Rebuilding Together at Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn

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.

Gathering in the morning. Post-Mrs. Baldwin yoga.
Gathering in the morning. Post-Mrs. Baldwin yoga.

Rebuilding Together was tackling multiple sites the day we were there:

rebuilding together sites.jpg

Many residents are only just now starting to return to fully assess and address the damage, eight months after the storm.

It was just before Halloween that the storm hit. This decoration still adorns a basement waiting for residents to return.
It was just before Halloween that the storm hit. This decoration still adorns a basement waiting for residents to return.

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.

Sue's house.
Sue’s house.

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.

kiddie beach.jpg
Kiddie Beach snack bar, mid-mural


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.

Oh boy.
Oh boy.

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.

Clearing the ground in the garden

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:

You should see the people on the other side of the fence.
You should see the people on the other side of the fence.

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.


Gerritsen Beach Prelude

I got to participate in a very cool event yesterday.

No, not the elementary school choir/band/orchestra concert. While that was very cool and included such excellent moments as modified gansta-rap choreography from suburban 5th graders, plus interpretive intonation and rhythm as can only be delivered by first-year ensemble musicians, that event happened the previous evening.

The very cool event I am referring to is Meredith Corporation’s Day of Service with Rebuilding Together at Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Lisa Mandel at Family Circle invited me to come along, so I put on my work boots and a cubic meter of sunscreen, got on a bus with a bunch of Meredith employees, and headed out to Brooklyn.

I met some truly excellent people and witnessed tremendous heart and talent at work rebuilding this particular community that was so unexpectedly and heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Yeah yeah, I know, they officially dropped the “hurricane” title and qualified it as “superstorm”. Whatever. I didn’t have the harrowing experience of four and a half feet of water rushing into my home like these folks did–we were up all night hoping the trees crashing down all around us wouldn’t hit us, and watching the sky light up as transformer after transformer blew.  I think we agree it doesn’t much matter what the official name is.

gerritsen beach

When you look at the map, it doesn’t seem like Gerritsen beach would have been hard hit by the storm. After all, there are two land masses between there and the ocean, not to mention a major freeway. And that was precisely the problem: by all appearances, this storm didn’t seem like it was going to be too bad for them. They weren’t even supposed to evacuate, so they didn’t.

The ocean apparently didn’t get the memo, and pummeled them with a wall of water that flooded their town. Between four and six feet of flowing water ran in the streets, in backyards, in gardens, in homes.

That’s the kind of damage you don’t recover from quickly. It’s the kind of damage you can’t even tell the full extent of for several months.

Rebuilding Together targeted specific homes and community areas to rebuild in Gerritsen Beach, and yesterday Meredith organized and brought in several hundred employees to help. Lowe’s and Crate & Barrel were among the others on site.

I have a couple of real posts coming up about yesterday’s event, but for the moment, here are some pictures of the accidental improvements we did on a roly poly bug:


and bug

Even though he matches the paint on my Mustang now, he opted not to come home with me. It’s really for the best.

Look for more posts about Gerritsen Beach from me shortly. Meantime, please visit because it’s super simple for you to help out. I promise you don’t have to paint any bugs.

The Storm One (#25)

So, Sandy.

We, personally, are unscathed. We had more damage during the non-storm on Memorial Day when three trees fell on our house.

The estimate is that 150 trees are down in our neighborhood, but our only inconvenience is that we don’t have power yet and probably won’t for another week.  Gas is hard to get and the commute into the city to work is a different adventure every day.

But the grocery store is open and stocked; we have hot water; the stove works. We even have a generator that runs as long as we find gas for it. By all counts, we’re lucky as hell.

Yet even that is enough to send me over the edge. The logistics of day-to-day living have never been my forté, ever, long before I somehow became responsible for helping with the logistics of six other people besides myself and two dogs. Now it’s all about logistics and it takes all my energy to make anything resembling normalcy, and I feel like a complete asshole as I stare down my limitations; limitations both in my attitude and what I’m able to make happen.

Because this is nothing like narrowly escaping your house after it breaks into three pieces and gets sucked into the Atlantic. It’s nothing like having your two children swept out to sea right out of  your arms. It’s not a damn thing like losing everything you own. It isn’t like having your houseboat now docked in someone’s back yard, seeing your drowned neighbors pulled out of their attic, not having access to clean water or food or heat anywhere, or dealing with how the hell you clean up when on Tuesday the sea was in your house halfway up the second floor.

I’m very lucky and it’s time to start acting like it.

Jersey Boys is going to be part of the telethon tomorrow on Good Morning America to raise funds for hurricane relief. We sure would appreciate it if you tune in and give a donation if you can. The cast is arriving pre-dawn, I’m arriving pre-cast, and the guys that run the show get there some time around one a.m. (even though they don’t have power either and their commute is also an adventure).

Extra pictures today because I felt like it.

Cemetery Tree

Here are your links.

Here’s where you can donate to the Red Cross.

To help find gas in the area, check out GasBuddy. Twitter is a good resource as well; this article lists several potentially useful Twitter handles. Your local paper is also a good bet.

Pictures of boats on train tracks: New Jersey Transit

Crazy-ass pictures of the hurricane’s impact on the city: The Grist

We all need to laugh, and sometime can stand to change our stinky attitudes. Here’s one of my all-time favorite posts on Hyperbole and a Half: Sneaky Hate Spiral.

The best remedy for a sneaky hate spiral is gratitude, and I have an awful lot to be grateful for. Here are two, illustrated:

As a direct result of last year’s storm, I have a tiny pumpkin growing in my “yard”!

For Jack, everything is business as usual.

I would love to hear what you’re grateful for. Happy Sunday.