November 21st, 2012
05:00 AM ET
By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Coney Island, New York (CNN) – Pastor Connie Hulla heads down the street toward the setting sun, her cowboy boots clicking against the sidewalk.
“Don’t worry, we have plenty of food inside,” she calls out over the rumble of a commercial generator to a line of residents snaking around her Coney Island Gospel Assembly church. “Sorry for the wait. We had to restock.”
It’s been three weeks since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeast, killing more that 100 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damage.
Despite power being restored in most areas, schools reopening and life beginning to go on as usual, there are many homes in need of repair from flood damage – and entire blocks reduced to rubble - leaving a strong demand for the good will of others.
On the front lines of the relief efforts have been churches that are providing aid to storm victims, meeting needs very early on.
Truckloads of donations from across the country, carrying everything from bottled water to diapers, are arriving at places of worship like Hulla’s Coney Island church. Residents living in areas hit hard by Sandy are flocking to get their hands on much-needed supplies.
In Coney Island, several neighborhood stores are still closed. Hand and foot warmers, flashlights and batteries are going fast. Toilet paper is a coveted luxury item.
In New York and New Jersey, 1,137 customers remained without power on Monday morning.
In line for aid at Coney Island Gospel Assembly, residents swap storm stories, telling of sewage in their kitchen sinks, cars swept away by water and homes without heat.
The storm smashed cars against neighborhood buildings, Hulla said, and thrashed a semi in the church parking lot amid the rising water. “The scary thing,” she said, “was we didn’t know if it was going to stop.”
Donations arrive at her church from as close as Brooklyn and far away as North Carolina, with controversial radio host Glenn Beck among those cutting checks. AmeriCorps volunteers even arrived from California.
But for Hulla, the constant flow of people waiting for supplies can be overwhelming.
"It's hard to see the people suffer,” she said. “It's hard to see the children cold. It's hard to see people who had what they needed to have to stand on a line.
“We try to do everything with dignity, because that could have been me," she continued, fighting back tears. “It’s very humbling.”
In the days after Sandy slammed New York, two pastors serving Manhattan’s Lower East Side - near where a transformer exploded at a ConEd plant, turning the area dark for days - sprung into action.
They used social media and created a blog called Grace in the Storm to help with the relief.
“There’s a network in this city that is very viable, and it’s called the church,” said one of those pastors, the Harley Davidson-riding Rick Del Rio of Abounding Grace Ministries. "It was one of those times like after 9/11 where everybody came together to help one another.”
Matt Stevens of Somebody Cares Baltimore, a nonprofit group that helps connect faith-based organizations, arranged for the first shipment of relief supplies into the area, which arrived the day after the storm hit. Stevens saw the pastors’ call for help online and offered up supplies no longer needed in another state.
As word spread, more donations arrived at the relief site from faith-based nonprofits like Operation Blessing and Mercy Chefs.
The pastors estimate that they were able to serve 20,000 families from the community, including hundreds living in a nearby high-rise housing development that lost power for four days.
Del Rio said it was days before his team saw anyone from the mayor’s office or from New York’s housing authority.
“We are the church that deals with the community, and our ears are to the ground, and we know the people,” he said. “This is gonna happen again. The infrastructure has started to build from the ground up. Moving forward, there needs to be something more strategic.”
With their neighborhood back on its feet, Del Rio and Pastor Guy Wasko from the East Village’s Trinity Grace Church continue to mobilize volunteers and donations, with an eye toward the city's hardest-hit areas.
“You see in disasters like this where the church really shines,” Wasko said. “There's still people stuck on the 23rd floor of high-rise buildings, and nobody's coming to them.”
Linking arms with the faith-based effort has been Occupy Sandy, an effort that grew out of last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests.
Marilyn Andersen recently went to Occupy Sandy’s main distribution center inside the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in her native Brooklyn.
"You know, you really have to put yourself out there and figure that if you were in that position, you'd want people to come and help you as well,” Andersen said. “I brought my daughters with me, and we're here to help as much as we can."
After the storm, Toni Jones James was without power, heat or hot water for more than a week. She lives on the 12th floor of the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn.
It’s the largest housing development in Brooklyn, with more than 6,100 people.
James says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the hot meals and blankets provided inside the nearby Visitation Church and Red Hook Initiative community center, she said.
“I would not have been able to survive without the help,” she said, adding that her power was restored Friday, two days before her birthday.
As of Sunday, the New York City Housing Authority reported that it had restored power, heat and water to the nearly 800 city buildings that had been affected by Sandy.
The authority installed more than 100 generators and 24 temporary boilers brought in from across the country to provide essential services to public housing residents.
But many are still struggling to get their lives back to normal.
In South Ozone Park, Queens, Pastor Sharon "Sharo" Ramkhelawan at HopeNYC Church is busy overseeing the church’s warehouse. It is brimming with donations, some sent by Del Rio and Wasko and other items stocked by the generosity of hundreds of churches, other groups and individuals.
Ramkhelawan, whose Long Island home was flooded during the storm, has been living in the church with her family for the past few weeks.
The faith community's response to Sandy is playing a major role helping residents pick up the pieces, she said.
"They're not just there for today or two weeks. They have been there for years,” she says of New York’s churches. “They will be there for years, even after everybody else. When the government has pulled out, the church will still be there."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.