My day began at 5:15am. Three trains, one bus and a 20-minute walk later, I arrived at the Christian Pentecostal Church on Staten Island for what I thought was a shift with the Food Bank for New York City. “Who here has a car?” asked the Pastor, as he surveyed the room of about fifteen volunteers. As two people raised their hands he began to explain that volunteers had been coming in and out of the food bank site all week and if we gave him our permission he’d prefer to send us “into the streets.” Weekdays were slower-going there, he explained.
“We” was actually a group of six individuals from across Long Island and Manhattan who had chosen to sign up online and donate our time on Friday. Besides the mutual desire to step outside of our comfort zones and give of what we could, we had very little in common. One of us was a recent college graduate living at home, two were grad students, another was in-between jobs, and two others had been given the day off from work. Regardless of our backgrounds, we instantaneously joined forces and became a team.
Driving into the destruction, it was not hard to imagine we were somewhere else entirely. The National Guard’s presence both on the ground in tanks and overhead in choppers cut the silence as if we were in a combat zone and added to the eerie atmosphere. Houses once filled with life, sat abandoned and boarded up with the entire contents of ground floors laid out front alongside the curb. It was as if the guts had literally been ripped from the body of the home. And yet even more bizarrely, we were actually there to assist with the “gutting” of the homes , removing contents from the lives that people had once lived.
As we got out of the car, an enthusiastic middle-aged woman in a colorful macaroni necklace came running up to us, excited to ask us who we were and who had sent us. After a few moments comparing phone numbers and names, she assured us that we were in the right spot. As one of the volunteer coordinators with the Staten Island Evangelical Relief Fund, she had been overseeing donation drop-offs, construction teams, and food bank deliveries for the neighborhood of Midland Beach. Not to mention that her home (the very one she had run out to greet us from) had also sustained four feet of flooding and no longer had a usable first floor. And yet, as she surveyed her fully-gutted, unfurnished house, she still managed to make the funniest, bittersweet comment of the day, as she yelled, “Someone move that soggy drywall out of the living room! There’s no room left to sit down!”
Staten Island Evangelical Relief Fund has existed for less than a month. Its efforts are made up of a collection of individuals from the Evangelical churches and ministries on the Island, who have come together in support of their communities and neighbors, in response to Hurricane Sandy. Together, the churches have divvied up responsibility for the entire Midland Beach zone, one of the hardest hit areas in Staten Island. Despite limited formal training and experience in volunteer management, and the fact that so many of the key organizers are among the same homeowners in need of volunteer help, they have a clear understanding of who needs what and how to get it to them. They have developed a rudimentary albeit effective system of assessment that has allowed them to survey entire neighborhoods. They have set up a volunteer and distribution center that not only provides food and goods to storm victims but feeds hundreds of volunteers who pass through the Island daily. Most importantly all of this is done in a way that validates and dignifies each volunteer and each recipient.
What we saw and the work we did was difficult and heavy. The day began with removing and disposing of a waterlogged dry wall from the home of a pregnant immigrant who had been working with a stranger to gut her entire house prior to our arrival. Afterwards, we moved along to the home of a man who had returned after the storm to find four feet of water sitting in the ground floor of his newly renovated house. Emotionally, this assignment was the most difficult part of the day because as we tore down walls, we watched this man go through his unsalvageable belongings for the first time. He was present to watch us rip apart his house and essentially discard his family’s previous life. It makes sense now why removing walls is called “gutting” in construction lingo. A wall is never just a wall– as you tear it down, you truly feel it internally, in your gut.
For a volunteer, it can be easy to get caught up in the tasks of swinging a crowbar and tearing out insulation, even to the point that you forget where you are. When a building is stripped down to its studs it loses the memories it once held. When working alongside a homeowner and holder of the memories, it is hard to forget the importance of where you are standing. Most of the people we met who had suffered the most during the storm, were working-class individuals who had watched their stable lives wash away with the hurricane.
I am both fortunate and unfortunate enough to have volunteered numerous times in response to disaster. In the years following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I spent weeks rebuilding in both rural and metropolitan Louisiana. I am comfortable leading a crew on a demolition project or in the rebuilding of a collapsing home, but it never gets easier to see devastation and watch people struggle to rebuild.
Until this experience, I had never stopped to think about how volunteering in the wake of a disaster is incredibly different than any other kind of volunteer work. Disaster relief is always retroactive – of course one can prepare for a storm, become trained in disaster response, and dedicate effort to planning and implementing specific protocols, but that can only get you so far. Until you are confronted with a disastrous situation, it is impossible to predict your necessary reaction. And that is what makes it all the more remarkable when you see organizations and volunteer managers who spring forth in not only dedicated, but also organized ways. It is not easy to manage a predetermined group of volunteers working on a traditional service project, let alone organize a haphazard stream of thousands of volunteers working on disaster relief. The volunteer managers and community organizations that spring forth to provide support in the wake of a disaster deserve incredible recognition.