13 November 2012


Hurricane Sandy has settled an oddly dichotomous atmosphere over New York City.  The G and L trains are finally running.  Electricity is back for the vast majority and the only lingering daily irritant for many is gas rationing, which is on the way out.  For most of us life is more or less back to normal.

For pockets of our neighbors  - literally within walking distance - life as they knew it is over.  They are left to dig through the avalanche of sand and debris that has swallowed everything.  Beneath it anything that is left has been ruined, irrefutably, by the corrosive alkaline of salt water.

New Yorkers have been out in droves trying to help out and it is one of the things I love most about this city.  I remember this from 9/11, the feeling that we are a tight knit family of 8 million.  It is a vast intimacy.  Last week I went with my friend Jordan to Red Hook. Red Hook is below the water table. My friends who used to live in a basement apartment there had a sump pump built in to their living room floor to use during heavy rains so you can imagine what a wall of water at high tide and a full moon did here.  There was still no electricity, heat or hot water in the vast complexes of low income housing there.

We were sent to a donations center that had just opened up to see how we could help.  The coordinator, Rachel,  handed me $80 in cash and asked me to go buy as many feminine hygiene products and toothbrushes as possible.  She didn't even know my name or where I came from and she handed me $80, which should give you a sense of the desperate need for help out there.  We hit up CVS where the manager painstakingly helped me exploit every coupon and discount to maximize our purchases.  Jordan hit up her dentist for a bounty of toothbrushes.  Then we spent the remainder of the day wading through vast piles of unorganized donations - coats, shoes, and a baffling amount of Disney princess dresses.  I wound up in charge of distributing pet food.  Cat or dog?  Wet food or dry?  I learned that more people in Red Hook have cats than dogs and 3 people in a row told me they had Shih Tzus.

This weekend I went with Libby, Amy, and Aggie to Coney Island, one of the hardest hit areas of Brooklyn, outfitted in our Wellies.  Per usual I was over prepared and we got several "are they having a sale on shovels?" snarky comments on the F train. 500 people turned out to help the parks department clean up the boardwalk and the beach. 

Con Ed workers were everywhere

The legendary Shore Theater's sign was badly damaged

Parks Dept brooms at the ready.  Roan would have loved it

Amy, Libby, Aggie, and I waiting for our assignment

Doe Fund workers and the former Child's Restaurant

The beach is covered in a tangle of sea grasses, garbage and the wreckage of building parts torn apart by the hurricane.  Our job was to pull the garbage out of the organic materials. 

I started to understand the magnitude of the clean up - extracting bottle caps, plastic bottles, toys, and an alarming number of tampon applicators from masses of shells and seaweed stretching for miles and miles along the beach in both directions. Amongst the trash were personal belongings, the unwitting orphans of Sandy.


If you know Amy you know exactly why she picked this up

Wayward Cactus

The woman who found this was already trying to track down this man to return it to him
There were curious collections of shells all over the beach.  I've never seen so many large shells together here before.
Nature's will out
First and only time I will probably ever hold a key to a Mercedes
Much of the big stuff was gone except this

It was back breaking work and to be honest, not terribly gratifying. When you looked down the beach after two hours it looked fairly the same. Looking at all the other people out there doing the same tedious work was extremely inspiring, however. 

Hundreds of people volunteered

We worked a bit on the boardwalk too.  The sand has hardened into a muddy crust onto everything it came in contact with, which is everything.  It has to be painstakingly scrubbed off the boardwalk and all the stonework with huge brooms and then scooped into wheelbarrows and returned to the beachfront.  A staggeringly slow process.  We also saw a few signs of the boardwalk as it was - mostly extremely fit people exercising - which was a bit surreal.

Seriously, how is this guy doing this?  He stayed like that for ages.

Beyond the boardwalk there are just mountains and mountains of sand everywhere.  Entire parks and side streets have been engulfed. 

The sand is about 3 or 4 feet deep

Many of the boardwalk entrances were blocked

Stairways blocked too

Stray cats were everywhere


Holding area for debris


To give you some idea of how far reaching the water was, this is the back side of a huge hospital.  It's not even facing the water and is an entire block away from the boardwalk.  You can see the splatter of sand and water went up two or three stories.

One of the other volunteers I started talking with, a local woman, told me to go to Sea Gate,  a private community at the west end of Coney Island, which, unlike the boardwalk area has nothing between it and the sea.  We walked down, not really sure what we would do when we got there. 

Although there is almost nothing left that is salvageable, you can get a sense of the sort of place it is immediately; an unassuming sanctuary from the crowds and chaos of the rest of Coney Island. It was charming without being too twee or precious.  The first thing you see upon entering is the local church which was handing out food and supplies.  The Red Cross, FEMA, Con Ed, the Fire Department, etc were all are there as well.

There used to be a sidewalk

Apparently there was a teenage boy in this house that was evacuated about an hour before it collapsed

The beachfront houses didn't stand a chance

We stood on a street corner in limbo, feeling a bit like gawkers but not really wanting to leave just because we were uncomfortable.  At that moment a woman named Jennifer walked by and said "Are you volunteers? I have something for you to do" and took us to her neighbor.  She said they had no power, heat, or gas, and no chance of getting them anytime soon.  The damage to the equipment from the salt water meant everything would likely need to be completely replaced for almost every house, if there was a house left at all. 

Her neighbor, Tom, took one look at us and said ,"What is this, the Ladies Basement Cleaning Crew?" Then he said "No, I'm fine I've got it all covered".  I think it was hard for a grown man to even think of accepting help from us, but his neighbor, Patrick, who was also helping out, seized on the opportunity to put us to work in Tom's garden.

Tom's house is stunning, a rare Brooklyn gem. It was built in the early 1900s and clearly had an incredible garden before Sandy got to it. 

Tom's house

Libby digs in
The wraparound porch was turned in to a lumber yard by Sandy

One truly stubborn tomato survived the storm. Amazing!
Tom and his plum tree

The garden was a knotted nest of fences entangled with vines and garbage. Amongst this we found the neighbors most beloved, personal items. I think it is only possible to understand the scale of the loss in the small things.  I can't really get my head around having only half a house left, but looking at someone's wedding photo crumpled and caked in mud was painful enough.

I remember learning with Lula how it important it is to let people help you.  I realized it was every bit as healing to them as it was to me.  Allowing people in to my home, often strangers, fostered a trust in people's inherent goodness that I still believe in.  Although I have the natural temperament of a cynic,  I really do think we all bring out the best in each other in such situations.

When we finally left things actually did look a bit better in the garden.  Tom made our day by asking if we were all of legal drinking age so he could offer us a glass of wine!

Before we headed back Patrick took us to his house and gave us a tour of his "man cave", an outdoor rec room of sorts that he fashioned together from various bits of furniture and salvaged wood.  He and Tom both insisted that we come back to visit next summer, which I think would be wonderful to do.  Our brief time there was just about three of the most gratifying hours I've had.

Patrick's house
The man cave.  He plans to rebuild

Something that was saved

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