11/01/2012 06:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

On Sandy and Natural Disasters: A Garbage Man's Perspective

Six years ago I needed health insurance, and without having completed my undergraduate degree, I found employment as a garbage man for my city -- Binghamton, N.Y. I joined the force in the wake of the 2006 flood, after having volunteered to clean up the hardest hit areas down by the river. This educated me to certain realities visited upon us by natural disasters, which I thought might be relevant in this time of reflection after Hurricane Sandy.

Binghamton's 2006 flood was a blip on the national news and didn't make international news. In 2011, because Irene hit so many places, no one heard about us then, either. We g-men were mandated six days a week until it was done, and started on 12-hour shifts, split between a night crew and a day crew -- 24-hour cleanup at the start. We have about 50 guys, 10 garbage trucks (single and double axle "packys" -- the ones in which you dump stuff in the back and the truck compresses it forward into the body), a few front loaders, two bobcats (smaller vehicles that can maneuver better in tight spaces) and three tractor-trailers. It took two months to complete the flood cleanup.

Daily we thrice filled our double-axle packys, which max out at around 15 tons. Drivers who don't want to help you don't have to, so some pairs on the back crushed their daily 45-ton on their own, while others had a welcome third partner.

Flood items are often coated in toxic sludge; don't get that stuff in your eye or a cut, else you wind up at the doctor with an unknown Something-atosis. But after that, it's all about the community. In the wake of such disasters, people can be so wonderful and giving and open. I've found that at no other time are the residents more glad to see us, not only because we facilitate an ability to clear out the destroyed to make room for the "next" in their lives... but also that they may tell us their stories. We're there curbside as a cleanup crew as well as captive audience, and some need to unload a bit by telling us how, what, where, etc... It has value, this curbside therapy. Some have lost everything and don't know how to begin to parse a life amidst the chaos. People need to hear their own thoughts aloud. Consider taking the time to listen to someone who could really use your ear.

The first piles usually contain the medium-sized items; furniture, computers, boxes of books, plaster, old clothes, some food (if it was in a basement freezer), trophies, old tax info. Then come the heavier, waterlogged rugs, carpets and fridges, which were under all the first items. G-trucks compress at great pressure, and after a week, a closed fridge becomes a type of toxic smell bomb, the likes of which most people have never experienced. Running those up the back must not be taken lightly. (In 2011, we didn't crush those, but in 2006 we did.)

The floods don't discriminate between wealthy and poor. One wealthy couple lost their wine cellar, but rescued some. Their sidewalk had big piles next to their wine "flea market"... take it home or run it up the back, either way, everything's gonna go. They gave me three bottles, telling me which to drink first because "that one would go bad soonest."

I'm an animal lover and do everything I can to only ever crush non-living things. I'll stop the truck to fish out a spider or a moth -- although I've always drawn the line at roaches. The drowned animals and the roadkill always break my heart; I say a little silent prayer as I place them in, or tuck them under a hedge, to be reclaimed in time. In '06, some renters explained how their next-door neighbors abandoned that flooded house, having locked their cats upstairs and left out dry food and a bowl of water. They fled town. No one found the cats for a week. Perhaps those people agonized over what to do and ended up making a hasty, stupid decision as the water rose. I'll never know. Still, I curse those people for having given those animals no escape route.

In hard hit areas, many oglers slowly stroll or drive by taking pictures. I find this offensive, although I understand the nature of curiosity. People's lives are surrealistically out on the curb. Scavengers pull up in trucks, rummaging and salvaging, cashing in on other's misfortune. This I detest. Where's the empathy?!

But times like these also galvanize people to their most generous -- offering time, labor and compassion. It's very moving to be a part of... to truly be of service.

We store so many memories, and place such value in things we never look at again until we throw them away. To be certain, a flood's an auspicious and devastating way of "cleaning house," yet we never know from where the next large-scale change in our lives will come. Though it surely will. Mother Nature's forces are so much greater than anything we do, and as far as she's concerned, the notion of what is fair for us doesn't figure in.

Right now all our hearts go out to those in Jamaica, Cuba and on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. ... and the animals, too.