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Serving and Listening to Sandy’s Survivors

by Greg Tucker

Disasters like Hurricane Sandy not only cause physical damage, but they can leave confusion and anger in their wake for weeks and months. So it must have surprised FEMA Corps Team Leader Cassie Murray to be declared “an angel” only a few hours after she was angrily confronted by one of the storm's survivors.

The residents of Long Beach Island have worked aggressively to remove debris in this New Jersey community. The piles of debris have been collected and separated for recycling in an effort to recover from Superstorm Sandy. (FEMA photo by Steve Zumwalt)

Murray and her team were sent to New Jersey's Long Beach Island as part of the FEMA Community Relations team soon after the area reopened to residents. As she walked up to one home on the island, the resident saw her FEMA gear and declared, “I don't want you here, FEMA. I don't want to talk to you,” believing the agency had denied his assistance claim.

She convinced the man to show her a letter he received from FEMA and explained that it wasn't a rejection but a request for more information before the process could continue. At that point he told Murray that she needed to explain this to his neighbors, too.

Before she was done, Murray spent two hours explaining what the letters meant to a group of community residents and how they could get help. When she finished, one of the men listening put his hands on her shoulders and said, “I had no idea when I woke up today that an angel was going to walk through my door.”

The experience showed Murray the power of active listening and how important information is to people recovering from a disaster.

FEMA Corps Team Leader Cassie Murray

Inspired to Serve

Murray was inspired to consider national service after participating in an alternative spring break in New Orleans during 2011 where she mucked and gutted a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina. She applied for FEMA Corps before her graduation from Colorado State University with a degree in music education.

Like many AmeriCorps members, the future educator has learned a few lessons during her assignment with FEMA Corps – especially about the impact this experience has on young people like herself.

“I am made of stronger stuff than I thought I was. That's been the most valuable takeaway,” she said. “Learning that I can be successful when resources are low and stress is high. With the concerted effort of a dedicated group of people, you can make a tremendous impact in other people's lives.”

She appreciates the investment this program is making in young adults because she believes the return will be multiplied beyond the work members are doing serving disaster survivors, educating children, helping the homeless, or building nature trails.

“National service provides young people opportunities to connect with the country as a whole and feel like you're making a difference in the world,” said Murray. “Through serving others you learn the most about yourself.”

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