With more than 100 of their colleagues struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives—and, in several instances, their homes—in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the “family” of New York’s court employees has once again banded together to create a special fund to assist victims.
“In the wake of a disaster, the court family comes together,” said Ronald Younkins, chief of operations for the state court system. “It is what we do after a disaster. We do what we can to assist members of our family.”
The Court Families Assistance Fund, set up in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation and the Fund for the City of New York, is soliciting donations to help those whose homes, cars, possessions and way of life were swept away by Sandy.
“We are still gathering information, but we know of well over 100 court families that were affected—everything from having their homes flooded and losing their possessions to having their cars ruined,” Younkins said.
Younkins noted that a similar fund established after Sept. 11, 2001, raised nearly $400,000 for court families impacted by the terror attacks. Additionally, a fund was established in 2005 to aid court employees in the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina.
“We thought it would make sense to reactivate this fund as just another piece of our effort to assist judges, court staff and their families,” Younkins said, noting that 10 days after Sandy hit, some employees have yet to make it back to the office.
Sandy’s victims included judges, clerks, aides and security officers.
Supreme Court Justice Jerome Murphy of Nassau County, for example, still had no electricity, no heat and no landline service at his flooded Island Park home yesterday.
“We are ripping out the whole first floor,” Murphy said. “We have to throw out 95 percent of what we own that was on the first floor. But everyone in my community is in the same situation. They are all ripping out sheetrock, throwing out their possessions and, in many cases, their homes are inhabitable. Everybody is trying to stay warm and we have had a lot of wonderful people come down to provide food, water and blankets. A lot of people are hurting, but they are good people and their spirits are high.”
Murphy said he made it into the office briefly on Monday, got another judge to fill in for him on Election Day and is taking built-up vacation time to sort through his house and prepare it for extensive renovation.
“Luckily, a couple of the judges will grab some of my cases,” Murphy said.
The Cape Cod-style Staten Island home of Richmond County court aide Ernesto Velez was totaled by the storm and he has been notified by New York City Department of Buildings that the house largely built by his wife’s father 60 years ago will have to be demolished.
“The water came in the basement door and knocked the door right in,” Velez said. “In no more than five minutes, the basement flooded and five minutes later, it was at the top step. There was no recourse but to run.”
Yet Velez considers himself relatively fortunate. Neither Velez nor his wife were injured, they have a good friend to stay with and between homeowner’s and flood insurance he hopes to be in a new home before too long.
Velez said that if he runs short of money he will consider asking for assistance from the Court Families Assistance Fund, but only if he gets desperate.
“There are people who may have a more dire need and we won’t apply,” Velez said. “As a God-fearing man, I take one day at a time as he allows me to live it.”
Queens Supreme Court Justice Sidney Strauss (See Profile) packed up and fled the Long Beach summer home that has been in his wife’s family for 70 years as Sandy loomed. It was the place where he first met his wife and where his sons spent their summers. Though still standing, the storm left 18 inches of water in the house, dealing a deep emotional blow to him and his wife.
“It’s going to take a long time for those scars to heal,” Strauss said.
Lieutenant Jack Allen of the New York City Criminal Court, lives—or, more precisely, lived—in a Broad Channel, Queens, ranch-style home with the kitchen, dining room and bedrooms all close to ground-level.
“We took a pretty big hit,” said Allen, who has a wife and four children. “We had 40 inches of water in the house and pretty much lost every possession we owned, with the exception of some dishes in the upper cabinets.”
Allen, who has not been back to work since the storm hit, is staying with a friend in Forest Hills. The rest of his family is with friends in Levittown. He was unaware of the assistance fund until informed of it by the Law Journal.
“Amazing,” he said. “The court system, we are all in it together. Everybody tries to stick together.”
Unable to Return to Work
First Deputy Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks (See Profile) said that while many employees made it into their offices and the courts last week, those who could not get to work will not be charged for the time off. He said the court system is working out a plan for people who are still unable to come to work.
“Last week, we had people coming to work and we are tremendously appreciative because they enabled us to open the courts,” Marks said. “But we know there are employees who are still dealing with major, major problems in their personal lives and we are going to address that. We are developing a plan to address that. It will involve talking to the unions.”
Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, which has about 1,600 active members, said he is gathering information on which union members were “devastated” by the storm and need help from the court fund. He hoped to get that information together and to court officials by Nov. 13. Quirk estimated at least 30 members experienced “substantial damage” from flooding and other storm-related problems.
Quirk said that, in cooperation with court officials, the union is temporarily transferring members to different posts. For example, a Bronx Criminal Court officer has been reassigned to Queens Criminal Court to accommodate the fact that her Breezy Point home had been destroyed, along with her car.
Additionally, Quirk said the union is making arrangements so that any members left without a place to enjoy Thanksgiving can have a meal at Russo’s on the Bay, in Howard Beach. For members in need of relocation, Quirk said, “we’re looking now to see what we can do.”
Nassau ‘Deeply Affected’
Cynthia Bohanan, president of the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County, a union of court employees with 840 active members and more than 400 retirees, said a lot of Nassau County court employees have been “deeply affected” by Sandy.
Remembering a time when employees chipped in to help a colleague whose house had burned down, she noted that court system workers “always looked out for one another.”
“We’re going to do the same thing again,” said Bohanan, adding that employees would collect food and diapers and arrange transportation for colleagues in need. “The family’s going to come together.”
Bohanan applauded the creation of the Court Families Assistance Fund and said she planned to meet today with Nassau County Administrative Judge Anthony Marano (See Profile) to identify employees who could benefit. Bohanan estimated there were almost 60 Nassau County court workers seriously affected by Sandy.
Separately, Bohanan said she is working with members on how best to pool resources and services—like the offer of manual labor—to help out hard-hit court workers.
“We’re just trying to brainstorm on ways we feel like we can help. This is something just so different,” she said.
The assistance fund is administered by Amy Levitt Kotler of the Center for Court Administration, while an eight-person advisory board will distribute assistance.
Younkins serves on the board along with the head of court security in New York City, Chief Walter Glowacz; Nassau County Chief Court Clerk Kathryn Hopkins; Pace University Vice President and former judge Robert Keating; Gregory Murray, director of the Office of Court Administration’s public affairs office; Eugene Myers, chief of staff to Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile); Richmond County Clerk Steven Fiala; and Queens County Clerk Audrey Pheffer. There are no judges on the advisory board because of the prohibition on judges soliciting donations.
Tax deductible contributions can be sent to the Court Families Assistance Fund/FCNY, c/o Center for Court Innovation, 520 Eighth Ave., 18th floor, New York, N.Y., 10018.