Some thoughts and images from Staten Island

I was aching yesterday, knowing I had to do something, and at a loss as to how. Tina tweeted something about a NYCvolunteerathon so I signed up. Bravo to whoever’s behind it for making it easy to tap into the recovery today. At about 11pm I got an email to report to Guyon Ave. and Mill Road on Staten Island at 10am. Honestly, I was intimidated to go at it alone. Twitter enabled me to connect to Tanya and Jeff and others and we made our way down from ferry to train, along with hundreds of cancelled-marathoners who had decided to give a day of service. I was so thankful to be with friends.

There’s total devastation on Staten Island and we encountered one horrible scene after another in the Serbian/Italian neighborhood of Oakwood.

Not a pretty picture.

It was difficult to know what to do—volunteers and locals wandering around with shovels and pitchforks, pushing shopping carts loaded with supplies, offering water and sandwiches and masks and gloves. Giant collection points had formed at certain houses and there were tables of food, piles of clothing, cases of bottled water. The only organization that seemed to be giving direction was a small church; later on we saw a few Red Cross disaster relief trucks just sitting there. They appeared to be waiting for direction too.

Helicopters flying low. The aerial view.

Asking around didn’t get us anywhere so we joined a large effort to clear a yard that had been totally filled with wet, rotting reeds, several feet high, and the remains of an above-ground swimming pool that needed to be completed demolished. About twenty of us bagged it all up and cleared the yard. I noticed the high-water mark on the side of the house, about 10 or 11 feet up. This entire neighborhood had been underwater.

Wandering further down Fox Beach Road we found the top half of a house, almost intact, half-laying in the street. About fifty feet away, its foundation, totally exposed. Tanya and I couldn’t help but each take a photo; then, a woman walked up and asked us not to take photos of her house. She said we could come back to do it, but not while she was there, because she was feeling sensitive. She was polite, and I felt sick to my stomach that she had witnessed us gawking at her tragedy. We moved on.

We listened to a man on a stoop tell us what happened during the storm. About the water rising faster and faster while he struggled to get his dog out of the house. He lifted his shirt to show us the scratches from his dog who was frantic in the car while he drove away, the water coming after him. He was waiting for FEMA and a woman told us they were on the next street.

All of the contents of his house were outside in the yard. He said he didn’t need anything. I felt useless, but hoped that he got some relief by telling us his story.

At another house we worked to pull all of the soaking wet drywall out of a woman’s garage and shovel it into bags. The stuff just comes off and crumbles in your fingers like cookies. She just stood there watching us. The house stank of raw sewage.

A yellow sticker on the front door means “enter cautiously;” a red sticker means unsafe to enter.

We passed a woman drying dozens of family photographs outside her house on a sheet.

One more shovel and bagging job; huge piles of wet drywall and insulation. Just before we left, giant sanitation trucks pulled up and people started feeding it entire appliances, house siding, furniture. This truck ate everything.

So there we were, shoveling this wet mixture of grey mud, reeds, crumbled drywall, shoes, wood and wallpaper into bags. And I thought: this is shit. This is the shitty chaos of nature mixed with us humans, and sometimes life is about shoveling your neighbor’s shit into a bag. I felt incredibly small today. Hoping that small gestures might make a difference. Let’s do whatever we can to take care of each other.

Ways to help
Go to Staten Island and find someone who needs your time and labor, even just a few hours
Use Amazon to deliver much-needed supplies to Staten Island Assemblyman Matthew Titone
Buy something on this Amazon Wishlist for Occupy Sandy in Brooklyn
Donate to the Mayor’s Hurricane Relief Fund
Donate directly to schools impacted by Hurricane Sandy
Donate to the Ali Forney Center for Homeless LGBT Youth, totally destroyed by the storm in Chelsea
Connect with CAAAV‘s efforts in Chinatown
Connect with Rockaway Recovery
Connect with Red Hook Recovers
Sponsor a food truck to make food deliveries
Add to this list and pass it along.

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More images on Flickr.

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