Every House Has A Story

Today, my family and I volunteered to drive to one of the towns not far from us on Long Island most hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy and hand out cases of water and cleaning supplies. It was an experience I’m not sure we will ever forget.

Last weekend I had taken a bike ride to some of my favorite places in our community, the places I have loved and enjoyed so much because they are right near the water. The same places that were hardest hit by the storm surge from this powerful storm almost three weeks ago. By looking at many of the homes from the outside I couldn’t see anything wrong, but what I could see was all of the insides, the guts of their homes, lying on the front of their sidewalk, exposed for the world to see; broken sheet rock, splintered wood, ripped up pieces of insulation, rolled up rugs, furniture, and appliances.

What was left inside their houses?

Today, we found out. Almost nothing.

We picked up some water and some cleaning supplies and found our location for which we were responsible. The first person we talked to was Rachel, who had a young daughter. She described that the storm surge came over their five-foot fence and was lapping at their door even though they live on the second floor. They just got power over the weekend, but still, still, do not have heat.

Her sister moved in with them and brought her children as well. All of the children are now not feeling well, spending so long without electricity, without heat. They lost their car and don’t have a way to get to a doctor or to get laundry done or to get food or other supplies.

As we brought her another case of water, she broke down, tears dripping down her face, the overwhelming emotions too much to hold in even in front of strangers. When we got back to our car, I looked at my little girl and saw her looking sad. She’s so sensitive, like both her parents, and she was also overwhelmed, unable to handle the intensity of her emotions.

We got back into the car and all took a breath. We knew we had been lucky, but this was making it more real than we had even imagined.

We knocked on more doors, getting no answers, but also meeting people who were okay, who appreciated our help and supplies and who had things they needed to share and finally someone to share it with.

Then we met Eileen.

She is a mother of two who took me up on my offer of water.

“I’m a little dazed,” she said. Being dazed after almost three weeks struck me as disconcerting and I asked her what had happened.

She had an enormous pile of broken sheet rock and wood littering her entire front sidewalk, spilling over into the street. She went on to explain to me that she had finally gotten help ripping out the sheet rock and walls in her basement and first floor only to find out this morning from an architect that the foundation of her home had been so badly damaged by the storm surge that her house was going to be condemned.

Putting aside the money and effort that was completely wasted, I can’t imagine spending almost three weeks trying to figure out how to recover from this terrible disaster only to then find out that your entire home is going to be condemned.

I listened to her for a few minutes, gave her some water and cleaning supplies and she went to try and clean the things in her children’s rooms before the mold got to them, hoping the foundation would support her until she finished. As we left, she asked me to say a prayer for her.

I remember thinking, “She told me her house is being condemned, and I gave her water.” What we did today didn’t feel like enough, but it was better than nothing, better than showing up empty-handed.

I also hope it helped them to know people haven’t forgotten them, that as the press leaves and the attention moves on to something else, there are still people thinking of them and remembering them in our prayers.

It’s not enough, I know it isn’t, but I also know we can’t help everyone. We just need to try and help who we can and hope that it makes something of a difference in their lives, in their road to recovery.

A Community Without Homes

When Hurricane Sandy arrived, my family, like yours maybe, hunkered down and prayed for the best. We huddled in our basement because we were afraid trees would fall on our house and felt that was the safest place (we were fortunate not to be worried about flooding). When the worst had passed and we were without power, like millions of other people, we did the best we could with candles and flashlights and layers of clothing. After two days we got power back and we started to feel normal again.

I had spent much of the week immediately after the Hurricane when I wasn’t taking care of my family, trying to help my organization communicate as effectively as possible to our constituents about the state of Lower Manhattan.

But on that Friday it became clear my synagogue, Oceanside Jewish Center, had taken a huge hit. Not only was the actual building without power and heat, but so were our Rabbis and our president. In fact, according to some reports we have seen, about 80% of our community had been affected by the storm, many with extensive damage to their homes. We are literally a community without homes.

I’ve heard about this in other places, in other cities, in other countries, but this was right on my doorstep. I recognized many of the places in the photos and videos I saw in the news, places I’ve ridden my bike or taken my kids or walked dozens of times.

The Rabbi and I sent out an email to our members letting them know we were thinking of them and asking if there was anything we can do. The responses were heartbreaking. People had lost their cars, their homes, were living with family/friends or had relocated to other places, were staying in a cold house without power or heat because they had nowhere else to go. It was overwhelming, reading these emails in the warm comfort of my home.

How did we get so lucky?

Finally, the synagogue and our Rabbi got power and we were able to open the building up as a warming center for a few hours every evening for people to get a bite to eat, some coffee, charge up their devices and use our computers.

We sent out an email every day, letting people know we were thinking of them, reminding them of what we were able to offer and asking them to let us know if they needed anything. As things got even colder, people started asking for a place to stay because their home was too cold.

Two nights ago, a family from our synagogue moved in with us. We had never met them before, but knew it was something we needed to do when we found out the two kids were 4-year old boy/girl twins, since we have almost ten-year old boy/girl twins. When they walked into our home on Wednesday, it was clear they had been devastated and I again felt overwhelmed by what they must be experiencing. We helped make the kids feel at home and before long all four of the kids were playing together and laughing. I’m not sure I had ever been prouder of my own children than how they made these strangers feel welcome in their own home.

Can you imagine not having had a warm place to sleep for over a week?

Our main job as parents is to protect our kids, but we can’t protect them from Mother Nature. We spend so much of our lives trying to help our kids succeed in life, to build a career or to become emotionally healthy. We almost never think about where the next meal will come from. We don’t worry about whether they will have a warm place to sleep tonight. These poor kids have lost almost everything; clothes, toys, and maybe, most importantly, a sense of stability. The stress their parents must be feeling, trying to make sure their children have a warm place to sleep, have food to eat, it must be all-consuming, not too mention dealing with the disaster they experienced and trying to figure out how they can move forward. The poor father stayed in their house, without heat or power, afraid that what little possessions they had left would be taken by looters. This is Long Island, folks, not some developing country far, far away.

I know many of you have already donated to an organization like the Red Cross, but if you haven’t and still want to help, would you consider helping my synagogue and, this family specifically, with clothes, toys or money? Please send me an email and we can figure out how you can help.

There are thousands of families still dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. Many of these families will never forget what they experienced this past week or so. I just hope they will be able to recover from it.