They lost everything. They were trying to make life seem normal again for their kids. They just wanted to tell their stories.
I have just returned from volunteering to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. It’s been six weeks since the storm, but people are still suffering. They’re still living with relatives or in a hotel or ekeing out an existence in homes without heat, power or water, six weeks without being able to cook or get warm at night.
We were assigned to one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, Midland Beach in Staten Island. It’s clear these lower-middle-class people have little to look forward to. Many homes are severely damaged, but all have signs on the door indicating that human habitation is “Restricted.” The floodwaters came in, traveled many blocks inland, then came back, hitting homes twice. In some places, the wave was only four feet high; in others, it was as high as 20. The height of the wave determined how much they lost.
Two years ago, these residents were evacuated during Hurricane Irene. As people left, looters arrived, so this time, people stayed to protect their stuff. On Staten Island, at least 20 of those people lost their lives. One was 28-year-old NYPD officer Artur Kasprzak, who took his family to the attic, then went back downstairs, and when a live wire touched the floodwater, he was electrocuted. Many were elderly, overwhelmed by the rising water. Others, whose names might never be known, were undocumented immigrants.
The most heart-wrenching story was that of Glenda Moore, the mother who tried to drive her boys, aged 2 and 4, to safety, but the water stalled her car. She grabbed the boys and got out of the car, but a wave pulled the children from her grasp. She ran to the nearest house and banged on the door, begging for help. The man inside told her, “We don’t know you, go away.” The boys’ bodies were found the next day.
She lives in this neighborhood. The people I talked with know her. Their kids went to preschool with her boys.
I am volunteering with Occupy Sandy. The group Occupy Wall Street morphed from civil disobedience to community activism and is now one of the most successful aid organizations in the area. With virtually no bureaucracy, it’s been able to efficiently match donated goods and volunteers with areas of need.
My friend Kimberly June and I brought donated goods and offered hands-on healing to victims and burned-out volunteers. We set up our massage tables under a tent at the Occupy Sandy headquarters, and bone-weary people came and lay down, wanting nothing more than permission to shut down for a few minutes. Many of the people wanted something more; they wanted to tell their stories.
Billy, whose business is selling fishing poles decorated as art, told me he was speaking at a convention in Chicago when the storm hit. He called his son, who moved his inventory to the second floor of the house, saving the business. But Billy went to school with Glenda Moore. At the boys’ funeral, he could not think of anything to say to her. When his 30-minute healing session was over, he thanked me and said he felt better, but I knew that having someone listen was as valuable as anything I did with my hands.
Another woman, Lori, had recently battled breast cancer. Like Billy, she needed to talk. Her son wanted her to look forward to Christmas, but she could not find any holiday spirit. I put my hands on her, but again, it was the talking that seemed to help the most. She came back an hour later to thank me, and said she hadn’t felt this good since the storm. Somehow, Christmas would be good this year; she just knew it.
But it was Jack whose life we might have saved. When he walked into our tent, most volunteers were busy helping other people. He could not wait. His face was grey, and he was shivering violently. The previous night, after an argument, his girlfriend had thrown him out, and since most of the area was still a ghost town and the temporary shelters had all closed, he had nowhere to go. He slept in the park in 20-degree weather. We found him some warm clothing, covered him in blankets and gave him a sleeping bag. As his body recovered, I saw hopelessness in his eyes. Before I left Washington, a friend had given me some money.
“You’ll know when to give it out,” she said. She was right.
“Could you use a couple of bucks?” I asked. I saw the light in his eyes, but he didn’t want to take money from a woman he had just met.
“Yeah, I really could,” he said, looking down.
I handed him $40 and said, “It’s from my friend Diane. Thank her, not me.”
He warmed up, left, and like Lori, came back a few hours later, looking much healthier, and told me not to worry, the money would be well spent.
These are the people of Hurricane Sandy. One minute they were living their lives, raising their children, running their businesses. Then a wall of water hit and life as they knew it was over. Their outlook is bleak, because as soon as the floodwaters receded, black mold set in. Even the houses that don’t look damaged will remain uninhabitable until the mold is remediated. But that mold is so toxic, the masks issued to volunteers don’t provide enough protection, and only people wearing respirators can work. So the work to bring the houses back is going slowly, much too slowly for people whose options are running out.
We saw a Red Cross truck giving out meals, and occasionally FEMA officials would cruise through, but it was my experience that the small neighborhood relief efforts were the most successful. We could give Jack a sleeping bag without filling out a requisition. We did not need to document how many people we helped; we just helped.
The victims’ biggest fear? That as people in the rest of the country move on with their lives, they will be forgotten, yesterday’s news and yesterday’s tragedy.