JDC Field Report on Russia’s Heatwave

Recently back from Russia, Asher Ostrin, JDC’s Former Soviet Union Regional Director, gives us an exclusive firsthand report on the impact of Russia’s eco disaster on people in the region, and what we’re doing to help.

August 13, 2010

Recently back from Russia, Asher Ostrin, JDC’s Former Soviet Union Regional Director, gives us an exclusive firsthand report on the impact of Russia’s eco disaster on people in the region, and what we’re doing to help.

Stifling Heat, Suffocating Smoke, and No Relief
Temperatures in Russia were at record highs for more than two weeks, and there was no rain. This caused two problems: severe heat and dozens of fires, since much of the territory of Russia is actually forest.

Because air conditioning is not common, even in public spaces, there’s hardly anywhere that the poor can get some relief from the heat. I was in St. Petersburg during the first week of the very intense heat. Though several degrees cooler there than in the Moscow region, during visits to the homes of our elderly clients, it was stifling hot.

The second problem stemmed from the fire. For some reason intense smoke traveled an enormous distance from the source of the fires. Moscow was particularly hard hit. There were days when standing on one end of Red Square one could not see the onion domes of St Basil’s for which the Square is famous. The smoke was thick with particles that made breathing difficult for the young and fit; the elderly and the ill were at very high risk for serious side effects.

JDC’s Responds with Emergency Equipment and Care

Immediate Respite for Elderly and Needy Children
Within 24 hours of the worst of the disaster, JDC secured a commitment from the Leichtag Foundation of San Diego to cover the costs of air conditioning units in 9 of the Hesed social welfare centers in the worst hit cities in Central Russia with Jewish populations. These units were quickly purchased and volunteers began installing them; additional units were also purchased for several of the Hesed buildings in Moscow.

The air conditioners were all put in the Heseds’ public spaces. Gradually, elderly clients were ferried to the Hesed and each spent several hours in a cool room. In addition, the JCC at Nikitskaya was opened; in this case space was made available for young children as well, particularly for those from poor families in the children at risk program. At this point, a timely grant from Edgar and Sandy Snyder helped us respond to new emergency needs caused by the disaster.

More Help is Needed
All of this provided extraordinary relief, but we realized that money was not the only issue. There were homebound clients who could not be moved. Space limitations also meant that not everyone could come to the Hesed. Medicine was less available as some pharmacies were closed because people did not come to work. And finally, in terms of manpower, the timing for all of this could not have been worse. Like much of Europe, August is the month in which staffs are skeletal. Whoever can, escapes the city heat and doldrums for vacation.

JDC Mobilizes Volunteers through Social Media
Enter Facebook. The JDC office in Moscow put together a plan to mobilize volunteers. A “call” went out over the Russian-language Facebook. Within hours there were over 30 responses, and by the end of the day Monday a program was in place. By the next morning more than 900 calls had been made, concentrating on homecare clients—generally the neediest seniors.

Most of the elderly were managing like everyone else. Some requested medicine, or if possible a way to be transported to the air conditioned day center they had heard about. Several needed doctors and did not have the wherewithal to track down physicians who remained in Moscow during the crisis. Others were running short of food and the volunteers quickly arranged to deliver either meals or groceries to their homes.

More volunteers joined the roster of those willing to assist during the course of the week. As of this writing there are already 44, and the number is growing. Parenthetically, seven of those who responded to the initial call for volunteers were previously not connected to organized Jewish life, and saw this as a point of entry.

The‚ Saga Continues
I want to close with a paragraph taken from a report by Anna K., the young professional in our Moscow office who is coordinating the volunteer program:

“Volunteers spoke to many people and heard many stories. For example, I called one lady, and our conversation touched me so much that I was almost crying by the time we finished the conversation. She is 82 years old; her husband died a month ago and she has no children or relatives. She is completely alone. She was very, very thankful that we provided home care to help her when her husband was severely ill and she also was very touched that we called to find out if she is ok. Today one of our volunteers is going to visit her and help her with cleaning the house and buying food. Based on this experience, we are thinking of establishing a constant volunteering project that will allow young people help elderly on a constant basis.”

The story is not over. There has been some relief from the heat during the last few days, and the air over Moscow and some of the smaller towns has cleared up. But there is still no rain and the weather forecasters are cautioning against complacency. Personal contact with the neediest clients continues unabated.

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