Last weekend I had the opportunity to help with the cleanup on Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy. Not until you find yourself on the ground, in the middle of the aftermath, can you really get a sense of what this storm was like and how it has affected people's lives. I struggled to try to put into words what communities like Midland Beach are going through after the storm. Only seeing it with your own eyes can you get a sense of the devastation but I hope that I can give you some sense here.
I found myself with a small group of 6-8 other volunteers going door to door asking strangers, families affected by the storm, if they could use our help. House after house, family after family we helped them clean up and continue their own personal recovery.
First we would carry out all of their remaining possessions in the house and pile them in the street for the trucks and bulldozers to dispose of.
Next we would help them rip out all of their walls to facilitate the drying process and to make it easier to rewire their homes. We would then pile all of the drywall and insulation which used to be their bedroom, their kitchen, their living room, out in the street.
Next we would help them rip out all of their floors. Hardwood, tile, linoleum out in the street.
Some had small above ground swimming pools. Some had tool sheds full of tools. Others had holiday decorations. All of it went out in the street.
Pile after pile, family after family. As we finished carrying their lives into the street to be taken away by the Department of Sanitation, without fail they would turn to us, smile and say "thank you". For them this is a step in the right direction. For them this is moving towards recovery. For me it was deeply moving to be thanked for such a terrible act.
As we walked door to door we saw red sticker after red sticker marking homes for demolition. Only a few homes were marked with yellow or green stickers, virtually the entire neighborhood was marked for demolition. In many cases we found ourselves walking around houses that had been lifted off of their foundations and deposited in the middle of the road. What once were city streets had become mud slicks. Sand, dirt and sludge deposits turned asphalt into dirt roads.
I could go on, but I hope you get the point. What you will find in Sandy's aftermath is a kind of hell on earth, and our neighbors are living that hell. The storm has moved on, but it is far from over. It's now been several weeks and by my estimation it will be months or even years more before so many families will be able to return to their homes. In itself, that would be horrible enough, but the holidays are approaching adding insult to this terrible injury.
Please don't forget the storm. Please don't forget the victims. Please don't forget that they are our neighbors, that this is our city. Please continue to volunteer and to donate. Please continue to keep a watchful eye that all that should be happening is happening, until all of these families can return to their homes, their lives and their neighbors.
As terrible as this all is, I can tell you from personal experience that volunteering will bring you great joy. First you will remove that sense of helplessness, that you can't do anything. There is so much to be done that once you find yourself on the ground in these areas you will find innumerable ways to contribute. You'll see the faces of those affected light up in appreciation for your help and in the recognition that they have not been forgotten. You will find a thousand examples and a thousand people who will inspire you with their efforts and their selflessness. You will find individuals who drive hundreds of miles with trucks full of food. You will find youth organizations, Christian organizations, Muslim organizations, neighbors, and people from every walk of life pitching in.
Seeing all of this, your faith in our country, your faith in your fellow citizens and in your faith in yourself will be renewed. As we rebuild our communities we will form new bonds, new friendships and learn new things about ourselves. As we rebuild each of us will become a little stronger, victim and volunteer alike. It is a true joy and a true blessing to have the opportunity to help. The recovery can only happen if we help. The deep sense of joy from helping others and the personal growth that comes from it can only happen when you volunteer.