In Sandy's Wake President Obama To See Traffic Jam of Volunteers

PHOTO: Volunteers from Arizona to Canada arrived in Belle Harbor, N.Y., this week to help with the recovery in one of the hardest hit communities.
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Monsignor John Brown is right out of central casting -- a big, burly Irish-Italian priest who has mobilized his Belle Harbor, N.Y., parish and drawn thousands of volunteers from around the country to this tightly knit community after superstorm Sandy nearly ripped it apart.

About 4,000 to 10,000 people turn up daily at St. Francis de Salles Church looking for critical supplies -- baby formula, personal hygiene items, clean-up tools -- and an equal number of volunteers have answered his call.

"New volunteers show up every day," he said, giving victims bear hugs and good humor as they carry bundles of food and water from the bustling donation area in the church's gym.

"People want to do good things. People want to help each other," he said. "We'll get back. We'll find a way."

Some houses in Far Rockaway, an isolated peninsula connected by a causeway, were flooded with 11 feet of ocean water and now carry the stench of mold and sewage more than two weeks after the tidal surge subsided.

In the early days after the storm, Belle Harbor was left to fend for itself. But in the last week, a surge of volunteers from Arizona to Canada has descended on a neighborhood that looks more like a war zone than a seaside town.

Most residents have gone more than two weeks without power, heat and limited cell phone coverage.

President Obama, who will visit this week, will witness images of devastation first hand: the shell of a brick house blackened by explosion, a front lawn littered with rotting sheet rock, a demolished stove and a discarded menorah, a boat sitting upright in the street.

The president will also see a volunteer effort that has swelled with organizations like the American Red Cross, the Visiting Nursing Service and a skilled veterans' relief organization, Team Rubicon.

But thousands of other individuals -- 12-year-olds to senior citizens eager to help -- just show up each day.

Food supplies like diapers, blankets and rakes arrive by the truckload daily and are distributed at St. Francis, the command center for volunteers and needy residents.

Monsignor John Brown organizes volunteers in Belle Harbor.

The church, which has become command central, was created by the community, "not the government," said the monsignor, a dead ringer for Hollywood's Father Flanagan of "Boys Town." When asked his age, the energetic priest quips, "I'm 55 -- double nickles."

Monsignor Brown has worked around the clock alongside volunteers who have flooded a community that is trying to endure one more day without heat or power.

"We lost everything -- the fridge, the TV, the boiler and all our family pictures", said Lynette Bollers, an petite African-American woman in her 70s, who like many others refused to evacuate. "The hurricane fooled us."

"For eight days, nobody was here," said her granddaughter Jarixza Buendia, 33, whose three children lost not only their books, but their beds when their basement apartment flooded. "Now, people have come together."

Even those who had been left homeless themselves offer to help a neighbor clean out a basement. Buendia's 16-year-old son told his mother, "I want to volunteer."

Lynette Bollers and her granddaughter Jarixza Buendia (center).

Belle Harbor is no stranger to tragedy. Just 11 years ago this week, American Airlines Flight 587 bound for the Dominican Republic plunged into Beach 128th Street –-- just a few yards from St. Francis DeSales, killing all 260 on board and five on the ground.

Eight weeks earlier, the church held 12 funeral masses for neighborhood firefighters who died in 9/11.

In the days after Sandy struck, help seemed slim with bridges, tunnels and the subway system knocked out. Belle Harbor's streets had largely disappeared beneath a blizzard of sand kicked up by Sandy which, along with ruined cars, made the streets impassable. Buildings still smoldered from fires that were whipped into infernos by the gale force winds.

But now, with much of the sand plowed and carted away and bridges reopening, Belle Harbor is a traffic jam of volunteers, plows, garbage trucks hauling out debris, ambulances and tractor trailers hauling in supplies.

At St. Francis, when one truck backs out of the donation center, another one pulls in.

"It's like this every day," said Carl, a volunteer.

Corporate volunteers have also pitched in, according to Chris Osbourne, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. "They are pouring out of the woodwork," he said. "These guys are wiped out, exhausted, but they are having a great time."

Even celebrities Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake and Madonna were spotted in Far Rockaway this week.

"We are filling in the gaps because the system is overwhelmed, and we are rushing against time to provide for their needs." said Oscar Gubernati, the man everyone calls "the commander."

A disaster expert, he has coordinated community relief efforts in the 2005 tsunami, and in Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.

With Sandy's devastation, "It's less about resources and more about coordination," he said. "Information changes ever hour. One minute it's baby items we need, and the next hour it's food and water."

The command center is a parish classroom on the first floor which, until only eight days ago, was under four feet of water. Generators provide lighting and connections for laptops.

Donations are well-organized throughout the school's gym: clothing, bottled water, mops and cleaning liquids, snack foods and children's toys.

Young volunteers Jamie Dolan, 16, and Mubarak Mohern, 12, hand out cleaning supplies.

Signs at the entrance to the "warming center" invite residents to a nutritious meal and a face-to-face with a mental health professional: "Want to vent, come into the tent." And, "Need Someone to talk to, come inside."

"People don't just have essential needs, but psychological first aid," said Gubernati. "We take the time to listen."

Massages are offered for the weary, and that also includes the volunteers who have been working from dawn to dusk.

Just outside, the Refuah Health Center, housed in an RV, provides tetanus and flu shots, as well as medications. Volunteers came from Rockland County in upstate New York.

"A lot of people have been unable to get to the doctor or their prescriptions are lost," said volunteer Wayne Gannon.

Sandy Victims Don't Want To Leave Their Homes

Volunteers are clearly moved by the stoic determination of Belle Harbor.

"People are sleeping in gutted houses, huddled upstairs because their basements are still swamped," said one of church volunteers who keeps a list of needs. "But they don't want to leave."

So people like George Reuss, a 75-year-old Red Cross volunteer from Texas, sing so isolated residents get supper.

A professional singer, he drives through the neighborhoods in an emergency response vehicle belting out musical invitations to get food.

"I put a smile on their face," said Reuss, who has volunteered in every hurricane since Andrew in 1992. "If I don't … after I've fed them, I haven't done my job."

St. Francis was not the only church to open its doors. Irene Mejia, a 19-year-old college student, is volunteering at St. Mary's Star of the Sea, answering phones to coordinate their distributions.

"Church members are coming every day," she said. "I didn't think we were getting a lot of help, but these donations have opened my eyes."

Monsignor Brown from St. Francis is wary about what the coming weeks will hold.

"There are three stages in a disaster -- the event, the heroic period and the slow down when the government starts to leave and people get angry because they still need help," he said. "That is the period we are hitting now."

Osmin Ferran, wearing an Obama t-shirt, is thrilled with his FEMA check.

Though 41-year-old Osmin Ferran showed off his $2,940 check from FEMA that had just arrived, others have been anxious over the lack of federal response, angry voices that Obama may well hear.

As dark falls each night, utility trucks, ambulances, police cruisers and day trippers head out at a snail's pace on the traffic-jammed causeway back to civilization.

Those left behind stay huddled in their darkened and cold houses, awaiting yet another day that bring them closer to some sense of normalcy

"Commander" Gubernati is encouraging victims to wait it out patiently and the limitless supply of volunteers gives him hope.

"The government is overwhelmed and we can't afford to play the blame game," he said. "When we fix the problems, then we can figure out who's responsible. I don't want to feed the frustration."

For more information on how to volunteer in the Sandy relief effort, contact the American Red Cross, Greater New York Region.

ABC's Christina Lopez contributed to this report.

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