“It is so much larger than anyone can possibly imagine”

Another guest blog, this from a friend, Hannelore Sander


Notes from Sandy

I am volunteering a lot these days at disaster relief sites in Staten Island, Far Rockaway, and Coney Island, communities, which have been hit so hard by Hurricane Sandy.  I love doing this.  It is such a good place to put my energies.  I get up at six a.m., when it is still dark outside, and put on layers of clothing and a backpack, so that my hands can be free.  I take the subway to the Mayor’s Office in lower Manhattan.  Old clattering yellow school buses, called back into service for new turns of duty, take the volunteers, who have gathered there in the early morning cold, on long bumpy rides to the places where help is needed.  They come from all walks of life, ready for simple, practical, sometimes backbreaking, curiously unsentimental work.

On the way, initially towering above us, and then seen from afar as we cross the bridges out of the City, are the monstrous buildings of Wall Street, many of which still stand silent and empty, their electrical guts destroyed, a skyline of previously unassailable giants brought to a patient halt.  The power and the money that is in Manhattan will soon have erased all traces of the storm. But it will take years to rebuild the devastated neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, with their often poor residents, whose lives and harsh living conditions, which were a reality even before Sandy hit, now are made infinitely worse.  I have never really been aware of them before.

The most dramatic sight of boats carried onto shore and tossed onto the roads along the beaches is gone.  The cars that were buried under mountains of sand swept in three or four blocks deep on 20 foot waves are freed now, though their engines, corroded by salt water, will never allow for them to be driven again.  Where will they end up, these thousands of car carcasses?  Most of the commercial establishments along the main streets are boarded up but a few of the grocery stores and bodegas and small food places, their walls stained and their floors buckled and cracked from water damage, are beginning to stock some goods again.  Cosmetics are not important, the aim is to just open and make a living again.   There are piles of debris filling the yards and the sidewalks in front of the houses.  In some cases, it seems that every last possession that ever was in those homes, is heaped outside.  Traffic snakes slowly through streets clogged with fire engines and Con Edison trucks and other emergency response and repair vehicles.

In cavernous warehouses, we sort through mountains of donations, which will then be delivered to various distribution points.  In community centers and churches, we hand out bottled water and food and toilet paper and tooth brushes and diapers and cleaning supplies and serve a warm meal to those who for two weeks now have had neither heat, nor water and who are, in many cases, still without electricity.  “We will only take what we need,” they say shyly or proudly, and we feel a pricking behind our eyes.  We smell their bodies and wonder where they will be able to take a shower or wash their clothes.

Where will they go to live, these thousands upon thousands of people from those huge, housing projects, now still huddled around their gas stoves, which they keep on day and night to get some measure of warmth?  For many of these buildings are no longer safe, with gas leaks increasing and mold growing relentlessly on the walls.  “We went through the buildings the other day, knocking on doors asking if people needed help.  I smelled gas coming from behind one of the doors and we found a woman inside the apartment.  She had a respiratory disease and needed oxygen.  There were tanks of oxygen all around.”

As responders are beginning to look up from and beyond providing for basic survival needs, the scope and scale of this disaster are beginning to be seen and known.  “It is so much larger than anyone can possibly imagine”, the team leaders, who accompany us on the buses, say. “We now need to move into the restoration stage and it will be massive.  We just hope, that the interest will not wane, that people will still want to come out…”

This is Thanksgiving Week.

Published in: on November 22, 2012 at 12:33 pm  Comments (3)