Harvard grad recounts a hectic 2 months in Hurricane Sandy relief

Ashleigh Brickley (center, in hat), part of a FEMA Corps team detailed to FEMA Logistics, helps sort prepared meals to be sent to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy. Brickley is a Harvard native.
Ashleigh Brickley (center, in hat), part of a FEMA Corps team detailed to FEMA Logistics, helps sort prepared meals to be sent to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy. Brickley is a Harvard native.

Before there was a particular disaster for which to prepare, Ashleigh Brickley and her FEMA Corps team sorted something like 10 million meals.

Brickley, 29, leads a 12-member community relations team of the first-year FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Corps program, a unit of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. They’d just finished two and a half weeks of sorting meals in Shreveport, La., and left for another mission when the news surfaced that a superstorm was headed for the East Coast.

“My boss said, ‘I want you to drop everything,’ ” remembered Brickley, a Harvard High School graduate. The team was told to drive the meals from Baton Rouge to Shreveport.

“All those meals that we’d organized for a future date – he’s like, ‘Pack ’em all up and ship them off to the East Coast.’ ”

That task was supposed to take about a week. By the timeline in Brickley’s admittedly somewhat jumbled memory – the result of a couple of months of work without a day off – every meal was on the road by the next night at 9 p.m. They’d packed 100 semi-trailers in two days.

Brickley’s team woke early the next morning and packed themselves up, not knowing exactly where they’d stay.

“They wanted to send us to the East Coast as quickly as possible, but they also didn’t want to send us into the storm,” Brickley said. “They don’t want to deploy people so quickly that they end up creating more victims.”

On Halloween night, as the hurricane dissipated over Pennsylvania, about 220 FEMA Corps volunteers stayed in cramped quarters at a veterans’ hospital in Maryland. They drove to Brooklyn the next day and started working.

“Certain areas look like a war zone,” Brickley said. “And then another area would be like nothing happened at all.”

Finally, Brickley found out that she and the rest of FEMA Corps would be staying in the Bronx on a training ship for local Marines. The same ship was used as disaster relief housing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Brickley and her team spent the next six weeks – Nov. 3 to Dec. 15 – digging into relief efforts. As community relations representatives, their job in any disaster is to relay information from FEMA to the community, often about how and where families can receive help. They bring information back to FEMA about any critical cases.

In New York, the team set up a makeshift disaster recovery center in a local park, and registered more than 500 people for recovery assistance while the state made arrangements for a more permanent center.

There were individual stories, too.

“Helping an older couple get out of a house that they were staying in way longer than they were supposed to,” Brickley said. “Helping a person get the funding they needed to get somebody in there to get the electricity turned back on.”

For Brickley, who’d decided about a year ago to leave a corporate position that would send her to Australia and regularly to places such as Las Vegas and New York on business, the whole trip was an affirmation of her decision to seek a more fulfilling job.

“It’s a lot different than going to Vegas and having your company take you out to the best restaurant in the MGM Hotel,” she said. “When that person gives you a hug with tears in your eyes and thanks you so much for being there and giving them your time, there’s nothing like it.”

Aside from team leaders, FEMA Corps members are 18 to 24 years old, and work 10-month terms for a modest living allowance and an education award of $5,550 for future education or to put toward student loans.

Brickley, who’s based in Vicksburg, Miss., doesn’t know what she will do next after her term expires in June. She’s considering teaching in a high-needs area – either domestically or abroad – or working for a nonprofit.

Either way, her perspective has been shaped by her time in disaster relief.

“I think a lot of people are really cynical. I was a little cynical too in my old job,” she said. “But it’s amazing to see the strength and the power that these young people have in their work, and their ability to inspire other people. It’s breathtaking.”

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