Thanksgiving comes at a difficult time this year, as our region rebuilds and recovers from Hurricane Sandy. Yet, despite the hurricane's horrific impact on so many levels, its aftermath has magnified a bright spot in our town: it's made New Yorkers into neighbors, and I've witnessed it in countless instances.
New York City is renowned for the anonymity that it provides -- to world-famous celebrities as well as those escaping the gossip of small towns. New Yorkers stereotypically don't know the name of the person living next door. But Hurricane Sandy has changed that: it's made us into caring and supportive neighbors -- not necessarily door-to-door but on a broader, even region-wide, scale. It's underscored that there is no greater collective of people to rally together in times of need than New Yorkers.
I've seen this first-hand, as part of New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island, a grassroots group of running friends who worked together to form a relief effort that brought runners from all over the world and needed supplies to Staten Island with the cancellation of the New York City Marathon. From the moment we created the initiative, which has involved more than 1,500 runners, the spirit of neighborliness was apparent -- first, among those who wanted to help and, then, with those who needed the help.
As I sat at night in my office at Hospital for Special Surgery creating the Facebook page for New York Runners In Support Of Staten Island -- just after the Marathon was cancelled -- I could never have imagined that our 36-hour project would quickly turn into an internationally recognized effort, bringing needed attention and help to hurricane-devastated communities on Staten Island. But that is exactly what happened.
As our so-called "orange army of hope and goodwill" arrived in those communities on what would have been Marathon Sunday and then again the weekend after, we were greeted with waves, honking horns and other expressions of thanks from grateful Staten Islanders. We hoped to make it clear that they had not been forgotten and would not be overlooked. And what we witnessed there, and have continued to see subsequently, was an outpouring of neighbors supporting neighbors.
Among those with whom I ran on my first visit to Midland Beach were two men from London and three women from Belgium, none of whom had previously been to New York. They had planned to spend their Sunday running down First Avenue, not cleaning out destroyed homes on Staten Island. Yet much to my surprise, they were all so thankful to be there, even when covered in mud and wearing masks and work gloves instead of marathon bibs. "This is what makes America great," they each said. "When times are tough, you all rally together. We feel so lucky to be here."
As we visited the all-but-destroyed home of Alex, a Staten Island resident in Midland Beach, and helped clean up the debris, he told me a story that I will never forget. In the midst of the hurricane, a 67-year-old Greek immigrant neighbor from a two-story house across the street had tried to cross from his home to Alex's three-story house. As he waded across the street, a tsunami of water 17 feet high forced him into a tree just 15 feet from Alex's front door. As the water rose, he climbed higher.
Throughout the night, they signaled each other with penlights every 15 minutes, conserving energy while reassuring each other that they were both still there -- a single narrow beam providing a lifeline of energy that would sustain them. The following morning, at the break of daylight, the 67-year-old neighbor was taken down from the tree into a police boat after spending the night clinging to the top branches.
I am still thinking about that story, as many of our lives return to normal. Having visited the Midland Beach area several times, the emergency work is nearing its end, but there is still much to do. The transformation in three weeks has already been dramatic, but there is much more to be accomplished. The challenge is to continue to focus attention on and provide support for our most devastated New Yorkers, as the recovery continues.
New Yorkers can help in many ways: by contacting and supporting organizations that are providing aid; by participating in fundraisers -- which can even be fun events, such as the December 12th concert at Madison Square Garden (the so-called "12-12-12" concert) in support of Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey; by donating to many of the relief organizations supporting the cleanup effort, or even going to an affected area to lend support.
If you're interested in our group, we continue to grow and hope to provide other opportunities for runners to provide support for Staten Island with their feet and with their bank accounts. You can find us at: http://www.facebook.com/NewYorkRunnersInSupportOfStatenIsland.
As we join in this Thanksgiving season, let us all remember the great spirit of support, giving, and caring that makes America and New York such a special place in which to live. It is especially in times of great difficulty that these blessings come into clear view.
The author is a nationally recognized sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.