As she labors behind the scenes, far away from the front lines of disaster relief in her native New Jersey, Claudia Piacente often wonders how much her efforts help the people walloped by the one-two punch of Superstorm Sandy and the nor'easter on its heels.
She rarely leaves the office but sometimes an encouraging word filters back to the 25-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer working with the Silicon Valley chapter of the American Red Cross.
"One driver came back from the Boys and Girls Club in Jersey City with 10 drawings by little kids, thanking us for food and water," said Piacente, who currently lives in San Jose and works as a disaster preparedness instructor. "Mostly lopsided drawings of red crosses, asymmetrical emergency response vehicles, drawings of chicken pies and the food we gave them. ... It makes you say, 'I am making an impact, I am helping.'"
Since she knows the territory, Piacente was assigned as a truck coordinator, sending out food-and-supply laden emergency response vehicles where they're needed most.
Claudia is one of 38 volunteers from the South Bay chapter who recently deployed to the disaster area. In the region stretching from Monterey to Solano counties, a total of 139 Red Cross volunteers have made the trip, according to spokeswoman Pooja Trivedi.
Stuart Chessen of Cupertino drove for six days across the country in the Silicon Valley chapter's emergency response vehicle, a 24-foot-truck with a window in the side for doling out necessities. He picks up hundreds of hot meals from the Southern Baptist-run mega-kitchens that were also trucked to the area and takes food into the mauled areas of Long Island. He's seen a boat shoved up on someone's front lawn and a car perched on top of a fence post, and piles upon piles of refuse on the curbs.
"Mattresses, a lot of walling," he said. "The dry wall all has to be pulled up. Everything's mildewy now."
Chessen's witnessed the frustration that comes from being without electricity and gas service for weeks.
But the volunteer sees a lot more than that. There's a sense of camaraderie among those in some of the areas hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy two weeks ago, he said.
"You see people meeting their neighbors, sometimes for the first time ever, or they haven't talked to them in a long time," he said. "It's a good thing. They're trying to help each other, sharing things. Someone will say, 'I have a fire going, come on in to warm up.'"
Chessen, a 64-year-old retired manufacturing engineer, is part of a three-person food-serving team rounded out by Shelley Giles of West San Jose and Rita Maisak of Ogden, Utah. The trucks get a hearty reception wherever they go, he said.
"People are happy to see us," he said. "We've been getting waves and honks. And not the usual kind of New York honk, and full-handed waves."
Chessen said roughly half the homes in the areas they've been serving food remain unoccupied. Many are still without power, particularly the large apartment buildings that have the main power box in the basement.
"People are perturbed that the power company hasn't put it back on sooner," he said. "But it's very slow and tedious. They actually bring in the fire department when they turn the power back on because they don't know what's going to happen."
Red Cross response director Tom Busk said while after a disaster, restoring utilities "never happens fast enough" for those affected and patience can wear thin at times, overall he sees a strong sense of resilience.
Chessen said he sometimes sees indications that a sense of humor can't be drowned.
"Today was 60 degrees, but it's cold in those houses, like a refrigerator," Chessen said. "The basements are full of water. But I saw a sign the other day, it said 'House for sale, with indoor swimming pool.'"
Chessen said he'll be there until Monday, working days and spending nights in an upstairs room of the Deer Park fire station along with about 75 other Red Cross volunteers. Then he'll return home to his wife, leaving the truck behind if they still need it.
Busk said that while they've "turned the corner," a lot of work needs to be done and teams will remain for the duration.
"We're going to hang out here," he said, "until we know we're no longer needed at all."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Financial donations can be made to the American Red Cross on the organization's website, www.redcross.org or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. People can also text message REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
For information from the Silicon Valley chapter on disaster preparedness, health and safety classes, volunteer opportunities and financial contributions, visit www.redcross.org/siliconvalley or call 1-877-727-6771.
The Red Cross also offers a service on which people can register to make finding friends and relatives easier in the event of a disaster. More information about registering is available on the website or by calling the Red Cross, or from a smartphone, visit www.redcross.org/safeandwell.