Rebuilding lives and trust: one year later
Gilbert Johnson finally picked up the phone to call for help April 3, 2013, almost six months after Super Storm Sandy left a gaping hole in his roof and flooded his 100-year-old white-framed house. Fortunately for Gilbert, a 70-year-old widower who lives alone in the Uniondale, N.Y., area, he found himself talking not only to a real person but the right one.
Yussef Parris, a case manager with Lutheran Disaster Response of New York in Uniondale, knocked on Gilbert’s door the very next day after the call. Contributions from ELCA members to Lutheran Disaster Response U.S. are often used by local agencies to hire disaster case managers like Yussef.
It was only when Gilbert opened the door that the full extent of his need came into focus. Legally blind and suffering from kidney cancer, Gilbert let Yussef into his home, declared unsafe by FEMA in November 2012.
The house was dark and foul smelling. Gilbert explained that he had lost electricity and heat after the storm but had declined the federal agency’s offer of emergency rental assistance. He did not trust the government’s promises of help, and he was unable to see well enough to fill out forms.
Gilbert, however, did accept help from FEMA’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program for heat restoration. Following a first attempt to install a temporary heating system, the installers blew out the circuit box. Assessors later discovered that the system was creating a dangerous fire hazard and ordered it disconnected.
The smell, which emanated from the crawl space under the house, came from a collapsed septic tank. When Yussef followed Gilbert to the kitchen, he found that the retired cook was preparing his food on top of a kerosene heater cranked up to high and spewing fumes.
Asked how he had been able to get by without refrigeration or gas, Gilbert admitted that he had not been eating very well and was getting sick. Occasionally, neighbors invited him over for a hot shower and a meal, but he passed the winter mostly alone in the cold, dark and moldy interior of his home.
Caring for basic needs — together
Yussef went to work quickly. He first gave Gilbert a food relief box and a three-month referral to the New LIFE Center’s food bank of Lutheran Social Services of New York in Uniondale. Walking together through the well-stocked shelves, Yussef helped Gilbert select various food and household products. Yussef read the labels aloud. The New LIFE Center offers the opportunity for clients to shop for their own food and other materials.
Together Yussef and Gilbert charted a plan for recovery, which included different housing arrangements for Gilbert during house repairs. The plan also included processing insurance claims and emergency assistance forms, as well as sorting out important financial documents and putting together a bill payment plan.
Now there is hope
In an October 2013 interview, Yussef reflected on how Gilbert smiled brightly as he inspected the miniature refrigerator and microwave in his hotel room. These are small things, but nonetheless important to the former cook.
“I was skeptical. I didn’t trust anybody to help me,” Gilbert told Yussef. “But you’ve proven to me that you will advocate for me — you’re on my side.”
Yussef and the long-term disaster recovery organizations are walking with Gilbert on his journey to rebuild his home and his life. He is eager to get back into his home and is very grateful. “I never could have imaged this; it is better than I ever could have dreamed. Now I have hope.”
“Disaster case managers are the front-line workers in the long-term recovery process. They do the hard work of walking with those who are impacted by disasters as they seek to find help, hope and healing,” says Michael Stadie, program director for Lutheran Disaster Response U.S. “Countless lives are affected for good by disaster case managers. This is why we at Lutheran Disaster Response are proud to have disaster case management as a core competency of our work.”
This is just one story among many of how generous support from ELCA members finds its way into communities where people are rebuilding their lives and seeking reassurance that they are not alone in facing their challenges.