Saturday, November 10, 2012

Coney Island - A Journey of Recovery (in Six Parts)

Part 1 - Devastation

I nearly run right in to him, this young man named Andrew, standing in the middle of the street, wearing a ventilator mask.  Resolute and quiet, he tells me that he's clearing his head from the view of the destruction and clearing his heart from the sorrow he feels. 

He invites me to explore the building he is helping to gut and clean, a medical office that at its worst was beneath eleven feet of water, the water rushing in through the doors, the windows and the ceiling.  Even now as they clean, nearly two inches of water remains and the pungent smell of rot and mildew accosts me as we enter the building.

The dangling, yellow work lights hang from the ceiling, lending a morbidly festive air to the otherwise completely decimated hallway.

Room after room is filled with wet, damaged, rotting furniture.  The construction manager alternately mops and curses.  His grand daughter, a single mom, works here as a nurse, supporting herself and her three young children.   

"She has to work," he insists, "if she can't work, she can't take care of her kids".

"I will help her as much as I can," he continues, "but I have my wife to take care of too.  She is sick with cancer and her medicine is very expensive," he shares.

He has hired three young men, including Andrew, to help him clean, repair and restore the medical office.  The goal is lofty, but he is positive that in one month the office will be open and his grand daughter will be back to work.

We shake hands and hug, and in my very broken Spanish, I promise to come back in one month to see the new medical office and to meet his grand daughter.

Part 2 - Patience

Furniture, appliances, toys, clothes, and large, black bags of garbage line the streets of coastal communities hit by Hurricane Sandy.  

The snow mixes with the rain which mixes with the water that streams from hoses scattered across the sidewalks, block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, as water is pumped from flooded basements.

It's a test of patience, this waiting for electricity, this working to restore a home, an office, a business, a livelihood, a life.  There is no choice but to wait, except to leave, and pride, determination, stubborness and a sense of community keeps most residents in this Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island right where they are.  In their basements, they pump and mop and move soggy furniture and soaked belongings.  On their front steps, they gather, they smoke, they swap stories, they swear and they laugh. 
Through the day and in to the night, they work, headlamps and flashlights lighting their way as the sun slowly disappearsThey work and wait and wait and work.  United by their loss, they persevere.

Part 3 - Aid & Assistance

Divided in to various staging areas of assistance, the brick building, a Church meeting hall, provides a sanctuary for victims of Hurricane Sandy, to gather for information, for supplies and for solace.

Part 4 - Volunteers

Nearly 100 individuals from all over the city respond to a call for volunteers by the United Way. 
Our goal is to canvas local homes to find out what supplies and aid families need. The ladies coordinating the effort are sincere, kind and very appreciative.  The volunteers are friendly, outgoing and excited to help.

Meeting at the FEMA/Red Cross station, we get instructions and then we wait for the list of addresses we're to canvasWe wait.  And we wait.  And we wait some more.  While we wait, we help the National Guard load supplies in to their trucks.  We help sort clothing and food for the Red Cross.  But, mostly we wait.

Nearly two hours later, we descend upon the apartment complex and one by one, we knock on doors, introduce ourselves, ask questions, complete forms, listen to stories, wipe away tears, console one another, offer encouragement to the residents, to one another, and to ourselves.  

Like ants, like worker bees, we are united, as we attend to this community in need, one door, one life, one lifeline at a time.

Part 5 - Sustenance

A Red Cross worker dishes out food for the body and sustenance for the soul.

His laugh is loud but gentle, his words sympathetic but hopeful.  He is patient and kind, sincere and open.  He is unwavering in his desire to be a beacon of hope to this community so hard hit.

On a cold, dreary day, when the dark clouds hover across the grey skies and a bitter wind cuts to the bone, the siren call of “Hot food, hot coffee, free for everyone” echoes through the litter-filled streets, offering nourishment and encouragement for the body and the spirit.

Part 6 - Hope

Gray hair juts out from beneath the rim of a tattered, blue cap, and he bends slightly at the waist, his gnarled hands pushing the body of the small tree upright until it stands tall, no longer scattered across the sidewalk.

He looks from the tree to the nearby bench, where several long sticks lay, and then back to the tree.  I pick up one stick and then another and then another, until he nods, winks and smiles.

For three hours we shuffle up and down the block, working together in silence, gathering uprooted trees from the pavement and from the road.  Leaning tree after tree upright, we shovel the scattered soil back on to their roots, brace the makeshift stakes against their trunks and secure the soil down with rocks.

On this block, in this neighborhood, two strangers unite to save the trees.  Working as one, we gather, we lean, we shovel, we brace and we secure them.  Row after row, the trees stand tall, reaching skyward, roots reconnecting to the soil.

Smiling, we hold hands for a moment and then part with a long embrace.  I look back over my shoulder to wave and see that he's standing beneath one of the trees, his bare hands resting on the bark, his dark eyes closed.

A gentle breeze caresses the branches, fluttering the leaves,  this healing wind, gentle kisses from the Gods, as one man's prayers reach the heavens.

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