Project Hope continues aid to local Irene victims for the long term

Project Hope program coordinator Michael Raphael in front of a house along the Sawkill Creek in the Town of Ulster. Many houses in the neighborhood, including this one, remain unoccupied in the wake of structural damage resulting from flooding during Hurricane Irene last August.(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

When the rains came, and homes were lost, farms destroyed, infrastructure washed away, Project Hope hit the ground in Ulster and Delaware County, going door-to-door to offer free disaster recovery help.

According to program coordinator Michael Raphael, Project Hope is a project sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that is “part of FEMA’s response to disaster areas.” To that end, after Tropical Storm Irene and subsequent rain events hit the region, Project Hope landed in Kingston, with 12 staff members including counselors, psychologists and caseworkers moving door-to-door in the most devastated areas — and then to the “less” devastated areas — in an attempt to reach everyone impacted by the flooding, rain and winds.

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“There were 350 homes lost, or partially lost, in Ulster County alone,” said Raphael. “We first listened to their stories, ensured that they were connected with the services they needed and offered counseling, which we still do,” he explained, noting that he and his staff are still reaching out to people, offering services, encouraging people to let them assist in their long-term recovery. “There is a lot of empirical evidence that when there is a community-wide response to disaster — not just in the short term, but in the long term — and support is given and reactions normalized, that people cope much better.”

Like any loss, there is a cycle of emotions that one is likely to go through, although Raphael cautions that “everyone is different.” But in general, from Raphael’s vast experience dealing with disasters and crisis in war-torn areas like Kosovo and Bosnia and throughout the US and here in Ulster and Delaware County, “There is a hero stage when the disaster first hits, where everyone comes together, helps each other out…we saw that in 9/11. Our first responders are there; friends and neighbors come out to offer assistance; people can have almost a euphoric feeling and sense of strength as they get through the first initial stages.”

But then, he said, “Life goes on. Those not directly affected get on with their lives as they should, but they also need to be mindful that others are unable to go on with their lives. They have no home; they’re still living on a family member or friend’s sofa; they’ve lost everything, and their hope that FEMA would come and save them is not true.”

FEMA, he explained, “is like any organization and it has its limits as to how much it can financially help.” FEMA assistance tops out at $30,000. “If you had a $200,000 home that was destroyed and you’re still paying the mortgage on it and you need to now pay for another place to live, that $30,000, while surely a help, is not going to build you a new home or return to you all that was lost.”

There are low-interest loans that people can apply for to rebuild a home, but again, Raphael noted that “Taking out a loan — even an almost-free no-interest loan — still means that you are now paying two mortgages. That would be difficult at any time, but particularly when we’re in a severe recession.” That’s not to say that there isn’t hope, and that people can’t “rebuild their lives,” he said. “But they need help. They need assistance, community and understanding.”

He said that several homes are being rebuilt in the Lake Katrine area. “We visit Springtown Road [in New Paltz] frequently, and are in touch with everyone we know of who experienced loss.”

Project Hope has banded together with several county-wide services like Family of Woodstock and New Paltz, the Ulster County Department of Social Services, RUPCO, faith-based organizations, the Red Cross, Ulster County Emergency Management and advocates for the elderly, all of whom meet on a weekly basis to discuss cases and ensure that citizens’ needs are being met. “Ulster County is so organized in terms of services,” said Raphael. “When we meet, I can literally say the first name of a person or child and they know whom I’m talking about. I learned of a child just yesterday who did not have shoes, and we found them shoes. It’s a remarkable group.”

When Project Hope hit the ground in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, it helped to listen, counsel, connect victims to the proper services and helped them to prioritize their needs. Now the agency continues on with its next phase. This includes revisiting those individuals and families, checking in with them, seeing how they’re coming along and what they may still need assistance with.

“Now some time has gone by, and those that have been able to move back into their homes suddenly find that the pipes have burst or their furnace isn’t working. Then spring will come, and there will be debris and fallen trees and likely more flooding when the snow melts. We’re working on that as well: setting up a task force to assist people in the spring. This team is being assembled by various faith-based organizations and will be called the Long-Term Recovery Committee.”

Project Hope is also moving into various school systems to provide workshops for children on disaster response, what the cycles of emotions are, how they can be prepared or better help and assist someone who has been affected. And on Feb. 4 at 4 p.m. at the Elting Memorial Library on Main Street in downtown New Paltz, it will hold a community meeting where it encourages everyone to come out: first responders, flood victims, municipal leaders and the community at large.

“People still need to tell their stories, and as a community we need to listen and to learn how to develop resilience when something like this occurs,” Raphael said. “We can learn and anticipate what the reactions will be, and by understanding those reactions and cycles of emotions, we can help to provide the short- and long-term support people need and build a more fortified community.”

Project Hope plans on staying put until October 2012. To learn more about its services, to contact the group or ask a question, Raphael encourages anyone and everyone to call (845) 336-4747, ext. 150, or on the Web through their Facebook page or by e-mail at projecthope@mhainulster.com. ++