Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How a Hurricane Hit Me

I sat down to write an email to some of my best best girls and it turns out I had some stuff to say.  The following came tumbling out of my fingers into a Gmail draft one evening and when I looked up, it was 12:30 in the morning. This is even an edited version of how Hurricane Sandy hit me personally.

It's two weeks to the day since Sandy came to town.

Things are still not "back to normal" in a lot of ways: the city has sanctioned gas rations (if your license plate ends with an odd number, you can fill up on odd days.  If it ends in an even number, you fill up on even days), the trains aren't fully functioning yet - many buildings even in lower Manhattan are still without power or hot water.  In the center of civilization; the hub of human culture; the "best city in the world" there are people without basic human needs.  It's unsettling.  

I have contracted a severe bout of survivor's guilt, as I am sure you can tell from my social media outpouring.  I just felt my heart being tugged to be a good neighbor to my neighbors - if I am going to live in New York, I want to earn it, and I want to be part of the community, so I've been trying my best to get involved.

The first weekend, I clumsily took a new bus line out to Red Hook.  It's the only place that was badly affected that I'd been to before (and only because that's where the IKEA is) and that was easily reachable from my apartment with the way public transportation was affected.  I went alone, mostly because I felt this needling sense of urgency, and also, I desperately needed some time to myself after being in an apartment all week with my roommate and two male refugee guests of ours.

Red Hook is a surprisingly "beachy" town.  It is embarrassing how little I knew of my new borough until the last couple weeks, to be honest.  Like, you could live in some of these cozy, outlying neighborhoods of New York City, and, aside from the stunning views, have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
There are brownstones and bungalows, cafes and antique shops, overgrown parks and a crab shack with faux lawn and picnic tables year round.  Then, on the piers, big brick warehouses - the IKEA, a Fairway grocery store (entirely flooded, the contents of which were strewn across its suburban sized parking lot - the aisles dismantled and set out to be washed and dried, amid literal tons of ocean-logged food), and a community of artist's studios.

The Occupy movement has actually been the most incredibly efficient, first-responding team in many affected neighborhoods. When I got there a line of volunteers wound down the block, waiting to get to the front to get an assignment.  The assignments were mostly being delegated to indiscriminate teams of 10-15 people who just happened to be standing next to each other in line, and were coming from canvassing teams who were walking around the area and asking neighbors and businesses what their immediate or long-term needs were. I got assigned to a canvassing team, and, this sounds silly, but, after a beat of group silence when asked, volunteered to be the Team Leader.  I had no idea what I was doing and had never been to this neighborhood before, but, I volunteered and split the group according to the map, and sent everyone on their way with instructions to come back to me with neighborhood requests, at which point a runner would take it back to the headquarters station, where a team of 10-15 would be dispatched out with proper supplies,and so forth.  It has been a while since I took any sort of leadership role, and again, it was so arbitrary and small and lasted for like, an hour, but it woke something dormant in me: "Oh, yeah.  I used to love to organize and motivate people.  I forgot that I love this- that I am good at it."

After our group had thoroughly taken care of our designated blocks, a bunch of people had to leave, but, a guy named Billy and his girlfriend and their friend and I stuck around for another task and got sent out to one of the studios on one of the piers.

It was late afternoon and already starting to get colder down on the water.  We walked as a group, chatting a bit about our stories (the girls work directly for the designer Nicole Miller.  Billy owns a bar in the West Village - The Brooklyneer. I've never been, but have heard of it) and found the studio - cavernous and cold, built of brick, and already in the process of being demolished by another volunteer team up front, busy with activity.  We learned quickly that it was an architecture studio, owned by Ben and his wife, Chrissy, who also used the place as a personal storage facility.  She was crouched over a plastic tub full of water, with hundreds of old pictures bobbing around in it.  One by one she'd peel one out, look at it, speak the memory aloud- ask her husband if he remembered such and such or where so and so was these days.  Their best friend was there, too, and seemed to be the only one with any kind of anchor in reality - he assigned us to tasks, and was audibly trying to keep Ben and Chrissy on task: "is this bag okay to throw out? "  "Have you had a chance to go through this?"  "You already looked through this one, I am going to put it in the Final Trash pile, okay?"  Ben wandered around in a daze, kind of staring at the 5 1/2 foot water marks on things - the brick wall, a plywood shelving unit, a wall of tools - while Chrissy pored over every minute of the last 40 years of her life.  It was so sad.

Billy and I got assigned to, of all things, rinsing the negatives of those pictures off, and hanging them to dry. In case Ben wanted to reprint any of them. Someday.  
It was evident that we both thought this a silly waste of time even without saying anything, because we reminded each other lightly, unprompted, that "isn't this just the nature of volunteering!"  Meaning, you show up with your arms widespread, no ego and no agenda and you just have to say, "what will help you the most right now?"  The temperature was dropping, and our job was to dip our fingers into cold water, over and over again in this negative-washing process. We strung them up onto paperclip hangers that I bent into shape, and clotheslined them up to dry all around the studio like creepy party decorations. A garland of memories of negative space.

We had no cell phone service and when I realized it was already 5, excused myself and said goodbye to everyone, with a half-assed promise to get to The Brooklyneer soon.
Leaving the warehouse was a shock: there was still no power, aside from generator-run electricity, in Red Hook, so it was DARK.  The IKEA glowed off in the distance, a beacon of normality and safety, so I clomped over there in my squeaky clean Danner boots and waited for a bus while I checked my phone with frozen fingers - my 2 best guy friends had made it there too, and I learned from texts had emptied out someone's basement that had suffered a sewage leak, but were already home and showered and did I want to go to dinner?
Yes. I did. More than anything.
Nothing feels as safe and relaxing to me here in NYC as a night with these guys.
We had a typical The Three of Us dinner at a great Italian restaurant, Lil Frankies, and talked about the day, about how the dinner was a nice way to wrap up our week together, and how it felt weird to know we had to go back to work the next day.
Last Week: Back to "normal" 

In our Monday morning status meeting, I suggested that we all go as a group on Saturday to volunteer somewhere, and that I'd be happy to coordinate it, and that we should invite our clients. It was well-received, and then I stressed out about it endlessly.  This was really important to so many people, but needs were changing daily, and part of the problem with volunteering is that you get all these volunteers and no one to lead them.  So, of course I signed up and attended a Disaster Leadership Training on Tuesday (after VOTING!), spurred largely by my experience the prior weekend in Red Hook and reminded myself that I could do this, and be good at it, and help people all at the same time. (I made the mistake of going from the emotionally intense training to a very drunk election night party and left in a horrible mood, so mad at everyone... except Drunk Diane Sawyer.  Drunk Diane Sawyer is my power animal and my buddy).

Finally by the end of the week, an opportunity perfect for our 17 confirmed volunteers presented itself!  We were going to team up with a media agency who happened to have an extra 15 passenger van for us, and caravan out to the Rockaways to help sweep the sand off of...everything, essentially.  

This past weekend: Back to Sandy, nothing is "normal"

We had an awesome group of people head out to the Rockaways, which, if you look on a map, is pretty much as far East as you can get from Manhattan, and in the summer, is a lazy, old timey beach town you can take the train to for day trips. I had never been to this beach before yesterday, so I couldn't tell how different it looked, but, the fact that the ENTIRE wooden boardwalk was just.. missing... off of the concrete pilons was  jarring in itself.   Even on the way out there in the van, we passed small communities, one after another, surprisingly far inland, that had boats piled up in the middle of the street, cars parked wonkily because that's where the ocean had unceremoniously dropped them.  And really, nothing is sadder than shit that is spray painted onto plywood: "Broad Channel: the forgotten town" or "Sandy, you broke our hearts" and "Looters will be crucified" (I am sure you saw some of those images going around online).

When we got to the sort of "town square"/main intersection of Rockaway Beach,  I was surprised to see Home Depot there doling out free shovels, brooms, and buckets but there was really no overarching organization who seemed to be directing anyone.  It didn't matter, because within minutes we'd started a conversation with a guy who was like, "how many people do you have?  Come with me to my street. We have a few basements that need to be emptied out."

So we went with him to a cute street, one side of which was fruit colored condos - like something you think you would see in Miami- the other side of the street bungalow style homes we were told were totally flood-damaged, the residents displaced, their homes ruined. 

A big guy met us at the front door of his home- Ron, an NYPD sergeant- and thanked us for coming and warned us that his basement hadn't been touched yet. We said no sweat, let's f-ing do this, and so, for the next 4 hours, we trudged through his mud-blanketed basement (which wasn't just a basement, it was just the lower level of his home: his son's bedroom, a bathroom, the laundry room, closets) full of all the things that are in all of our homes, and it was all absolutely destroyed.  We got right to work, first getting the waterlogged mattress and box spring, then the broken tv, then the washer+dryer, out.  We shoveled at the floor, 7 of us, for hours, scooping up bedding, action figures, family photos, Christmas decorations, bits of the boardwalk, mud, sewage, reeds, remote controls... just, you name it, we shoveled it into 5 gallon buckets and hauled them up the stairs, out the door, and dropped it on the sidewalk.  Their mound of possessions and memories, now rendered junk, just sat in an evergrowing heap, drowning in mud, waiting for the National Guard to come by and pick it up, and haul it off to who knows where.

By 1:30 we had the basement completely emptied out, and you could see the floor all the way around.  We had gotten started on their first floor, which wasn't as bad, but much of the furniture had sustained water damage so, out went the leather couches.  Out went the pillowtop mattress and boxspring.  "OH MY GOD." Ron's wife, also NYPD, wailed from her bedroom. "OH SHIT YOU GUYS. Oh my GOD!"

She emerged to all of our stricken faces holding a shoebox.  "Look at this, oh my GOD, bone dry." and as she pulled off the lid, we saw a first communion ribbon, her marriage certificate, graduation and birthday cards.
The stuff you can't replace, and it was all fine.

I walked up the street to tell some other members of our group who were helping in another house that we had to get going, and I just started heaving tears.  Totally snuck up on me, didn't mean to cry, it was just an adrenaline crash, and too much emotion I didn't know what to do with.  I was SO proud of my coworkers - one Long Island native, whose Marc Jacobs sunglasses had gotten trampled into the mud and bless her heart said not a word until we got into the van.  Our male fashion editor, who showed up to volunteer in skinny jeans and a denim jacket, was indefatigable with a shovel and even helped big Ron carry a watery mattress up the stairs.  My two best boys, one of their brothers, a girl from my softball team who works in media and saw on Facebook that we were heading to the Rockaways and asked if she could come with us, and brought a friend.
Even now, recalling it, I am tearing up at the total love that came pouring out of these wonderful people.

When Ron and his wife said goodbye, they got all of our names and contact information, insisted on taking a picture with us, and have already invited us to a summer barbeque once they get back on their feet.
We all rode back to the city mostly in silence, reeking of God knows what, feeling really grateful, and sad.

I got into bed at 6 PM and didn't move until 10 AM Sunday morning.

This week, we got the go-ahead from our VP to take a day off at our discretion to use in further Sandy relief efforts.  Everyone is still checking on each other- every cab I get into, the driver asks me if I'm okay, if the storm hit me.
I lost no power, no electricity, was lucky enough to have a big enough apartment to host 2 extras, but yeah - it hit me.

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