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From France to Tinseltown, Firefighters Help NY Brethren Rebuild from Sandy

By Alan Neuhauser | January 18, 2013 10:34am

RED HOOK — Steve Orr thought he'd escaped the worst.

Two feet of seawater had swept through the retired FDNY firefighter's Bergen Beach home during Hurricane Sandy last fall. But the flood had quickly receded, leaving apparently little damage behind.

"I was pretty much in denial," said Orr, 46, who lives a block from East Mill Basin. "I thought, 'Ah, the water went in and out, it's alright.' I threw some bleach around."

More than a month later, starting to question his good fortune, he ripped out a wall and found the back coated in mold. Virtually the entire first floor — the kitchen, the dining room, the living room — would need to be replaced, a job that could take months.

"Just to get people to come in and do the sheetrock, it would've taken me a while," Orr recounted. "Trying to hire someone was torture, because it was so busy."

That's when volunteer crews from Tinseltown to the Big Easy stepped in. Just before Christmas, roughly a dozen New Orleans, Los Angeles, Rhode Island and New Hampshire firefighters drove up to his house and began hanging sheetrock throughout the first floor. They completed the job in a single afternoon, then went on to help another firefighter the following morning.

"Taking a vacation from work to come here and literally bust their a-- for maybe 8, 9 10 hours a day to really get it done — it's really awesome how dedicated these guys were, just coming in and helping other firefighters out," Orr said.

More than 100 firefighters from 15 departments have helped fellow smoke-eaters in New York City since Hurricane Sandy struck Oct. 29. Arriving each week from as far as France and Washington State, the groups have helped rebuild more than 150 homes and businesses across the five boroughs, coordinating their visits with Friends of Firefighters in Red Hook, a nonprofit formed in the wake of 9/11 to help current and retired FDNY members and their families.

"We did not put the word out; they came to us," operations manager Meghan Zichelli said. "It's just been a consistent flow of anywhere from as small as five people at a time to a full house…. They worked and worked and worked and then they left."

Friends of Firefighters' headquarters on Van Brunt Street, located in a former firehouse that was itself flooded by Hurricane Sandy, has become a kind of hostel for the visiting work crews, a dozen bunk beds filling what was once the building's garage.

"There were no cheap hotels" after Sandy struck, associate director Stephanie Cherry said. "Even when there was a lack of electricity, the firefighters went out and got generators and a wood-pellet stove. They strung Christmas lights for light."

Thursday morning, roughly 20 firefighters from the Seattle, Los Angeles County, and Alhambra fire departments sat in the building's kitchen — Seattle at one table, LA and Alhambra at the other — scarfing down eggs and potatoes before heading to the day's job sites.

"Each fire department really has the back of the other," said Brian Maier, 36, a captain with the Seattle Fire Department.

Los Angeles County firefighter Bennie Sims, 38, agreed. "We had two line-of-duty deaths recently. We had guys from FDNY — they didn't even know anyone — come out for the funeral," he said. "It's just our nature. It's part of the calling of being a fireman. You want to help out, put in some work to help out."

That background — and Friends of Firefighters’ singular focus — has made it easier for city firefighters to accept the assistance.

“I'm not real keen on asking guys for help, everyone has their own thing to do,” Orr recounted. “If [Friends of Firefighters executive director] Nancy [Carbone] didn't call me and plead with me that she wanted to help us out, I probably would've waited it out.”

As Cherry explained: “It helps that our mission statement says that we help only FDNY firefighters. They don’t want to take away from others that need help.... We tell them, ‘If we help you, then you can help someone else.’ They can’t send us to someone else, but they can help.”

Friends of Firefighters has hired two additional staff members to help coordinate its outreach efforts. The organization has continued to provide free and low-cost services such as counseling, yoga, and massage — even as it worked out of temporary offices while its ground floor was rebuilt. It also opened a distribution center for clothes, toiletries and other supplies in Glendale, and, with help from actor and former FDNY firefighter Steve Buscemi, coordinated a screening of Pixar’s “Monsters Inc. 3D,” which more than 200 FDNY families attended.

The group has seen an increase in calls from parents concerned about their children's welfare following the storm — from virtually no calls before the storm, to about 10 since it struck.

"They don't have a home. They don't have their bedroom. They lost their school. On the more extreme side, there were some who had to evacuate mid-storm," Cherry said. "That people are reaching out for us for help with their kids is really important."

Use of the organization's other services, though, has otherwise remained stable.

"One [firefighter] said to me, 'If I am only starting to talk about 9/11 now, it's going to be years before we'll talk about Sandy,'" she recounted. "They're not ready."