* About 1,200 FEMA workers living aboard ships in NY
* Going door-to-door by day, dinner in mess hall by night
* Napolitano says residents may not be aware FEMA is there
By Hilary Russ
NEW YORK, Nov 12 Firefighter Sean Dos Santos
left his two daughters in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, about
a week ago, bound for New York and the devastation superstorm
Sandy left behind.
Every morning, Dos Santos, who is a civilian Coast Guard
firefighter at home, and other federal workers disperse in teams
of 10, going door-to-door, checking on homes and trying to
connect struggling families with what they need.
And every night, he and about 1,200 other federal workers
from around the country come back to their home for up to the
next 45 days - aboard one of three ships, activated by the
federal government to serve as floating hotels docked in New
York City for federal recovery workers.
Life aboard the T.S. Kennedy, the ship Dos Santos is calling
home, is hardly glamorous. Most of the beds are coffin-sized,
self-contained metal units with a thin mattress and a privacy
curtain, stacked three high. Meals are taken together in a mess
hall under a yellow fluorescent pall.
The bathrooms and showers are no-frills. Men and women sleep
in separate quarters. Normally, the ship - a 45-year-old former
Navy cargo vessel - is docked at the Massachusetts Maritime
Academy, where it sails on training missions with students in
ocean-bound laboratories, classrooms and dorm space.
But it's enough for Dos Santos, 42, who also left behind his
girlfriend and her three kids. He fights back tears when he
talks about missing his family, and about the families he's met
who lost everything in Sandy.
"I've got a roof over my head. I've got a place to sleep.
I've got food in my stomach," he said. "I'm very fortunate to
have what I have."
Sandy ravaged parts of the East Coast as it made landfall in
New Jersey on Oct. 29. Transportation and power systems were
hobbled for days. Some especially hard-hit areas are still
without electricity, heat and transit.
On Sunday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
came aboard to tour the ship and thank recovery workers.
"I hope you take some pride in what you're doing," she told
a couple hundred workers crammed into the chow hall. They
responded with a loud, collective "yeah!"
WORKERS SPREAD ACROSS REGION
During the day, the workers go from house to house, finding
out what people still need and distributing information about
where residents and businesses can register to receive federal
By Sunday afternoon, at least $455 million in FEMA housing
and other assistance had been approved, FEMA said. More than
369,000 people in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut had
registered for FEMA assistance.
The community relations workers aboard the Kennedy are part
of a Department of Homeland Security program called the surge
capacity force, which is making its trial run with storm Sandy.
The program culls employees in different federal agencies
and in Homeland Security -- including the Transportation
Security Administration, the Secret Service, customs and
immigration agencies, and others. All the workers previously
volunteered to be on the surge capacity force, to be rushed to
areas after a disaster hits.
One team of workers on Sunday visited 358 homes in Breezy
Point, Queens, where more than 100 homes burned down in a fire
as the storm hit.
The team conducted 141 interviews and found homes that still
had flood water in crawl spaces. The team also made five calls
for immediate medical assistance, according to Cheryl Seminara,
who is normally FEMA's education policy adviser but is a
coordinator of the surge capacity force program.
"This disaster is unlike any disaster we've seen," she said.
Karla Ver Bryck Block, 49, of Springfield, Virginia, is also
living aboard the T.S. Kennedy.
Usually, she works for U.S. Immigrations and Customs
Enforcement. On this mission she went with a team to
Knickerbocker Village, an affordable-housing complex above
Chinatown on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Residents there still had no power, hot water and heat. Ver
Bryck Block said the team encountered an elderly woman on an
upper floor who had been there for two weeks with an injured
leg. The woman's foot was badly swollen, so the team called 911.
SOME FEEL FORGOTTEN
Some people in places like the Rockaways, in the borough of
Queens, have said they feel forgotten and left to fend for
Napolitano said in an interview that the federal government
knows that resources are still needed there. But she said some
FEMA employees have been there for a week and a half, even
though residents "might not know there are FEMA people there."
"The FEMA presence has been very constant," she said.
Altogether, more than 7,200 FEMA personnel have performed
search and rescue, communications and logistical work since
That number doesn't include the more than 5,600 National
Guard personnel, nearly 4,000 Army Corps of Engineers employees
and other federal workers in the region.
The crew aboard the Kennedy is used to dealing with Maritime
Academy cadets who have to follow strict rules, not adults of
"From an operational perspective, it's been a little bit of
a challenge," said Captain Thomas Bushy. "Normally we have
disciplined cadets who go to bed when we tell them to."
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Dan Burns and Cynthia