten Island, New York and have lived there all my life. Before Hurricane Sandy I was working in landscaping and had a pleasant, no-drama, day to day, kind of life.

After Hurricane Sandy? A whole different story.

I went straight to the badly affected areas right after I quickly checked on my friends and family. It was like a scene out of a movie, something I never thought I'd see as reality, with my own eyes, and right in my hometown. Then I just pitched in. At first helping some people I knew, then I just kept moving, kept helping. Moving debris out of the way and searching homes. Getting people out that were trapped.

The conditions that first week were chaotic, water sat 3-5 ft deep in some areas for days. The smell of sewage, salt and oil permeated everything. No matter where one looked there was nothing familiar left. Homes were utterly destroyed and relocated. Everywhere people were hysterical with emotion, while others were blank and defeated, walking aimlessly about with hopeless stares.

Police and residents had boats that we used to get to those still trapped in water or damaged homes. The electricity was out and cell towers in the area were down. No working heat anywhere close enough to matter. We were literally freezing in the dark, working blind, trying to make due, with no aid or help in the first few days. We had no protective gear or tools, so most of us were in plain clothes and barehanded.

Once people no longer needed rescuing, I began helping to empty homes of people's cherished belongings, now covered in ocean water, fecal matter and oil. Local politicians Senator Lanza and Congressman Grimm were gathering supplies as fast as they could and I would bring those supplies into affected areas and distribute them, before getting back to the physical work again.

Then some of us began forming hubs, so supplies could be easily gathered in one place and the affected could walk to these, on foot, for their basic needs and provisions. By using Social Media I got my name and number out to people, who began to call me for help and later others called to aid in the relief effort.

The first month was an ongoing stream of moving debris, emptying homes of all materials, removing paneling, sheetrock and insulation, ripping out carpet, tiles, linoleum and flooring. What volunteers refer to as gutting and demo work. Feeding people and finding ways to provide warmth and means of electric power. And talking with and comforting, all those who had lost everything.

By the second month, we had some solid grassroots systems in place and with volunteers coming from all over, we made a substantial amount of progress - but it was still only a small chunk off the 1000's affected. There was so much devastation. Plus, we realized many folks did not know where to find help, so we began canvassing areas we were doing work in, reaching out to all those in need of help.

For every month up to January we organized donations, canvassed areas and delivered food and supplies to those who couldn't walk to get them. We brought generators to homes with special needs and large children counts, lent tools and safety gear to other volunteers to work on homes. We got info on and assessed skill levels of volunteers, according to the needs at the time and explained safety and how to correctly do the work needed. Other regular volunteers and myself, acted as team leaders for each group that went out. We also served hot food and gave out supplies at the hubs we started. I moved every 7-10 days from area to area, setting up hubs and leaving them self-sustaining, with trusted volunteers who had stepped up. We set up transportation to get people to places to take hot showers, kept on doing endless gutting, demo, cleaning, dispatching medivacs, so, so very much needed done. Everywhere one looked, there was an endless stream of desperate need.

By the middle of December, we had started doing mold remediation more. Then finally by mid-January, we were slowly starting some rebuilding. During all of this, there was a constant daily struggle to find donations for each phase. Then all too soon, we were struggling to find volunteers also, as after holidays, everything slowed to a crawl, as far as outside support went.

Now at last, six months later, things are beginning to calm down some. A demo pops up here and there, mold remediation is winding down, some who rebuilt too fast are now ripping out again due to mold (as they didn't listen and wanted normal back too soon) so we're helping those people. Some bankrupted themselves paying out of pocket. Others are getting rebuilt now with our help. We have a sort of “meet ‘em halfway” policy where applicable. We provide some material and labor for free and the homeowner buys the remaining materials they have the funds for. We work mostly on Staten Island, but have also aided Rockaways, Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. We go where we're called.

Despite all the loss, heartbreak, sadness and hard physical work - it will always be the ‘other things’ I remember most, about what has become, such a special part of my life. Seeing my wife and children step up, just as I did and follow in my footsteps. To see the compassion in their eyes with every task they did and every word they spoke to those affected. The love I feel for my family has deepened, from watching in awe, as each of them turned tragedy into hope for those suffering around them.

I will always remember the countless miracles that happened along the way. Like the day before the Nor'easter was gonna hit when I found a woman on Facebook with a special needs son, petrified and wanting to board up her windows. I said I would be there in less than 30 minutes. I only had a hammer with me. I posted what I needed and where and when. I got to her house and less than 30 minutes later, a truck pulled up with lumber and nails, so we could board her home up. Events just like this - happened constantly - with people helping people.

The Thanksgiving when we hosted all kinds of food, regular, vegetarian and gluten-free and hundreds came and it was all like a big family - even though most had never even knew each other’s names before.

Those like the woman named Leslie, who I'd met a week prior, who came back for help and when I remembered her face and name, she just broke down in my arms, cause I remembered her as a person - and not a statistic.

The Christmas when I drove around dressed as Santa, in a decorated truck, with Christmas music blaring from the loudspeakers. All the smiles and tears and people saying they'd given up on Christmas - until I brought them a legitimate Christmas Miracle. A person can NEVER forget something that meaningful. It is and will always be - one of the single best days of our lives - for my family and me.

But the number one thing recovering from Hurricane Sandy has given me - is the memory of all the courageous people I've met. Not just the ones who needed help, but also the amazing people, groups, and organizations I've met and worked with during all this. Because THEY are what has kept me going and are the most prized memories of all!

Some have asked me if I am a different person today, than before Sandy, and has this 'changed' me. Well obviously, I am way more educated on dealing with disaster situations, but changed I am not. I believe people are wired certain ways and will always react when events arise. It's in them - it just takes some longer to realize it. I have always been the type to lend a hand anyway I can and go above my means. This just provided a LOT more opportunities to do so.

This has taught me something else though. To never count yourself out and burden yourself with thoughts that you can't do something. Almost anything is possible - if you apply yourself and keep on striving forward.

Which is why I (as well as some others named above) are going to continue on - even past the recovery from Sandy. To establish a national 'at the ready' grassroots not for profit network known as Yellow Boots - taking everything learned from this - so those suffering in the 'next' disaster - will not have to learn from scratch as we did in Staten Island.

A lot needs to be done before we have an effective disaster response available in the United States and there are some real challenges - like EMP event preparedness (electromagnetic pulse event) - that need to be met. My new 'disaster' family and I - have made it 'our business' to make sure this happens.

Mike “Loco” Hoffman is a lifelong resident of Staten Island and Founder of “Boots On the Ground Staten Island”.