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An EF2 tornado (Enhanced Fujita Scale) touched down in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, around 6:30 a.m., Wednesday, August 8, 2007. Spawned by a thunderstorm that dropped three inches of rain in an hour, the tornado added 135 mile-an-hour winds to a heavy downpour that flooded subways, basements, and underpasses, leaving over 4,000 buildings without power. 

The tornado first touched down near St. Austin’s Place in Staten Island. It uprooted trees, damaged buildings, and tossed debris through windows as it skipped approximately nine miles into Brooklyn. In Sunset Park, the tornado tore the roof off a Nissan dealership on the corner of 66th Street and 5th Avenue and damaged homes in the area so badly that over 50 families had to be evacuated.

“Trees were snapped like toothpicks, cars had been thrown up against fences, and broken glass was everywhere,” observed Rod Tierney, an OEM responder. “We must have shown up minutes after the tornado passed because many residents were still too scared to come out of their homes.”

THE CITY'S RESPONSE

Tornadoes are rare in New York City, and the City has no specific response plan like it does for hurricanes. Instead, OEM guided the recovery by applying strategies the agency learned from past experiences with displaced residents. In August 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New York City opened its arms to thousands of evacuees from New Orleans. OEM created a Disaster Assistance Services Center (DASC) to introduce the new residents to a range of City, State, and federal services available to them and to ease their integration to life in New York City.

Though the number of victims was much smaller, the lessons OEM learned from the Katrina experience could be applied to the federally declared disaster zones in Brooklyn and Queens. Many residents knew little about the resources and services available to disaster victims. OEM and the Human Resources Administration (HRA) opened DASCs in each of the disaster zones- Flushing, Queens, and Bay Ridge and Williamsburg in Brooklyn- to increase awareness about the recovery effort and facilitate victims’ access to disaster assistance.

The DASCs, modeled on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Recovery Centers, streamlined access to grants, low-interest loans, referrals, and other services by gathering various City, State, Federal, and non-profit entities under one roof. The Tzu Chi foundation donated space for the DASC in Flushing, while the Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens allowed OEM to use its buildings in Brooklyn.

OEM tailored the DASC to serve the local population by inviting translators and special services to help residents with the application process. When a large number of Chinese residents applying for assistance OEM activated volunteers from its Chinatown Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and New York Cares to assist FEMA and the Brooklyn-Chinese American Association with translations.

“In Queens, the flooding primarily affected a neighborhood of recent immigrants. Residents were intimidated by the application process,” explained Robert Van Pelt, OEM’s Shelter Specialist. “We invited a lawyer from the CUNY immigration project to the Queens DASC to counsel recent immigrants about the disaster assistance for which they qualified.”

Representatives from HRA coached visitors on the types of assistance available and escorted them to the various tables. FEMA and the Small Business Administration ranked as the most popular, but industrial cleaning products and assistance from the American Red Cross in Greater New York also drew large numbers of visitors. HRA asked visitors to participate in exit interviews to gather feedback and improve services.

During the last two weeks, the three DASCs served over 700 households. Together, they distributed over $4 million in disaster assistance grants and over $400,000 in loans. They will continue to serve affected residents through mid-October.