NEW YORK (Reuters) - 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 October 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!”
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 relief money.
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 people in places like the Rockaways, in the borough of Queens, have said they feel forgotten and left to fend for themselves.
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 Sandy struck.
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 all ages.
“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 Osterman