BY LISA FARBSTEIN
From the Office of Public Affairs, Transportation Security Administration
Five weeks ago, 745 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees put their lives on hold, packed their suitcases, kissed their families goodbye and headed to New York-without their uniforms.
These TSA employees, representing more than 200 airports from across the nation, saw a need to help make a difference in the lives of complete strangers at a time when the need was greatest. They rushed to New York State to assist FEMA in its Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.
Thousands of New York residents-including people in Rockland County-have met the TSA officers, inspectors, administrators and Federal Air Marshals in the days and weeks since the hurricane struck, but odds are that they never realized it because the TSA employees literally traded in their blue TSA uniforms, black TSA inspector jackets and TSA ID badges for a FEMA badge and jacket to help residents recover from the devastation left behind by Super-storm Sandy.
Bundled in winter coats and wool caps as members of FEMA’s Community Relations Teams, TSA employees have been going door-to-door in hurricane ravaged neighborhoods from the Catskills to the Rockaways, helping residents sign up for FEMA and state assistance; then returning to check the status of those applications, and often returning yet again to make “wellness checks” accompanied by members of the National Guard to offer water, food, blankets and even masks to be worn when tearing out moldy drywall and carpeting.
TSA employees have personally helped survivors register for assistance, helped individuals replace lost wheelchairs, helped arranged for rides to medical appointments, saved survivors from fraudulent contractor scams and handed out food, water and blankets.
TSA employees have been staffing many of FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers-set up in community centers, mobile trailers or leased space in otherwise vacant neighborhood storefronts– where they have been guiding the survivors through the recovery process to ensure that they are getting the assistance they need to get heat and electricity restored so their homes can again become inhabitable and their shops can reopen. They also have been staffing the FEMA Call Center, where they spend hours answering questions for storm survivors.
Bruce Forrester, a TSA training instructor from Indianapolis International Airport, arrived in New York knowing that he would miss the birth of his grandson; would miss Thanksgiving with his family; and would have to cancel a planned two-week vacation knowing he would lose those vacation days at the end of the year. He did it because duty called. He knew that at the end of the day, it was more important to help improve the lives of people in need-700 miles away.
Dwayne Bishop, a TSA officer from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, grew up in New York and still has family and friends here. “I felt compelled to come help. There was never a question about me coming back here,” he said. Trained to register people for assistance through the use of a laptop with internet access, his FEMA team, comprised mainly of TSA employees, was using a mini-van as a mobile, make-shift Disaster Relief Center, canvassing neighborhoods to register hurricane survivors for Federal assistance.
Vicki Andrews, a TSA officer from Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, has walked miles, knocked on hundreds of doors and spoken with people around the region. At the end of the day, “if we get one person registered, we know we’ve made a difference,” she says. Andrews knows this because she is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and felt drawn to come help New Yorkers.
TSA falls under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, and as such, TSA employees can volunteer to be members of what is known as the Surge Capacity Force-willing to be deployed to disaster locations across the country to help FEMA with response and recovery support. Make no mistake, this trip to New York has been no vacation. Surge Capacity Force members have been putting in a minimum of 12- to 14-hour days living on retired Naval training vessels docked in the waterways of New York, to enable displaced residents to utilize the available hotel rooms.
TSA employees are eating in a galley and sleeping in the hulls of ships in large, shared living quarters that feature triple-bunks only two feet high that make it a challenge just to roll over at night. But they are sleeping well knowing that the important work they are doing is making a difference in improving the lives of their fellow countrymen.
Lisa Farbstein is a TSA spokesperson. She spent two weeks deployed to FEMA’s New York Joint Field Office to help disseminate information about how people can sign up for federal and state assistance if the counties where they live have been declared disasters as a result of storm damage.