"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."
We lost power at 9 p.m. the night Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan. I had come into the city from The Hamptons, where I'm living temporarily. As I am car-less, and the house is in the middle of nowhere, I was fearful if I stayed and we lost power, I would be found weeks later, identified only by my dental records.
Since I lived everyone's worst nightmare, when the marshals came to the door and evicted me in April, I have been thinking a lot about 'stuff,' home and loss, family of origin and family of circumstance and that old cliché about what's 'really important.' In one of those left-handed gifts, that experience has prepared me, given me a 'new pair of glasses'... along with my camera, which somehow buffered me as I was about to bear witness to the storm which, ironically bore my name.
The metaphor of "A Tale of Two Sandy's" was not lost on us as we walked south into the blackness... one side of the street, bright lights big city, like Oz or a party you weren't invited to... and the other, the heart of darkness. During the day there were armies of folks walking north with power strips and electronic devices in tow sitting on the floors of banks, makeshift charging stations or hanging outside of closed Starbucks with their iPads grabbing the free Wifi. Rolling wheelies full with laundry on their way to friends to take a hot shower. There was a great camaraderie in the streets, sharing stories and laughing. "Where do you live? Do you have power?"
New Yorkers were talking to each other again!
Of course, we ate all the peanut butter, chips and chocolate the first night and by the end of the five days, everybody had packed on the perfunctory pounds known as the 'Sandy Five.' All New Yorkers were either "NoPo" (north of power), or "SoPo" (south of power). An enterprising artist made the I Love New York tee with a muddy waterline on it and the cover of the New Yorker had a guy with a flashlight wading waist deep in a dark flooded subway.
At nightfall, returning like zombies to the "Gulag," powerless in every way, asking strangers to walk with me into the pitch black, illuminated only by oncoming headlights, every horror movie you ever saw leaping out at you from the shadows. Making new friends with strangers, worrying about the impending election, the 99, 47 and the one percent, marveling that the city was split in two like the whole country appeared to be and laughing when I said, "Friend me on Facebook, my name is Sandi...I'm sorry."
But for five days, we always knew we could... 'walk out of it.'
I met Valerie and Pastor Joe at a press conference by the WWI Doughboy statue on 94th street and Rockaway Beach Blvd a week (or was it a year, ago?). A group of interdenominational clergy had gathered, begging for a FEMA or Red Cross presence, their pleas drowned out by the roar of the generator.
Nothing can prepare you for the scope of the devastation. They're going to have to come up with a new word for it in the dictionary. The pictures on the news are but a sliver. Miles of streets blanketed in sand, like a desert war zone. If you were to take Afghanistan and Katrina and multiply it a thousand times, maybe that would give you an idea... maybe. And this is only one hundred blocks. I met a National Guardsman on the beach in Belle Harbor who had been to the New Jersey Shore, Southampton, Staten Island and now here. I asked him how big an area it would be if it were in one place. "It would take up all of Long Island," he said solemnly.
Valerie is a victim and a volunteer. She drives three and a half hours each way from the closest FEMA housing in Maryland. She is a miracle, as are all the volunteers and victims, the lines are blurring between the two.
They have all lost so much... but they have not lost their laughter. After wandering the 120 blocks or so between Belle Harbor and Far Rockaway with Bishop Joseph Williams (Pastor Joe) and Valerie and all the new friends we met along the way, I have to say, it was like going to church.
"We're all in the 'same boat' Sandi," Valerie quipped making a double entendre about our situations as we passed a yacht washed up in the middle of the road.
What can I say about the volunteers? A legion of helpers doing whatever it takes. Thousands of them, just regular folks from all over the country, from the first day. The ubiquitous Mormons with shovels and yellow tee shirts, Occupy Sandy, Team Rubicon, East End Cares, a bunch of guys from Poughquag with coffee tables and a sign -- "One Day At A Time" -- the Verizon guys who drove their trucks from Atlanta and Dallas "just to help these folks." Thank God for the churches, St Carmillus in Rockaway with mountains of water and clothes, a hot meal in the donated warming tent at St. Francis de Sales in Belle Harbor before trudging back down to the belly of beast in the '20s.
The need no less diminished in either place. There is no less pain losing a million dollar home on the beach, or a one-room shack housing a family of six.
It is a democratic devastation.
How all those angels wound up on 26th Street... the dead end block of invisible victims, I will never know. They had no power for 19 days, no water for 10. It was hard to believe this is America! They were caught in the Catch 22 of FEMA, you can't sign up for benefits unless you go online and sign up and you can't do that without power or Internet access! And even if they did file a claim, they couldn't check the status!
You can spend an entire day on one block and not make a dent in what these people need. The need is so great, so basic. Water, Pampers and a hug.
How Robert Norris' "Two Men and One Truck" (actually, three men a woman and two trucks) who drove 36 hours straight from Oklahoma City with donations, got sent to us, why Veronica, a volunteer from Belle Harbor 'happened' to jump into that officials limo and pulled up at the exact moment to hear Valerie's pleas and the story of the family told they could get power back if they paid $400 for a union electrician, and how Veronica unwittingly orchestrated the beautiful Miracle on 26th Street, will remain a mystery to us.
Later that night, we stopped trying to figure it out. The dark street illuminated for the first time in three weeks by a huge work light, coming to life like an eerie movie set. As the block long human chain of strangers and neighbors joyfully unloaded the trucks passing off diapers, mops, warm clothing and bottled water to the folks, we were all laughing and crying at the same time. "It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" we screamed like a bunch of giddy teenagers.
The next day power was restored to 26th street. "I guess the squeaky wheel does get the oil," read the text.
I never did see any FEMA presence and the Red Cross only twice. The second time I asked a group of bewildered volunteers if they had any cat food for the starving cats on 26th street. "The Red Cross doesn't do cat food." Wouldn't you think with all the money they raise they would be on every single street corner?
I'm a producer. The way I see it, there needs to be a connection of the dots between the resources, volunteers and need. There needs to be a coordination between all the agencies working autonomously. A sweep, a grid starting at one end of Breezy Point along the entire shore. It's a production problem, like producing a disaster movie, only in reverse. Send in the producers!
This Sunday, Pastor Joe's sermon was "A Tale of Two Sandy's." He spoke of "redemptive purpose" and "beginning from a place of healing." We must not forget these people because they aren't on the news every night. They are going to need our help after the last blanket or battery or water is delivered. They will need our help more than ever to rebuild. We can learn from them. I know I have. Because they are us. We are no longer a country divided -- red and blue, right and left. We are all in this together. We are the United States of America and maybe it takes something like this to remind us: we can do this.
(UPDATE) Just heard some very encouraging news tonight... Governor Cuomo and the Labor Department are signing up unemployed people in hard hit areas to help clean up their communities paying $15 and hour for six months! They said 200,000 were made jobless by the storm. Now let's get FEMA to bring in those prefab houses and support Habitat For Humanity!