Josh Israel finds more hope than despair from perfect storm

by: SUBMITTED - Josh Israel, left, and his co-workers take a breather from their heavy duty. The 19-year-old FEMA volunteer from Lake Oswego felt he learned much from his service after Hurricane Sandy.Josh Israel’s entry into the real world could not have been more stormy.

In fact, it was the “perfect storm,” Hurricane Sandy. Israel worked for two months as a Federal Emergency Management Agency volunteer following the catastrophe, only recently coming back for the holidays to his Lake Oswego home for rest, relaxation and reflection. This gigantic experience left him more hopeful than heartbroken.

“Seeing a two-story brick house upside down is going to stay in my mind the rest of my life,” Israel said.

But overall, Israel uses the word “upbeatness” to describe his experience.

“What stands out to me is the way the community worked together,” Israel said. “They would say, ‘My home is destroyed, but we’re alive.’ They were looking on the positive side of things. I never expected that, because you see destruction on TV and people are crying. Instead, most of the people I saw were happy if they had clothes, food and some type of shelter. You don’t see that every day.” by: SUBMITTED - A team of FEMA volunteers finds all too much work to do in New York. Estimates are as high as $50 billion for damage done by the storm.

There was no way Israel could have been totally ready for such an overwhelming experience, but he was prepared about as well as possible for a 19-year-old guy fresh out of high school. After graduating from Riverdale High School last spring, Israel decided to postpone college and join AmeriCorps. Over the next few months he gained skills in areas necessary in handling disasters, and on Halloween he was ordered to report to New York City and join FEMA to deal with one of the biggest storms in American history.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Israel said. “AmeriCorps didn’t tell us much. We had no idea how massive the damage was.”

by: SUBMITTED - Scenes of devastation like this are unforgettable for Josh Israel. But he is optimistic about New York's chances for recovery from Hurricane Sandy.Israel and his comrades were sent straight into the damaged community, first to clear away debris from driveways, then going door-to-door to provide information and offer services from FEMA. Israel received great appreciation for what he was doing.

“It definitely made my job much more rewarding when people came up and thanked me,” Israel said. “One time we were eating in a restaurant and a woman came up and paid for our meal. It was really heartfelt. Just having the answers for them really helped a lot. It gave me the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.”

It helped that FEMA handled the Sandy disaster with efficiency. The agency had taken a huge hit to its reputation with its notoriously floundering performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This time FEMA was wiser and much more efficient.

“The lessons learned from Katrina were used in Sandy,” Israel said. “Help reached people a lot sooner, supplies were ready to go and there were good relations with the government.”

Israel was right in the middle of all this, doing logistics and making sure trucks were loaded with supplies at the airfield in Farmingdale, N.Y., and ready to go when needed.

“It was physically demanding,” Israel said, “but you could see your progress. It was nice to see things moving along.”

Israel looked as fit as a fiddle upon his return to Lake Oswego, and he had gained much confidence for his return to New York for a five-month term of service starting this month.

“I now understand how the government works in a real world situation,” he said. “There are not many guys in my age bracket who can say they’ve done this. I’ve done something completely unique for people my age, something out of the norm. I can positively know I helped people get back on their feet. It’s something I can take with me.”

Israel will also take with him many sad scenes of people crying after being hit by the reality of losing everything.

Still, Israel is convinced that the people of New York and New Jersey will bounce back.

“They will be able to recover,” he said. “They’ll do it. Hopefully, they’ll come back stronger than before.”

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