Hurricane Sandy ripped through Staten Island, New York in the same manner a prizefighter handles business in the ring – throwing punch after punch, looking to knock down what’s in front of him, and doing so with no remorse.
Staten Island was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy but as I found out the past two days, the people who live there are not letting the destruction or the hardship break their spirit.
I visited the Arrochar neighborhood of Staten Island. It’s located near the water, on the northeast side of the borough. The sounds of generators could be heard everywhere as people tried to pump water from their houses and salvage what they could. Piles of belongings and memories stood outside countless numbers of houses. The smell of the sea was very strong, even after much of the water that had temporarily turned streets into rivers had receded. Darkness came quickly in the evening as power was still out in many places.
The residents there described scenes of horror the night Sandy roared ashore.
There was Anna, who, along with her family tried to ride out the storm in their home a few blocks away from the shore. She described an effort by some to escape by car, only to have that effort foiled by the surge of the sea, coming toward her house from down the block.
She and so many others I spoke with described the way the rush of water came toward them as instantaneous and not allowing much, if any time to react. She pointed down the block and said the water came toward her in a matter of seconds, once it breached the coastline. It went from nothing to 10-12 feet high, just like that. The descriptions of the rising water made me think this must have been similar to what I’d imagine a tsunami would feel like.
Anna and her family took refuge in the second story of their home. Her family survived and her house was still standing but as she broke down crying while talking with me, it was very apparent that the storm’s emotional damage was as real as its physical damage.
She was sad about losing most of her belongings to the flood waters and still terrified talking about the wall of water that came their way, but yet very thankful her family was alive. It was that kind of conflicting set of emotions I found numerous times with the people who lived there.
I talked with a man named John whose entire family lived on the same block. His house, his daughter’s house, his son’s house, and his sister’s house – all four houses were destroyed by the surge of the water. As they worked to remove the waterlogged belongings from the remains of the houses, he stopped for a few moments to reflect.
Sadness filled John’s face when he described how he didn’t care that his house was destroyed, but that he felt helpless not being able to save his kids’ houses when the storm came through.
That sadness was briefly turned to joy when a family member brought out a family photo that had been salvaged in the storm. They gathered around and looked at it and he managed a smile. It was a beautiful sight. Like Anna, John said that all of the damage was nothing compared to those who lost loved ones and he said he was just thankful to have his family members alive.
Then there was Kathy. She too had lost pretty much everything due to the rising water that covered her street and destroyed most of the houses on it. As she described it, the water was above the first story of houses on her block and it happened in a flash. When the water had settled, it was still halfway up the first story and took everything inside with it. She and her husband and friends and family of theirs were in the process of gutting the house to get the wet items out, in an effort to salvage the rest of it and hopefully fix it completely in the future.
Kathy had seen a lot and it showed, as she broke down while describing the scene that followed the storm.
She talked about the horror of seeing police arrive with body bags after the bodies of two little boys were found at the end of her block. According to news reports, the boys slipped out of their mother’s grasp at the height of the storm. Both boys drowned.
Something else that stood out from the conversation with Kathy was when she talked about how she had made donations after Hurricane Katrina. She started to cry when she said that although she had donated numerous items, she realized after the storm devastated her neighborhood that it wasn’t enough. She felt like she should have donated more back then, and was hopeful that people would donate now.
Kathy said repeatedly that Staten Island needs help and that people there feel forgotten after this storm. It was something I heard over and over again from residents there. She wants the world to know that people on Staten Island are really hurting right now and that the destruction is severe. She pleaded for help, prayers…whatever could be offered during this very difficult time. Not once did she ask for help for herself, though. She asked for help for her neighbors and for the people she knew who had it worse than she did.
In another section of Arrochar was a man named Al, a longtime resident of Staten Island and a man with many stories to tell. He talked about how he’d never seen anything like this, nor did he or many of his neighbors ever expect to. He relayed a story of his experience during 9/11 and how the community pulled together then…he expected nothing short of that this time around.
Al and another gentleman directed me to another man who was cooking hot dogs and hamburgers for the people on the block they lived on. They offered me one (let’s be honest, they almost demanded that I have one…they were so nice) and while I declined in favor of those who really needed it, I thanked them. This was just one of many instances of people helping each other out that I saw while I was there. It was great to see this man out there who had just lost pretty much everything, cooking food all day and offering it to anyone who needed it. He wasn’t about to let the damage keep him from looking out for his neighbors.
Elsewhere, there were gas lines. The stations that actually had gasoline were inundated with people needing fuel. Lines were several hours long. People were doing their best to stay patient but as you can imagine, that patience was tested at times. Still, good deeds were being done even in these lines. I saw four people pushing a car that had run out of gas while waiting, closer to the front as the line inched forward.
I spoke with a woman named Judy, who showed me how the ‘miles remaining’ indicator in her car had gone from about 90 to 60 while she waited in line. She was hoping to make it to the pump without needing a push.
During our conversation she mentioned the New York City Marathon and the controversial decisions the Mayor had made by first planning to hold it as scheduled, then secondly by not cancelling it in a timely manner. Mayor Bloomberg, as you may already know, the people on Staten Island are less than pleased with you right now.
Judy wondered why they would bring thousands of people right to the edge of their community and direct all kinds of resources to them, when people there had died and countless more had lost everything. The articles in the New York newspapers she shared with me echoed those sentiments. Many people I spoke with on Staten Island felt like they had been slapped in the face by the decision, albeit one that was eventually reversed, to hold the marathon.
(Turns out a large number of marathon participants shared those sentiments, and many used their running abilities to help out. Here’s a look at those efforts: http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2012/11/staten_island_gets_a_wave_of_a.html.)
The stories continued. I talked with another man who said a friend’s grandfather had lost his wife the day before Hurricane Sandy hit. The next day, his friend’s grandfather lost his house and every memory that was in it. In two days, he lost his wife and his home. ‘He’s 90 years old and is starting over,’ said the man.
As I spoke with these people, it was very apparent that in addition to the need for food, supplies, and so much more…there was a need to talk. These people needed an outlet to share their stories. Some people just needed hugs.
I prayed with some of them. You could see the grief in their faces, but also the gratitude they had for simply being alive. The people of Staten Island are good folks. It became clear to me after talking with so many of them that they will overcome this tragedy, no matter how long it takes.
I spent a few hours at a local church that was helping people who had been displaced by the storm. Their sanctuary had become a dining hall, a clothing store, and a community gathering place all wrapped into one.
The pastor at the church told me his building was the only one in a nearby radius with power right after the storm – despite an electrical system that was under water – and while he already felt compelled to help, he knew this was a clear sign that it was time to step up for his community.
Dozens of people came into the church on this particular afternoon carrying armfuls and trash bags full of clothing, blankets, household items, you name it. All for their neighbors who were not as fortunate as they were after the storm. People brought in homemade food for the church to serve to those who didn’t have any. One man brought an entire van full of water and cleaning supplies.
It was incredible.
Then there were the people who had been hit hard by the storm and didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words, ‘We lost everything’ said to the woman who was coordinating the distribution of donated items at the church. People were really hurting. But people were really helping, too. Like I said, it was incredible.
In another location, bags of donated items were stacked high in a shopping center parking lot. People were coming through, mentioning what they needed and receiving it. It was peaceful and it was another sign of hope in a place where so much damage had been done.
I should also mention the police officers who were stationed at dozens, probably hundreds of intersections, directing traffic as the power was still out a week after the storm. It’s a thankless job but they were doing their best and keeping the peace out there. Equally impressive was the way people were self-policing themselves at intersections without officers. You’d think this would get ugly fast, but overwhelmingly, people were waiting their turns and letting the other drivers go in order.
The Red Cross was on Staten Island as well, handing out food and water to people in the neighborhoods. One scene I won’t forget was a little boy, clapping when the Emergency Response Vehicle pulled up to his house. Red Cross volunteers came from all over the place, including the two I met from Michigan, to help out.
I left with a very positive impression of Staten Island and its residents. In so many cases, people who lost virtually everything they owned were still helping others and thinking of others, not themselves. Folks were sticking together and supporting each other. There was and is a strong sense of community. I know it will be a difficult road ahead, but I am certain the people of Staten Island will recover and will come back stronger than before when it’s all said and done. God bless you, my new friends from Staten Island. I am truly blessed to have met all of you.
Please help if you can. Pray, send money, volunteer…whatever it might be. People on Staten Island and in so many other areas affected by this storm will benefit greatly from your generosity. Thank you for any help you can provide.
Here are some links to organizations, both national and local that are helping: