Novato Volunteer in Thick of Sandy Recovery Efforts

Gregory Smith, director of disaster services for the American Red Cross's Bay Area branch, has been working in New York since Nov. 1.

By Bay City News Service              

Relief efforts in New York and New Jersey suffered setbacks last week due to a nor'easter, which brought cold and snow to an area already struggling with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, according to a Novato resident helping to lead the charge.

Gregory Smith, director of disaster services for the American Red Cross's Bay Area branch, has been working in New York since Nov. 1 as a deputy incident commander. Based in Manhattan, he has helped oversee the push to establish shelters and get urgently needed resources to residents.

While relief efforts are making progress and residents are beginning to recover as power returns, Smith said this week's strong winds, cold temperatures and snow were taking a toll. As he spoke on the phone Friday morning, he noted that snow was "falling sideways" past his fourth floor office window.

"That nor'easter really set us back," Smith said. "It was heart-wrenching to see some of the people who had just started to get some of their property and other aspects on track, only to be derailed by this intense nor'easter that brought rain, wind and snow."

Smith noted that it was extremely unusual and problematic to respond to a hurricane in the midst of cold, snowy weather.

One of nearly 6,000 Red Cross volunteers and staff members working in the New York and New Jersey area, including a total of 128 volunteers from the Bay Area, Smith said he has been in disaster relief for nearly 20 years. He also worked on Hurricane Katrina, at the infamous Astrodome, but said there was little comparison between the two storms.

"When people ask that question, I tell them they both contained wind and water, that's the only way I can compare them," he said. "You can't compare the impact of a hurricane on the Gulf coast to the impact of a hurricane in the largest city in America. There is no comparison."

The first stage of relief efforts involved opening an estimated 110 shelters in the region as soon as workers could gain access and getting urgently needed supplies such as food, water, blankets and cots to residents, Smith said.

Even more importantly, in some cases, Red Cross workers have been providing accurate, verified information to people at a time when rumors and accusations dominate conversations.

"You can't make up some of the stuff that people are making up, or at least you shouldn't be able to make it up," he said.

Many residents had expectations about disaster response that need to be responded to and managed, he noted.

"In a crisis like this it's not that the agencies don't want to be where they need to be, it's that they can't get there, you physically in some cases can't get there," he said. "That's why the most difficult part of any response and recovery operation is the initial response phase."

With power restored in many areas, access opened up to all areas and weather expected to improve, disaster operations are expected to move into a new phase this weekend. More than 200 Red Cross emergency response trucks, including three normally based in the Bay Area, will begin making distributions of bulk food and other supplies, and officials will work with residents to help them find temporary or long-term housing and connect them with other assistance.

The Red Cross alone has nearly 6,000 volunteers working in the region, including more than 120 from the Bay Area. Smith said he expects to remain in the area at least another month.

Smith noted that the best way for residents to support relief efforts was through cash donations to the Red Cross.

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