Adivasi co-owner Elissa Bhanti stands with Joshua Cunningham in her shop Monday, in front of clothing that has been donated for victims of Super Storm
Adivasi co-owner Elissa Bhanti stands with Joshua Cunningham in her shop Monday, in front of clothing that has been donated for victims of Super Storm Sandy. Cunningham helped Bhanti when her shop flooded in Tropical Storm Irene and now Bhanti is helping lead the drive to aid victims in New York and New Jersey. (Howard Weiss-Tisman/Reformer)
Tuesday November 6, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- In the days leading up to Superstorm Sandy, thoughts of Tropical Storm Irene were never far from the minds of Vermonters.

As the massive storm barreled its way up the East Coast last week, a little more than a year after Irene, people across the state braced themselves for the worst.

And now, after Sandy largely spared the region but inflicted historic damage in New York and New Jersey, people in Windham County are organizing efforts to help the people who will be feeling the effects of Sandy far into the future.

"Hurricane Irene sensitized us to the level of distress people feel when something like this happens," said Pastor Susanna Griefen of the Dummerston Congregational Church. "After Irene, Vermont got thousands of dollars to help people here, and they sent tool trailers and volunteers to help rebuild. Now it is our turn to help."

Dummerston Congregational Church is helping put together cleanup and hygiene kits, which will be shipped to New York and New Jersey through Church World Service.

The kits help families clean up and rebuild from the storm, and complete kits, or portions of them, can be dropped at the church in Dummerston Center.

Information about the kits can be found at www.churchworldservice.org.

The church is also collecting money for relief agencies.

After Irene, Windham County received 1,500 cleanup kits and 1,000 blankets, Griefen said, and now she is asking area residents to do what they can to aid in the relief efforts.

"We know how hard Irene hit us up here and it is even worse down there. Our hearts go out to them," she said. "It was amazing the support we received and now we can send help. We really want to mobilize people. "

After Gov. Peter Shumlin realized that Sandy had largely missed Vermont he began to mobilize efforts to help people in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Eleven members of the Vermont State Police traveled to New Jersey Sunday to help patrol the streets and Shumlin says the state and its residents are looking to continue offering help as New Jersey and New York rebuild.

"Vermonters learned in Tropical Storm Irene how critical volunteers and donations were in our recovery effort, and now many are looking for a way to offer that same assistance to neighbors hit by Hurricane Sandy," Shumlin said Monday. "I'm proud of the Vermont State Police for sending a group to New Jersey, and thank our National Guard troops for standing ready for deployment if they're needed. Many Vermonters are donating food, clothing and other items to their locally sponsored assistance efforts."

Adivasi co-owner Elissa Bhanti knows first hand how a storm can upend life when it hits.

Her Flat Street shop suffered serious damage during Irene and the company lost thousands of dollars worth of merchandise when Irene hit.

During the flood, and in the days after it, Adivasi got help from hundreds of volunteers who helped the store recover and clean up.

Over the past week Adivasi has helped collect more than three carloads worth of winter clothing and the shop is continuing to be a drop off point to collect clothing, as well as cleaning and hygiene supplies, for the people in Staten Island.

"We know what it's like to go through this and we also know how it feels to have the tremendous outpouring of support we saw after Irene," Bhanti said. "This is our way to pay it forward."

Bhanti is going to work with other Flat Street merchants and residents in the coming days to broaden the relief effort and organize a response to the disaster in New York and New Jersey.

She hopes to have more information about volunteer opportunities to sort clothing and a central spot to drop off donations.

"We are still in the early stages of this, but people are looking for ways they can help," she said. "We want our help to be systematic. The people down there are going to be rebuilding for a long time."

Wendy Levy, owner of Brattleboro Cheese Shop, did not have her store at 30 Main Street last year when Irene hit, but for her, the disaster in New Jersey has been personal on another level.

Levy grew up in New Jersey and has lived in New York.

"I was sitting home, feeling horrible about what my friends, family and boyfriend are dealing with down there. I felt so powerless," Levy said. "Then I realized I can use my shop to help. I can do something instead of just feeling sad and powerless."

Levy is also going to collect food and emergency supplies in her shop.

She said flashlights, batteries, gloves and masks, shovels, trash bags and cleaning supplies, along with winter clothing, are all needed, and she is going to help gather supplies and then make sure they are delivered to drop off points in the New York-New Jersey region.

Levy will start collecting items Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. when the shop opens.

Doug Bishop, spokesman for Red Cross of Vermont and New Hampshire Upper Valley, said the group is continuing to collect money and send volunteers down from the region to help out the people in New York and New Jersey.

Bishop said it is hard to distribute goods so Red Cross is accepting donation as the best way to help the people affected by Super Storm Sandy.

The region has already sent 11 volunteers down, including Brattleboro resident Bonnie Dickey.

There are almost 5,000 Red Cross volunteers from all over the country currently in the region, serving food and helping out at the disaster relief centers.

"The Red Cross will remain engaged in the disaster for weeks to come," Bishop said. "We expect this to be ongoing for several weeks."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.