Monday, November 19, 2012

Superstorm Sandy Victims Still Need Our Help

This blog post is written

Despite my exhaustion and serious need for a bath, I returned home from Brooklyn this past weekend insisting that my boys listen to my stories and look at my pictures. I couldn't quite decide which message I was trying to get across to them: Be thankful? Question authority? Take care of your neighbors?
With other volunteers, I went to the pile of sand and debris that once was New York's Coney Island, Sea Gate and Sheepshead Bay. You can look at pictures and watch news coverage of the mess caused by Superstorm Sandy, but you will never grasp the devastation that these families are dealing with. I will do my best to put what I witnessed into words, in the hope that you'll appreciate your safe, healthy families and your intact homes as much as I do now.
We worked with one of the grass-roots groups formed when it became clear that nobody else was going to help. I'm not declaring the Red Cross a failure in this disaster. But what I do know is that in the areas we visited, the Red Cross had only appeared with aid the day before. As in, almost two weeks after the storm had hit.
Our group of five was assigned to visit a handful of apartments in a high-rise near Coney Island. We entered a sand-filled, dark lobby that probably doesn't look much better in good times. We turned on our flashlights and filed up the pitch-black, smelly staircase. The residents of this building who were still there had nowhere else to go or couldn't physically make it down a dark, wet (not from water) stairwell.

We unloaded our backpacks of toilet paper, adult diapers, water, blankets, food and flashlights to the obviously weary residents. We took down information, such as which residents were running out of their high blood pressure medicine or insulin.
We took notes while we were up there, paying attention to which apartments had barking dogs and no people. Was someone really coming by to visit those dogs? Walking down and up and back down 12 flights of stairs to let those dogs out?
It would make sense to be able to get those pets out and keep them safe while their owners were away (or were their owners still alive?) but we had no master key. No superintendent or property manager was anywhere to be found.
Back on the street, a truck rolled down the street, past the mud-covered and mud-filled cars that hadn't moved in almost two weeks. People appeared out of nowhere, grabbing for the bags these volunteers were handing out. A National Guard dude tried to hand me a bag from the Red Cross, containing a blanket, hand warmers and a flashlight. "No, I don't need it. I'm going back up there," I said, pointing to the high-rise. "Then take it up there," he said, handing it to me.
I watched as a man caught up to the truck too late, and all the bags were gone. This man just needed one good thing to happen, but he walked away, dejected.
"Buddy!" I yelled, running after him. "Take this."
If he had any energy left he probably would have picked me up and spun me around, but instead smiled and said "Thank you. Bless you."
We still had donations that we'd collected in Connecticut, so we drove to the Sea Gate community, which was especially hard-hit by the storm.
Every house is now seriously damaged or is just gone. Sand, garbage, furniture, clothing and family memories are piled in front of houses through which you can now see. Nearly two weeks after the storm, shell-shocked homeowners shovel sand and try to figure out what to do next.
At the center of this broken neighborhood stands its "chapel," which serves as a community center for this gated community. Residents —- along with friends and family —- took matters into their own hands and cooked meals over gas grills while their hungry, unwashed neighbors stood in line to receive the same necessities we'd just delivered to those who could not leave.
Nobody was really in charge, they told us. But it was clear that those who could help did as much as they could to get things done. It was an organized, effective system to which we were happy to donate our supplies.
As I've told these stories the one thing I keep emphasizing is that even though everything sucked and that the organizations that were supposed to help seemed to have forgotten about some areas, people came together to help each other.
Life, strangely enough, goes on. Just a few miles away, people are going to the movies and running their washing machines and restocking their refrigerators. But for the people whose homes were invaded by water and sand and sewage, their lives will not be the same, ever. Where do they even start? I guess they start with each other. They start with us, helping them take those first steps back to normalcy.
We've taught our children to take care of others. Now is the time. Visit or
Teresa M. Pelham is co-blogger for the Courant's "Mommy Minute" parenting blog. A freelance writer based in Farmington, Teresa recently published a children's book entitled "Roxy's Forever Home," with proceeds benefiting dog rescue. Go to for more information.