by Susan Mikula Campbell
When you hear the words "first responder," you probably think of someone like a firefighter, police officer or an EMT, or even the Red Cross. But there is another type of first responder who helps people affected by disaster try to put their lives back together.
After Hurricane Sandy swept through Long Island at the end of October, Wheatfield's Brian Fineberg, the town's assistant building inspector and code enforcement officer, was among those who played that role. He was among 53 members of CEDAR (Code Enforcement Disaster Assistance Response) who volunteered their time after the call went out for assistance after the superstorm. These CEDAR participants, along with five state Division of Code Enforcement and Administration staff members, conducted 12,731 building evaluations.
"I went because I could help out," Fineberg said.
His family wasn't sure he should go. "I told my kids, if we couldn't get back in our house, wouldn't you want somebody to help us out and inspect the home to be sure it was safe?"
Fineberg's first deployment was Nov. 3 to 6 to the Town of Islip, Long Island, from where he was taken to Fire Island by boat for inspections. Fire Island, especially its beachfront properties, was among the areas hardest hit by the storm.
The destruction was unbelievable.
"When you think of your neighborhood, think of four to five feet of water up against your house," Fineberg said.
Except for emergency workers, the area of Fire Island where Fineberg worked was deserted.
"It pretty much washed over the whole area," Fineberg said.
Buildings tilted crazily or were partially filled with sand.
He volunteered to return Nov. 16 to 19. This time, he went to the Town of Hempstead, Long Island, from where he was driven to the Town of Oceanside for inspections.
It was on the Oceanside deployment that he encountered victims of the storm.
There, everybody had a story. One man told him of seeing a car float down the street and smash into a tree in front of his house. A couple hours later, the driver was coaxed to swim to the relative safety of the house.
In an apartment complex, first-floor apartments had water marks two feet up the walls and had developed mold problems. People in second-floor apartments couldn't understand why they should have to evacuate.
Although it didn't happen to him personally, other code enforcement officers told him of heated arguments with residents upset by being told they couldn't re-enter or stay in their homes.
Ruined possessions were everywhere. "Some people had whole back yards full of garbage they didn't want to let go," Fineberg said.
One of his fellow inspectors reported seeing a sign spray-painted on a garage saying, "Don't bother, looters. Everything is already gone."
Not only homes, vehicles and possessions were harmed, but the land was polluted as well. Fineberg tells of a pervading smell of diesel fuel.
"The pictures he brought back were pretty crazy," said Wheatfield Building Inspector Joe Caturia. "It was quite an experience from what he says."
Supervisor Bob Cliffe said the Town Board allowed Fineberg to use a town vehicle on his volunteer mission. ("It was a small bit of help for an area that needed a lot of help.")
Once his volunteer assignments were done, Fineberg headed back to Wheatfield doing his regular job.
"Brian has been working very hard to clean up some of the lingering challenges around town. He does hand out citations when needed and does come to court, but he, (and Joe), also work with residents and businesses to solve problems before they have to go to court," Cliffe said.
Cliffe said he recently received a call from a Nash Road resident praising Fineberg for helping discover the source of a kerosene smell from his basement and arranging for cleanup. It proved to be a leak in an old home heating oil tank.
"Needless to say, I am very pleased that Brian joined our Building Department team. I'm proud to be associated with Brian and Joe Caturia with the work they are doing. They are good workers, but more importantly, they are great neighbors," Cliffe said.