Guest Blog: What I Learned Volunteering In Hurricane Sandy’s Aftermath

Today my journalist friend Brett Schweinberg shares his experience volunteering in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath on Staten Island. It’s been a month since Sandy hit. Many people in the area Brett visited remain in need. Learn how you can help here.

I journeyed to Staten Island in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy feeling uneasy about my reasons for the trip. The plan called for two neighbors and I to drive from Chicago on Friday night after work, volunteer on Saturday and Sunday, and drive through the night Sunday to get home in time for work on Monday.

On the 13-hour car ride in, my travel companions and I wondered aloud whether the money we were spending on gas and lodging would be better spent through any of the dozens of organizations collecting for the relief effort. I feared a shameful sort of voyeurism drove my desire to volunteer as much as a true desire to help.
Between the thrill of participating in a relief mission, the fun associated with driving halfway across the country and the incessant praise I received from friends and family, I worried I might be gaining too much from what was supposedly a selfless act.

What I found once I arrived in Staten Island erased my doubts.

My desire to volunteer originated largely from a six-month stint living in Louisiana between 2009 and 2010. While there I witnessed firsthand the lingering impact of hurricanes years after they struck, and talked to homeowners still reeling from them. By then, the time to help the homeowners, personally, had passed.
When I observed similar images from Hurricane Sandy, I pledged not to watch another natural disaster from the sidelines.

We arrived in Staten Island’s New Dorp Beach neighborhood to find devastation worse than I expected. Nearly two weeks after the storm hit, the entire neighborhood remained in tatters. Entire parking lots had washed away, leaving massive sinkholes. The storm swept away cars, depositing them in random places. In many instances the vehicles’ windshields were smashed and their interiors were inundated with sand. Street corners and parks were now distribution centers for food, clothing and cans of Sterno for heat.
Without stopping to rest or shower, we found our first volunteer mission hauling away the remnants of a garage bowled over by storm surge.

After an hour of monotonous heavy lifting, I realized I had no idea who I was helping. Through word of mouth I gathered damage from rising floodwaters totaled the homeowner’s house, delivering water and sand to his second story. An insurance company offered him $100,000 to rebuild, an amount that failed to cover his needs.

Upon finding one of the homeowners, I shared with her our story and let her know we were glad we could help. She thanked me profusely, but the worried expression on her face never disappeared.
After performing menial tasks at other locations, we stumbled upon a basement with a gang of volunteers clearing out a basement.

Guided by flashlights and the brown light of a mud-caked window, we sifted through an awful smelling trove of someone’s life. One scoop revealed what they physically lost from their homes: scraps of drywall, bits of wood trim, shards of a broken window. The next revealed mementos from their lives: medals from high school athletics, a waterlogged Madonna LP, Christmas cards from the 70’s the owner couldn’t bear to throw out.

Outside, I came across the owner’s son. He insisted volunteers claim an item from the rubble as a keepsake. For me he chose a hideous glass bauble he said belonged to his aunt and had been made in the 1850s.

Happy to take a break from the stench and the awful feeling of throwing out someone’s memories, I listened to the homeowner’s son speak. He looked and acted like Rodney Dangerfield. He was sad and visibly drunk.

After relaying his tale of devastation, he leaned in, hugged me and began to cry. His breath reeked of cheap wine as he told me, “We’ve lost everything. I’ve never asked for help in my whole life, but I need help right now.”

I patted him on the back and headed back into the basement. A few minutes later, while carrying a garbage bag out to the curb, I came across the man drinking a bottle of champagne still covered in storm sludge.

“It tastes like vinegar, but rumor has it there’s alcohol in it,” he said to laughter.

We worked until we were too cross-eyed to carry another trash bag out. Before we left, I offered one final goodbye to my new, sad-eyed friend.

I told him about how we drove all night after work so we could help. Almost instantly, his eyes began to water. This time, he sobbed openly. He leaned in for another hug, our debris-stained clothes squishing against one another.

“You guys are saving lives, hearts and souls out here,” he said through tears. “I mean it. I can’t tell you what that means to me. Lives, hearts and souls.”

In this moment my concerns about the trip evaporated. They were irrelevant. What I received did not matter. What mattered was what I could give.

On the ride back to Chicago, we realized we did not have nearly as much fun as we thought on the trip, which assuaged part of our fears. But the bigger realization was that by putting boots on the ground, we were able to help people in a way our dollars never could, and that made the whole trip worthwhile.

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