Community spirit or why those who can do

During hurricane Sandy my lights flickered. I stayed up all night nervous about the howling winds and due to unrelated circumstances lived out of a cooler. In the days that followed, I had limited subway options but overall within 5 days my life resumed its normalcy.
That was and is still not the case for many communities throughout New York & New Jersey.

For thousands of people, two weeks after the storm electricity has not been restored; water restrictions are in effect, they have to use community porta potties and have no hot water. Heat is out of the question. They stand in long lines for gas to fuel their generators. They have been eating military rations and standing in line for donated supplies. They spend their days and free time clearing their houses out of ruined furniture, tossing out personal mementos (baby cribs, record collections, photo albums…) and striving to regain a sense of normal. These aren’t people in some far off land, these are people here in the States and all throughout the tri-state area. Even in Manhattan some residents still aren’t allowed into their apartments and will have to find temporary housing elsewhere in the City.

Knowing what others were going through while sitting at my desk or on my couch made me mad, lazy and privileged so this past weekend, I decided to take off work and spend my Friday and Sunday volunteering in two communities that were ravaged by Sandy.

I spent Friday in the Rockaways as part of a friend’s company community day and Sunday in Long Beach as part of a group of volunteers from NYCMore2012.

The days were emotionally draining and physically exhausting. The devastation I witnessed was mind-blowing. I’d leave before 7am and get home around 6pm, take a hot shower and pass out – emotionally and physically exhausted – before 9pm. Those I helped did not have that same luxury. I remain in awe of their stamina.

Friday inThe Rockaways, Queens. 

I had biked to the Rockaways in Queens, last summer and enjoyed a taco from the boardwalk stands while admiring the view of the Atlantic before taking the subway home with my bike.
That boardwalk is gone, the subway tracks washed away.

Our group of 150 volunteers was bused in as part of Team Rubicon’s umbrella organizational effort and split into teams of 8-10 people assigned either a specific address to help the residents with their cleanup or in some cases going door to door doing community outreach.

My group ended up at Mat’s house on 127th street, 3 blocks back from the beach. A single dad with two teenage kids, the water had reached 4 feet on his property. The waterline was clearly visible in the garage and completely filled his basement, the contents of which were history. Luckily enough for Mat, the water did not get inside the ground floor of his house.
Mat had evacuated but others on his street had not. His neighbor’s house, a two-story manse raised well above street level became the street’s main shelter where ultimately 25 people took refuge during the storm, some “swimming” across in water that reached well above their chests to escape their lower lying houses and watch as the fire that started blocks away from an exploded transformer ripped through the surrounding streets, never reaching theirs.

By the time we arrived Mat had already pumped out the basement so we were left with a few inches of water and lots of mud to contend with. That and the dank smell of salt water mixed with paints and who knows what else. We filled countless enormous bins with everything from kids party trumpets, old papers, paint cans, fridges, plates and all the other random things one stores in their basement. We striped the walls of plaster board, swept and shoveled the floors as best we could.

Surprisingly Mat was upbeat and for the most part seemed to have come to terms with the process: everything in the basement was thrown out. The garage was a little harder but then more was salvageable there.

It was a daunting task, made easier for us as strangers with a lack of connection to the stuff we were throwing out. We even had a few laughs with Mat about things he’d held onto… all his kids childhood bikes, a pair of boogie boards. The day took its toll though as having convinced him to toss the old fish tank without smashing it in the basement, he took a hammer to it as soon as we got it outside. I’m sure it felt good.

During a break for lunch I walked down 127th Street towards the Atlantic. Passing streets filled with piles of people’s possessions, sand piles, insurance adjusters and chunks of the boardwalk. Dump trucks were lined up being loaded by diggers with sand. Sand that can’t go back to the beach until its sifted and cleaned.

Three houses back from the beach, a man and his brother were sitting outside their family home on two beach chairs taking a moment from their cleanup to enjoy a sandwich. One of them called out to me: Thank you for coming. Thank you for giving of your time to help us. It means so much to us to see that we’re not alone in this.
I was touched. We struck up a one-sided conversation, he talked I listened.
He too had evacuated with his family. He told of how the boardwalk that used to end a couple of streets down from his house had washed down his street and taken his front steps in the process. The front door I was looking at was once behind a brick staircase.“My wife wanted them redone, anyways”. The ground floor apartment that his son and his wife occupied was a write off… “She finally gets that new kitchen”.
He summed up what seemed to be the general spirit: he lost stuff, possessions but nothing that really matters, none of his loved ones and only wished the same were true for others.

As we parted ways, he added: “now, I have a house on the boardwalk.” As I turned away I spotted a chunk of boardwalk with a bench still attached sitting in his neighbor’s front yard and smiled.

Humor its how we cope.

Sunday in Long Beach, LI

For many summers, Long Beach was my beach. I spent many a summer day waking early and taking the train 45 minutes out there. Bee-lining it away from the crowds  and heading west towards the quieter end of the beach with a pit-stop at Zamboni’s, the Italian deli where the guys serve you with an attitude and always respect a quick comeback. I’d spend my day lying in the sun soaking up the rays, stopping for a margarita on the boardwalk before catching the express train home as the sun set.

This past Sunday, 500 volunteers were mobilized by NYCMore2012 and bused to three of the hardest hit NY areas: Staten Island, the Rockaways and Long Beach.

Our two school buses of volunteers trundled through a Long Beach that looked like a war zone. Devastation. Much like in the Rockaways people had piles and piles of their stuff put out on the street.  The FEMA, Verizon and mobile City Hall trucks were parked around Police Headquarters. Bank of America had a mobile ATM parked nearby. Homeland Security from Indiana were coordinating the donation station, an Ice Rink filled with way too many bags of clothes and not enough cleaning supplies, toiletries, blankets.

We were divided into groups of 6 or so and our mission was to go door-to-door and check up on people mainly in the area called the Walks (where the streets are paths barely 3 feet wide) and points west of there. We were to knock and ask if they needed any help or had questions that we could relay back to our command post.

Most houses were well into their cleanup or more accurately: gutting of their ground floors. This was a part of town where people shoveled several feet of sand out, where the water reached well over 6 feet. Those who had finished clearing their house were working on a neighbor’s because that’s the thing about this and the other communities that were devastated, they are tight-knit. They know each other and have each other’s back. As we handed out supplies such as contractor bags, so many people would take no more than a few telling us to keep the rest for someone who needed them more.

On Arizona Street, we met Jack, a man easily in his 70s cleaning out his mother-in-laws garage. Here we were a group of five women all in our 30s and though at first he was hesitant, he quickly succumbed to our coaxing and let us help him sort through everything. As the pile out on the street grew and the contents in the garage dwindled I could sense his relief. Progress.

At lunchtime, we headed back to City Hall where a group had set up a BBQ on the roof of the municipal garage. Free BBQ for all. No questions asked. Residents, volunteers, first responders all ate for free. Smokers were churning out pulled pork, pork chops, hot dogs, hamburgers, corn… I have never enjoyed a hot meal quite as much as that one.

After lunch we were sent over to the distribution center at the Ice Arena. A massive warehouse of a space where all donations were being collected and sorted under the supervision of the Indiana Homeland Security. For two hours we joined a bucket line helping load in the contents of a non-stop flow of cars that would pull up loaded to the hilt with donations. There were also trucks including a 24 foot low trailer truck that had driven up from Virginia completely filled with everything from ramen noodles to dog food to space heaters. We unloaded 3 trucks like that.

At the end of the day as we boarded our bus, Kristen, our community contact stopped by to say thank you and tell us that whether we cleared a garage or were just able to tell someone they could now flush their toilet and shower, they were grateful we had come. Every act of kindness, every kind word of support or just an ear offered meant a lot to their community it reminded them that they were not forgotten and that they mattered.

Humanity is knowing that you are part of something bigger than just you and that you matter. We mattered to them. They mattered to us. Humanity, even most seemingly jaded New Yorker’s have it.

They still need help and will for months. I plan to go back because life returned to normal for me and I want to help others get their “normal” back too.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead



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