Lisa writes: We are a deeply caring nation. But when a story of trauma slips from the front pages, it can be all too easy to forget that those living in the wake of the tragedy are still suffering. On Sunday some friends asked me to join them as they went to the Rockaways for a Day of Action for New York organized by the Clinton Global Initiative, Clinton Foundation and Team Rubicon (whose mission is to work with veterans to respond to disaster situations.)
Team Rubicon led the way. They have been in the Rockaways for weeks and are committed to staying until the job is done.
Let me just start by saying that the Clinton organizations have shown their caring in so many ways and in a few short days gathered over 1,000 volunteers to work with homeowners cleaning up the mess the Hurricane left behind three weeks ago.
As we bussed out to the far point of Queens we truly had no idea what we would find. Here in Westchester we are still complaining about the lack of TV and internet, about road closures and the constant sound of chain saws. But in the Rockaways, a spit of land extending out into the Atlantic just below Kennedy Airport, we entered a different world of pain and devastation.
CGI began the day by giving us safety goggles, paper jumpsuits, gloves and a granola bar. I thought the first three items a bit dramatic, frankly overkill and an unnecessary expense. I had no idea. By the end of the day we had handled decomposing building material and rotten rusted metal all dripping with filth. We had swung sledge hammers and shoveled and carried who knows what form of rotting debris and been perfectly prepared for the task.
Over the course of the day we helped homeowners dismantle, destroy and dispose of everything in their basements. We hauled carpets and sheet rock and all manner of worldly goods, out to the curb or the dumpsters that line every street of this neighborhood. We swept and shoveled and not for an instant did anyone feel as though they were doing something heroic. It was a moment to lend a hand to fellow New Yorkers, to give kindness and care.
At one home, we threw out baby swings and strollers, a crib and packages of diapers, and every single thing in the kitchen down to the wood studs. We told the homeowner how sorry we were for all the loss he had suffered. He simply smiled at us, noted that it could be worse and told us how this epic disaster had brought the neighborhood together in fellowship. Around the corner we saw that, of course, he was right, things were much worse. At another home we met with a very elderly couple as we emptied their wardrobes of gorgeous old clothing, dating back decades, carefully hanging in the dry cleaning bags. I hauled off hundreds of magazines, a collection of Life, Look and Time dating from the 1970’s. Hundreds of pages of memories, now a soggy pile of newsprint stuck together in a clump.
The wife told us that she had survived a concentration camp, and we were speechless. It was sad beyond belief helping strangers throw their possessions away in heaps of wet soggy waste by the side of the road. This work has been going on for three weeks yet, as we entered basements, they were still filled with standing water and an almost unbearable stench. It will be a long journey back to normal life.
On the CGI website, Chelsea Clinton and the former President invited volunteers to join in a Day of Action and both of them showed up. Chelsea came to the basement where we were mucking out. She arrived wearing jeans, hair pulled back not looking for glory or a photo opportunity but rather what she and her father’s foundation could do to help. The former President did one of things he does best.
Driving away we were overcome with sadness for what we had just seen, and flooded with gratitude for having the opportunity to lend even a small helping hand. For further information on volunteer opportunities see the Clinton Global Initiative or Points of LIght. Or more information is available at Team Rubicon.