Srinu started slowing down the mini van as we approached the checkpoint. “Habitat for Humanity”, said Srinu and the cop at the checkpoint let us through. Despite Rajani (Srinu’s wife) giving a hard time that Srinu wasn’t maintaining the 13 year old mini van, we got to Breezy Point – NY, safe and warm. Along the one hour ride, Srikar got an opportunity to show Manasa (this was the newly wed’s first trip to NY) the Verrazano Bridge, Empire State building and the freedom tower all in one day.
Since it snowed a bit the day before, the entire place was white, with a few brown patches here and there. This was because of all the sand from the beach near by, that got swept away and ended up filling the streets. Looking at the destruction inflicted by Sandy, Sarath said, it reminded him of the Tsunami in Chennai.
Takes two to Tango
Our first stop was at the BASE – an old church, which the volunteers of Habitat for Humanity converted as a base. Sesh and Devi, the couple who were our on the ground liaisons, were already there. Sesh knows the in and out of Rockaway, Breezy point, he knows the streets, the layouts, he knows what it takes to repair the walls, what it takes to rip the floor, what it takes to use the circular saw’s, you name it and he knows it. He had been out there on the ground since the day after Sandy struck. He quit his job the very next day and dedicated himself to this cause.
Of course, Sesh is not alone in this, as we know it takes Two to Tango. Devi was the one who suggested Sesh to take a break from work and that she will take on the financial burden. But the couple are so committed and dedicated, that Devi is also there almost every weekend.
I’ve heard about people like Sesh and Devi, but never met anyone like them before and it was just our good fortune to have worked with them.
178 Reide & a Dinner Date
This was the location of our assignment. The house belonged to a 78 year old lady and hand’t been opened until 2 weeks ago. Once the house was certified as no risk zone (i.e. no structural damages to the house), volunteers began their work. The house was completely flooded which meant everything got damaged, the furniture, the walls, the floor, electronics – literally everything. The first week after the house was reopened, the volunteers cleared the house and ripped the walls so the sheetrock can be replaced. So our task was to rip the floor of the entire house i.e. the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, the hall way and the bathroom. While the living room and the bedroom were easy to deal with, the kitchen had multiple layers of flooring and we literally had to bend our backs, slowly chipping our way one small square at a time. We used different crowbars, sledge hammers, chisels and brooms for this work.
Since the house wasn’t accessible for almost 2 months or more, meant that the mould started growing in the house, making it unsafe for breathing. So we had to wear the masks through out the day. If you think handling a hammer and crowbar was tough, wearing the mask through out the day, was even more tougher.
After a grueling 6 hours of work, we declared victory. Our task was almost completed. Almost because, the bathroom tiles were not removed. Sesh said, we don’t have to feel bad and that we could come out and help restore the house i.e. paint the walls, put the flooring etc and also said the old lady wanted to take all of us out for dinner one day !
the Nascar Race Car driver
While we were waiting for Sesh at 178 Reide, we decided to take a walk and see the neighborhood. We saw that more than 90% of the homes hadn’t been inspected for safety which meant the home owners hadn’t begun the recovery process. Towards the end of the street, we saw something very interesting. A human effigy sitting on the ground with it’s back against the wall. It had a red hat as well, which made it stand out against a white (snow) background. In front of it were lying several trophies covered in snow. Sarath removed the snow and started arranging them on the door steps. There was a sign on the door that said that the owner would be home only for 5 hours. We started taking pictures, when we heard the door open and a 50 odd something man walk out of the door.
When i asked him what those trophies were, he said, he was a Nascar Race car driver and raced a lot of cars back in the day. On the night of the storm, he heeded to the warnings and evacuated the place, but when he came back his living room was completely flooded. He got heat, electricity and water only a few days ago. He is currently living in a near by parking lot in an RV (not sure if he owned or rented it). When asked if he considered moving out of Queens, he said “Where am I going to go, to the middle of brooklyn where I could die from a gun shot or to California where I could die from an earthquake. I’ve lived here 30 years, i’m not going to go any where“.
I asked him whether he could consider raising the height of the foundation and then build his house on top of it, he said, he was still waiting for instructions for FEMA. He still hasn’t received any money from insurance and was waiting for FEMA to begin the reconstruction of the house.
the 5 minute tour:
Sesh and Devi took us on a quick 5 minute tour. All along I was under the impression that the houses can be repaired, rebuilt and people can go back to the life they new before the storm, but when we saw the houses that were on the beach front, all hopes just disappeared. These houses can never be rebuilt because there was nothing left. We also saw the place where 100 row houses got burnt down in fire or I should say we saw the reamins of the place. Sandy was so furious and fast, that the fire was beyond anyone’s control, the tides were so high and strong that nothing could stop or slow down them.
The houses on the beach front have no hope – there is no road to recovery. Only the houses in the mainland have some hope, some future but the sad news is that this is still a good 2 years away (at least).
below Zero degree’s:
Sarath said that in this kind of weather he would think twice before stepping out. Everybody echoe’d the same sentiment. But here we were, woke up early in the morning on a Saturday, drove a little over 1 hour to come work in freezing temperatures. Devi rightly said once we put our mind to something we can do anything. The thought of working under below Zero degree’s never crossed our minds once we were out there. And then there was Manasa, who came to United States just 2 weeks ago, she walked straight into the blistering cold weather and yet she was out there with the team helping in the Sandy clean up.
FEMA, NY, Federal relief are all there, why volunteers ?
The road to recovery is a phased recovery.
- The first phase includes the inspection for any structural damages, cleaning up of such houses, disposing the damaged furniture
- The second phase includes ripping out the walls, the floors, the tiles etc and dehumidifying, disinfecting etc and also restoring electricity, heat and water
- The third phase includes laying the floors, the walls, painting
While FEMA, NY, Federal help and relief is available, the man power isn’t. And this is where volunteer organizations and individuals can fill in the gap.
So what’s next, yes another trip , another house, another learning experience because we can help and the people caught up in the storm cannot.