I was asked me to share my experience volunteering in Staten Island today. Please get out and help, my words cannot even begin to describe what is happening in our backyard to our fellow New Yorkers.
This morning I woke up and I loaded up my car with supplies, and along with two friends of mine, we drove to Staten Island to help out with the recovery effort. We had no traffic on this beautiful Sunday morning, and maybe we have the gas crisis to thank for that. My neighborhood in downtown NYC had no power for five days and looked like a ghost town, but today, and as it has been since the power was restored, it was like nothing ever happened.
I have to admit my time in Staten Island has really only been to attend court appearances at the main Courthouse and at the satellite version and other than that I have spent no time in the borough.
That also was true for my two friends, but both of them had only been to the borough to run in the NYC Marathon, which ironically was supposed to be held today as we all know. Both of them noticed as we crossed the Verrazano bridge that it was on this bridge the marathon begins and there normally would have been thousands of people running on the bridge towards NYC, and we were driving into what we would later describe as a “war zone.”
Our destination was a public school, that a local Staten Islander and a fellow attorney, told me was a station for volunteers. As we began our drive down Father Cappodanno Boulevard, the utter destruction this storm produced became apparent. The first clue of this was seen as soon as we got into the town – there was an incredible amount of what was now garbage, and what was a week before peoples possessions, on the street waiting for garbage trucks that clearly had not gotten there yet. Peoples lives were on the curb, ending up in waterlogged trash. I saw stoves, refrigerators, baby clothes, baby toys, furniture, you name it, all of that all of which had that distinctive stinky moldy muddy smell and look to it.
As we drove further into what I guess one would call the heart of where the devastation took place, we found ourselves unable to follow the GPS directions on the streets that our navigation wanted us to go through. Debris was everywhere, wood, glass and nails all over the street adding a further concern of having a tire popped from all the garbage on the street. And considering I only had less than a quarter of a tank of gas in my car, I did not want to have any car issues.
It is hard to put into words what we saw next. Schools have become recovery stations and shelters, random streets becoming free bazaars of clothes, water and whatever their neighbors might need. People on the street trying to clean up as much as their property as they can. I couldn’t help wondering where FEMA was with a hundred garbage trucks and debris removers. These people are living amongst their water logged possessions in heaps of trash in front of their houses and driveways. And this thought was after I saw the huge make-shift landfill that the Sanitation Dept has started on the beach. House after house with green inspections stickers indicating they had been inspected and were okay to return, and then there were the ones that were not so lucky.
My friends and I had brought in my trunk a bag of my son’s old clothes, jackets, scarfs, hats, water, cleaning supplies, and women’s clothes. We initially parked at a middle school and began walking up aimlessly to people asking if they needed help or clothes. We were told by the woman in charge of the school recovery effort that garbage bags were in short supply and she immediately took the ones that we had. I gave my son’s old clothes to a pregnant woman who had come to the school to gather supplies. I gave my old winter jackets to a Mexican woman who was walking with a young son. The people in charge were doing their best to separate the amount of clothing and supplies that people had donated and were trying to separate the clothes amongst men, women and children items. We asked how we could help and we were told that we could help separate clothes in different piles. We felt we can put our manpower to better use. We helped carry supplies to the cars of woman who had come to stock up for the week. We continued walking down the block stopping people and asking if they needed any of our supplies and if we could help in any way.
We decided to get back in the car and head back to a larger recovery stationery that we had seen on our drive in. Driving past what were once nice neighborhoods, we saw total destruction, we saw what seemed like an endless line for gas, and we made it to what was clearly, a much larger and more organized recovery effort. We spent the rest of the day unloading supplies from cars, loading cars up with supplies, separating supplies, loading up New York City buses that were going to different neighborhoods and doing whatever else was asked of us. We helped load an entire New York City bus with water, ready to heat meals, cleaning products, socks, dry ice and everything else one needs to survive. The spirit that I saw from the volunteers was just amazing. I saw cars come from all over the country to drop off supplies, I unloaded a u-haul full of supplies that had been driven down from Cape Cod, and unloaded another truck that had come from Wyoming. The effort was well organized and it was being run entirely by locals and volunteers. We finally loaded up my SUV with as many supplies as we could and attempted to take them to where we were told to bring them. We couldn’t make it there and ended up going to different mini recovery area stations and distributing what the people in charge said they needed most. We did this until the car was empty and then we headed home.
My end thoughts are that these people are really in need. If you have a car, and have enough gas, you should load it up with supplies and head to Staten Island this week. There is seemingly a lesser need for clothes than there is a dire need for water, cleaning supplies, garbage bags, bleach, batteries, canned goods, and toiletries. I implore you to talk to your friends and neighbors and gather that stuff and get out there. Head down Father Capodanno Boulevard and you will see a huge recovery area on your left. If you get to Midland Avenue you went too far. You won’t need to look far to find people in need. I hate to say it, but it clearly seems to me that this is a forgotten area. I saw very few FEMA, and very few Red Cross. I did see a lot of New Yorkers just trying to lend a hand to their fellow neighbors in need.