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Hurricane Sandy Relief Report

A lifetime's worth of belongings reduced to a pile of trash
At first Mike said he really didn’t need any help. He said he had things under control, and they could handle the job themselves, but thanks anyway.  

So the volunteer dispatcher sent us down the street to see another guy who had steadfastly resisted taking any aid until the magnitude of the mess had pretty much worn him out.

The second guy had the sheetrock and insulation stripped from most of his basement and first floor and just needed some help shoveling the last of the debris from the basement. He was alone in the house and tired. You could tell that it had been a nice house. This was a man who was used to taking care of himself or opening his wallet and paying for what he got. He was a little embarrassed taking something for nothing and kept awkwardly offering us water as we shoveled and bagged.

When we finished that job and went back on the street, we learned through the grapevine that Mike – the guy who didn’t need any help - was a Con Edison worker and today was his first day off after over two weeks of working steadily to get everyone else’s power back on.

It had been over eighteen days since Hurricane Sandy lifted the Atlantic Ocean and washed it across the low-lying areas of  the Jersey Shore, Long Island and New York City. We were nearing the end of our first day helping the relief effort.

With about an hour of daylight left, we figured we should try to push ourselves on Mike. Bryant and I joined up with a crew of volunteers from a landscaping company and just descended on his house. It was a little house, and there were so many of us that we barely fit.

His wife was wearing a tyvek haz-mat suit, and Mike and his brother (cousin?) were wrestling with the water heater.  We just took over. The basement had once been a fine man-cave. Now it was a jumble of sewage-soaked furniture, electronics equipment and exercise gear. The concrete floor was wet and slightly uneven, so a few large dark puddles remained. The smell was bad. Everyone wore boots, masks, gloves and had been doing this all day so were getting used to it.

Fox Beach Ave., Staten Island, NY
Our crew formed an ad hoc bucket brigade and passed everything up the stairs and out the front door. Washer, dryer, water heater.  Treadmill, heavy bag, weight bench. You can save the dumbells.  Flat panel is done for. Lazy-boy was too big and wet-heavy to lift, so we chopped it up with a fire axe  Sofa got the fire-axe treatment, too. Clothes. Shoes. Piles of baby clothes stored away for safekeeping.  A stack of milk crates packed with Grandpa’s old stereo records. Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Glenn Miller. That soaked cardboard weighed a ton.

All of the big stuff and most of the small stuff was bagged and up and out in thirty minutes. A lifetime’s accumulation of belongings turned into a giant pile of trash piled up alongside a white Ford Explorer that had been pushed over the curb and up against the house. I shook Mike’s hand, promised to come back tomorrow and walked out the door. Over my shoulder I heard him say, “Unbelievable. Two days of work done in a half hour.”

He still had to get the soaked carpeting off the first floor and tear off the sheetrock and insulation. With a dozen volunteers, we could easily get that done Sunday. We found out later that Mike had three relatives in the same neighborhood who lost their homes and all their belongings. Another relative across the street lost his life in the flood. Mike didn't come back on Sunday. I guess he’d had enough and just needed to get away from it for a bit.
Eric Schwartz stands on his foundation
and points at the rest of his house

When we first arrived in the disaster zone Saturday morning, our brains had a hard time comprehending what our eyes were seeing. A house torn apart and upside down in a salt marsh is so out of context that at first you can’t understand just what you’re seeing. A garage that lost its right angles is now a side-slipped parallelogram. A Hyundai rested on the roof of a BMW and an old Plymouth perched atop a boulder. 

One house had its entire front wall ripped off leaving the owner’s life-space naked and exposed. They say it’s like a war zone. I don’t know because I've only seen war zones in the movies and the actuality of this is far more jarring than anything I've seen in pictures.

Volunteers are everywhere. Dawn Rizzo is running the relief effort for this neighborhood out of the VFW Post on Mill Road. She has a good crew of assistants. There’s a feeding station alongside the building where volunteers and neighborhood residents can get hot meals all day long. Good homemade food, too. Chick-fil-A has donated hundreds of meals and is making a lot of friends here.  Private groups also set up grills and tables to serve food. It’s classic New York. A working class neighborhood and good food’s important. 

Engineers from the New York City Department of Buildings have gone through every house in the area and checked them for damage. They’re all marked with a tag on the front door that says if it’s fixable or not. We stay away from the red-tagged homes. If there are special problems like electric or gas, the door tag tells you that too.

The guys from the Department of Buildings are overwhelmed. One told us, “We do  all this paper work and give it to FEMA and they give the homeowner a check for 500 bucks. What the hell’s the point of that?” They’re worried that when everyone’s gone and it’s time to re-build, “cheap contractors are going to swarm in and rebuild the same crap that just fell apart.”

A lot of the folks are unsure of what to do next. Advice is common, but instruction seems rare. Many homeowners seem as if they would like some authority figure to tell them what to do. 

People experienced with floods know that the floodwater is full of really nasty stuff. Everything that’s in the sewers floats back up into the flood. Into the garages, the basements, and the living spaces.

Cleaning up on Fox Lane, Staten Island, NY
Some homeowners are having a very hard time accepting the fact that they have to rip the guts out of their homes if they are ever going to be livable again. Some think that they can just let them dry out. The minute the waters recede, the bacteria and mold begins to grow. It’s toxic, but if attacked quickly the house can be saved. You would think that the Board of Health would have a required protocol for managing or treating flooded homes. If there is one, it hasn't been communicated widely enough.

The first home we worked on Saturday, we removed all the contents and then waited around for an hour while a psychologist tried to convince the distraught homeowner to allow us to remove the sheetrock and insulation. He never did, so we moved on and the house just sat there, rotting.
Liberian Children
What great workers!

We had a great crew on that house. Bryant and I from PolycreteUSA, a young German woman who worked at the UN, and Larry and Jeff -- two middle-aged guys from Massachusetts who initially claimed to be “just surfers” but later admitted to being a graphic designer and a surgeon. Actually, when Larry identified Jeff as a surgeon, Jeff gave him a dirty look and said, “You just violated the code.” 

We also had several folks from the Liberian delegation to the United Nations and they brought along nearly a dozen of their children. The kids were boisterous, happy and full of love. They shoveled away all the salt grass  that had washed up two feet deep on the deck and front yard. One of the Liberian men told us, “America helped us when we had troubles in our country, so we just want to return the favor.” 

Volunteers Help Sanitation Department Workers
The Department of Sanitation is doing a heroic job. They’re out here non-stop from dawn ‘til dark. As fast as you can pileup the stuff on the curb, they’re loading up trucks and hauling it away. These guys are fantastic, but they’re not happy either. They say the Corps of Engineers needs to get down here and rebuild the berms to keep the water out or this is going happen again, soon. But they’re afraid that there’s not enough money and influence in the neighborhood to make it worth anyone’s while.

The Department of Sanitation is supplemented by private companies who’ve come in with bobcats and small front end loaders. The streets are narrow so there’s no room for big equipment. The garbage trucks seem to have two sanitation workers and a driver, but crowds of volunteers with shovels help get the trucks filled.   

With the exception of the Sanitation workers, this entire relief operation, wonderful that it is, is manned entirely by volunteers. The Fire Department and NYPD are all around, but they’re doing their regular jobs. No one that we spoke with had seen FEMA.  Many didn’t even know that FEMA had set up their operation less than a mile to the north.

Cyril Checking on the Crew 
During a break on Sunday, I talked about this with Cyril. A French graduate student working on his dissertation, Cyril has been volunteering nearly every day since the hurricane. He was struck by the lack of any authority or help from government workers. He said, “With all the disasters we've had lately, you’d think they would have some set procedure for handling this. Dawn’s over there at the VFW with her staff, and they’re doing a great job, but they’re just making this all up as they go.”

I’m wondering the same thing as Cyril. I’m all for a small government, but where’s the knowledge base and where’s the communication? Maybe FEMA's spread too thin and the magnitude of this has taxed their resources. I noticed that they still have a presence in Joplin, MO after eighteen months. 

I’m also not a big fan of government regulation, but it seems to me that there should be a Board of Health protocol for handling flooded homes. Not just structurally damaged ones either. If the living space of a home has been wet by flood waters, we need to have a required protocol for disinfecting them otherwise they may not be safe to live in – and average people may not even be aware of it. That should not be difficult.

Lastly, we need to change our building codes. Homes built in hurricane zones and along the coastlines should be designed and built to withstand wind and flood. You may say that’s just Bruce being self-serving, but how often do you want to deal with disasters like this? If Joplin Missouri was built with concrete houses, fewer would have been leveled by that tornado. Shall we even talk about Katrina? Lastly, we have a system of federally subsidized flood insurance in this country, how many times do you want to spend your tax dollars re-building someone else’s house?

Violent storms and wildfires are becoming the new normal. Call it climate change or call it a growing population that naturally puts more people in the way of Mother Nature’s fits.  The name’s not important. What’s important is that more frequent natural disasters are a fact and changing the building codes to require stronger structures will reduce the misery.

We’re going back up to Staten Island after Thanksgiving. We need to see our friends at the Jersey Shore, too. We could use some more volunteer help up there because there’s going to be a ton of work for a long time, and we’re still just cleaning up. We haven’t even started talking about rebuilding. Message me to learn what you can do.

PolycreteUSA has developed a program for making cash contributions to the rebuilding effort. Email us to learn the details.

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