In the days immediately following a natural disaster, we turn on any media source and see endless, incomprehensible images of tragedy.
The first order of cleaning up is safety and searching for survivors; meeting immediate needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Then there’s clearing: digging through rubble and debris to get to the point where it is possible to see if the foundation is solid enough to begin again.
That alone takes months. Then? We rebuild.
On June 6, I tagged along for a day of service sponsored by Meredith corporation– the folks that publish Family Circle, Better Homes & Gardens, and Every Day with Rachel Ray, just to name a few. Rebuilding Together is an organization that has come into Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn to help them rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.
At the start of the day, there were some welcoming speeches and a little yoga á la Hilaria Baldwin. I actually didn’t know who she was, being that I live under a rock, but I have always kinda dug her husband. (What? Like you don’t have a favorite Baldwin.). She was all pregnant and cute and charming and you couldn’t help but like her. Plus, she gave my current favorite yoga quote:
Relax. It’s just a butt in your face.
Rebuilding Together was tackling multiple sites the day we were there:
Many residents are only just now starting to return to fully assess and address the damage, eight months after the storm.
Imagine being completely displaced for eight months.
I should interject here that it took me just five days into the aftermath to start to lose my freaking mind. We were so fortunate: we had enough food, no damage to the house, and it didn’t start to get cold for a few days. What broke me was trying to figure out how to conduct business as usual when nothing at all was usual. How to get into the city for work when there wasn’t enough gas, how the sitter would keep the kids from killing each other in a house with no power.
The people in Gerritsen Beach would have been ecstatic to have my problems. Eight months later, they’re just starting to piece their lives back together now that it is finally possible to begin rebuilding what was taken away.
The media images are not as stark and compelling by this point. When we see a roller coaster surrounded by ocean waves it hits us in a more immediate way than when we see some warped walls around a foundation.
Yet warped walls indicate unsafe living conditions; they’re hiding black mold, they’re weakened and failing, and they’re a symbol of someone’s whole life having been thrown in the spin cycle.
Cleaning up after any natural disaster takes way longer than anyone expects, and water damage is especially insidious. You can’t even tell how extensive the damage is for months, and if you treat only visible damage, often you find yourself with worse problems further down the line. I learned more about this from Dominic, who was helping rebuild his girlfriend Sue’s house on one of the Rebuilding Together sites. He told me how several people in Gerritsen Beach came back into their homes too soon and became very ill from the black mold that has a way of sneaking in undetected, and hiding until it’s good and strong.
Although there was no standing water anymore by June 6, and no trees on houses, there was plenty of visible damage. Pretty much every house in this tightly-knit community had been hit. When you live near the water, typically there is a convenient clause in the insurance that says they will not cover water damage. This left much of the town strapped and scrambling for temporary housing, not to mention worrying what the hell they were going to do about rebuilding. Look in any direction and you see new construction as well as houses that are boarded up, the residents deciding still if they are worth saving, and if they have the means.
Sometimes insurance checks came through for people who were in pre-foreclosure – because in addition to being hit hard by Sandy, this is a community that was first hit by the recession. In that situation, the bank is required to sign off to release the funds to the resident and in many cases decide it isn’t in their best interest to do that.
What I witnessed this day was a community very grateful for the help that had come to them. Gerritsen Beach is the kind of place people don’t leave. Generations are born and raised there. There are about 10,000 residents year-round.
In addition to the private homes that were being rebuilt, several community areas were targeted. I have an upcoming post about The Vollies Hall, The Library Gardens, and the amazing Fire Chief Doreen Garson, but the place I helped out on the morning of June 6 was Kiddie Beach.
It is exactly what it sounds like: a place where residents can bring their kids and hang out by the water. There’s a beach, a garden, basketball courts, swings and other playground equipment, lots of grass and a snack bar.
I was on the painting team charged with repainting the beach curb. It’s a curb that runs the length of the beach and keeps the sand somewhat in place, off the sidewalk and away from the grass.
Have you ever painted something near sand? It’s pretty interesting. Also, scraping down to try to get a smooth surface was a real pandora’s box. Many layers of decades-old paint were underneath, and long ago storms had breached the paint. Bubbled paint full of wet sand abounded.
As did the bugs.
Other team members worked on painting and repairing playground equipment and the snack bar, weeding and replanting the garden, and cleaning the sand.
Yeah, cleaning the sand. One of the most difficult and least-talked-about cleanup jobs after a storm that dumps a bunch of debris down is cleaning the dirt. Little slivers of glass and metal, bits of shingles and drywall, shreds of photographs and baby toys that were lifted on water out of houses no longer fully enclosed.
I promised I wouldn’t post embarrassing pictures, but I’ll tell you that some of the people who were painting the fence around the garden got just a little bit…well-acquainted with the paint.
I wish I could post the pictures.
These particular volunteers may or may not have been from Lowe’s. Which may or may not have made it even better.
But instead, here’s our art project that was a by-product of it:
Now, was Kiddie Beach a life-or-death situation? Not by this time. If you’d been there the night of the storm, that’s another story. But it’s a central part of this community. It’s their safe place to hang out, to meet their neighbors, to bring their kids, to rest and relax and have fun. Those are the things that make a community, that make a place feel like home.
Speaking from personal experience, sometimes you only truly begin to appreciate Home once you’ve experienced a Lack of Home. It doesn’t have to even be something as dramatic as what happened at Gerritsen Beach.
I toured for five years, living out of a suitcase and a storage unit; while the first three years were great, the last two years were full of constant reminders that I had no home. Lack of Home can create in you an emptiness and a sense of being ungrounded that can become hard to function from…or at least make you a little nuts. That was a voluntary situation on my part.
The people in Gerritsen Beach had their homes destroyed. All their safe havens wiped out. There was nothing voluntary about it. Many have been displaced for over eight months. Now that they’re getting to rebuild, something like being able to go buy a snow cone at the Kiddie Beach snack bar is going to feel like nothing short of a miracle. Like me, they’re probably going to be grateful to be able to set their own trashcan to the same curb every week for a long time coming.
At the end of the day, another storm was rolling in, but that didn’t deter the celebration. There was a ton of great food and the residents came out to Kiddie Beach in droves to eat and talk with the volunteers. I saw Sue and Dominic again, and another neighbor with them cracked jokes and offered me a beer no less than three times.
In the face of the monumental tasks still looming ahead, there was an overwhelming sense of hope.