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Portland firefighters take on Hurricane Sandy 'disaster fatigue'

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Portland firefighters take on Hurricane Sandy 'disaster fatigue'

PORTLAND — Nearly five months after it made landfall, Hurricane Sandy continues to affect thousands of people still trying to rebuild their homes, communities and lives in hard-hit areas of New York and New Jersey.

But Maine Helps, a coalition of Portland firefighters, businesses and volunteers, is working to bring storm victims much-needed supplies – and the public can join the effort.

On Saturday, each of the city's eight fire stations will be collecting donations of building and cleaning materials, as well as non-perishable food and pet supplies.

The public is being asked for items including paint, paint brushes and rollers, utility knives, work gloves and goggles, brooms, and even small hand sprayers that will dispense bleach to remove mold from storm-damaged homes.

The goods will be shipped to relief distribution centers in the New York City area by trucks and crews from Bisson Moving & Storage Co. of Westbrook.

Maine Helps is timed specifically to overcome "disaster fatigue" – the lapse in emergency relief that often occurs when immediate dangers have passed, but longer-term needs remain.

"Disasters, of course, have an immediate response phase, and there always is an outpouring of support in the days following an event," Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said Friday. "But victims often face lengthy delays before they can even get back to into their homes to assess damages and begin repairs, and as the weeks and months pass, the relief supplies begin to dwindle just when some of the harder work begins."

Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast Oct. 29, 2012, killing 48 people in New York and 12 in New Jersey. Although Maine escaped the brunt of the storm, thousands of residents of Long Island, the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, and the New Jersey shore were left homeless. Sandy caused more than $75 billion of damage, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, after Hurricane Katrina.

The impact of the storm was compounded by a February blizzard that brought more than 2 feet of snow, freezing cold and near-hurricane-strength winds to areas that were already devastated.

Those areas include places such as the Rockaway peninsula of Queens, long a popular home for New York firefighters and police officers.

The coincidence of disaster striking disaster-responders isn't lost on Maine Helps. In fact, the coalition is an outgrowth of an earlier Maine-New York relationship formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

One of the organizers of Maine Helps, Russ Williams, is director of the 9/11 Family Camp, which offers families of the attack victims free, week-long stays at Camp Kieve-Wavus on Damariscotta Lake in Nobleboro. Knowing that many of the families were also affected by Sandy, Williams wanted to help.

"There were three of us in the Damariscotta region, and we got together and ran a Sandy relief truck back in November. We took 10 days, filled a 48-foot trailer, and that was the beginning," he said Friday, as another truck prepared to bring supplies to New York.

The November trip also got the attention of Kevin Hogan, a retired New York fire lieutenant who now lives in Falmouth with his wife, a Portland native.

"Because I'm not down in New York anymore, I wanted to help friends and the people I protected for 20 years," said Hogan, who raced to ground zero on the morning of the World Trade Center attacks. "I just wanted to do something (about the hurricane). ... I felt helpless up here. If I had been down there, I would have been involved."

Hogan knew Williams because families of coworkers from his former fire company, Ladder Company 3 in New York's East Village, had stayed at the 9/11 Family Camp. Ladder Company 3 lost 11 members – most of its force – in the World Trade Center's north tower.

Hogan and Williams then approached the Portland Fire Department, which already had close ties to firefighters in New York.

"(The PFD) was very instrumental in supporting us after 9/11," Hogan said, noting that department had helped staff fire stations and attended funerals for many of the 343 New York fire personnel who perished in the terrorist attacks.

The collaboration of Hogan, Williams, the PFD, Bisson and others was a natural next step.

"It's amazing how things have worked out, between the camp, the Portland Fire Department, and everyone," Hogan said. "It shows what people will do to help when there is devastation, wherever it is."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.