STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — November 10, 2012. Inside “Zone A” — the Hurricane Sandy evacuation zone — recovery efforts are well underway but volunteers far outnumber other responders.
The streets are paved but you wouldn’t know it. Walking down Quincy Avenue in Midland Beach is like venturing down a back country road. It’s muddy, bumpy, and when a vehicle passes, dusty. A blue house on the west side of the road has a bright purple portable toilet stall next to it. Sanitation is a problem, there is no electricity, and the blue house was originally on the opposite side of the road. Sandy ripped it off its foundation and moved it across the street. At night it sits there, forlorn and condemned, beneath the shadows cast by gas-powered portable street lights. And yet there is a bright spot in all of this — a very bright, multicolored, spot: dozens of volunteers dot the landscape. Volunteers clad in color-coordinated t-shirts can be seen knocking on doors, doing demolition, pulling trash out of homes and bringing survivors food, cleaning supplies — and hope.
The hope volunteers are delivering is a valuable commodity. Con Edison, FEMA, and the Red Cross are nowhere to be seen. Residents busily engaged in removing debris from their battered homes laugh derisively whenever the subject of restoring power arises.
“Thank you Con Ed,” one man said, holding up a city-issued flier promising electricity.
“Is that your electric bill?” his neighbor asked.
Nearby, roped off with yellow caution tape, is the shattered home of one James Rossi, an 85-year-old Midland Beach resident who didn’t make it out alive. There is a makeshift memorial to “Jimmy” on his front door and some seven day candles on the stoop. Hearing the victim’s story, one young volunteer, a journalism student, said, “Stop, I’m going to cry…”
And yet, in the middle of catastrophe, hope has returned to Midland Beach — seemingly coming out of nowhere. A group of dedicated organizers, an ad hoc organization called the Ocean Breeze Relief Angels, are parked on Quincy Avenue, giving out cups of coffee and work assignments to young volunteers.
One group of young workers drove up to Staten Island from the University of Maryland. Clad in Terrapin red sweatshirts and jackets, the volunteers fanned out across the neighborhood. The Terps, as they are known, brought bleach and garbage bags to Islanders struggling to clear their homes of mud and debris. They made lists of those people who had no means of preparing hot dinners, and promised to have pizzas delivered later that evening.
As the Terps made their presence known a group of yellow-clad Mormons from Reading, Pennsylvania, cleared homes found abandoned. Sanitation workers, using bull dozers and dump trucks, hauled away huge debris piles. The occasional garbage truck came by, its crew loading debris into the hopper. Overhead an Army helicopter passed by, a soldier leaning out one of the helo’s windows, surveying the recovery site. And a short distance away, Port Authority Police gave out supplies — bleach, water, and self-heating meals — to anyone in need. Massive piles of clothing filled the grassy strip that runs parallel to Father Capodanno Boulevard.
Just north of Quincy Avenue, outside South Beach Psychiatric Center — now serving as the landing zone for the Army helo — the sidewalk was visible: resting at the bottom of a large sinkhole. A short distance away the South Beach boardwalk parking lot was full of cars relocated by police — cars that had been rendered inoperable by the storm surge. Some looked almost new, others had fogged windows and seaweed and debris littering their interiors. Opposite the lot, a shattered home sat, one of its walls missing. A toilet was visible from the street.
On Olympia Boulevard, a main artery that branches off of South Beach’s Sand Lane, a man approached this reporter and asked, “Are you FEMA?” I identified myself as press and the distraught man begged me to tell people that he has had no power since the storm — despite the fact that he and his neighbors reside next to the Crystal Ballroom, a catering hall that had power restored almost immediately. The man refused to speak on camera but begged, “Please tell people, we need power…”
Further down the boulevard two members of a group organized by the New York State Nurses Association asked me if I had seen the rest of their group. I said no but thanked them for their service. As the volunteers reversed direction, looking for their colleagues, a Red Cross van drove past. It was the first Red Cross vehicle I had seen all day.
A few blocks away, I surveyed my old neighborhood, as I approached an apartment I once called home. I was concerned that my old landlord’s family, who had treated me like royalty, might not be okay. I found Marie, my former landlord’s daughter, and her husband Rich — covered in bleach, cleaning their home. It had been 22 years since the last time I saw them. We hugged, fought back tears, and talked about our kids — and the devastation to our beloved South Beach neighborhood. I took one last shot of the day, promising Marie that I would not print it. And so I won’t. But it’s a picture of weariness, resilience — and Hope.