11/01/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Talk to a Hurricane Survivor, and How to Help Clean Up

I called my grandma on Monday morning as Sandy was inching her way up the east coast. I'm not sure how many hurricanes my grandma has lived through but it is probably more than most people. She grew up in Louisiana and now lives in Southern Texas. In my lifetime she has cleaned up her house after Ike, Katrina and a few tropical storms. I think she was even visiting my family and I once in California when we experienced an earthquake. I called to ask her for natural disaster advice.

"I'm 81 years old," she said. "And a hurricane hasn't blown me away yet. You will be fine." Forty-eight hours later, I was. I had been fine the whole time.

New Yorkers feel a lot of guilt, whether it be cheating the subway system (we've all done it), moving in to a neighborhood and bringing the specialty cheese shoppes with you (sorry), or indulging in street meat (my Achilles heel). But no guilt feels as strong as what I'm feeling right now as I watch the news and see Breezy Point in a giant pile of charred transformers. No guilt feels as strong as watching the death toll rise on my computer that is connected to a power outlet and happily charging away. And no guilt feels as strong as watching my fellow New Yorkers have to crawl, climb and forage their way to their places of work in the city just to go back to some sense of normal, and I work from home.

To those who are not with us here on the east coast; the devastation is real. Everywhere I go there is a crowd of rain coat-ed New Yorkers with their camera phones gawking at an upturned boat or curious item that has washed up in their yards. They are staring, calling 311 to report fallen trees, and then staring some more. I urge you not to judge those people. They are not voyeurs, they are documenters. We have to remember what happened here, we have to show our children, and we have to show you.

From my bike in Brooklyn, I have only seen fallen trees and smashed windows. Prospect Park is filled with snapped elms and maples, as if a Giant ran his hairbrush through the area. You can tell Dumbo was underwater. Everything is covered in algae and oil slicks. The shelters in my neighborhood are quiet, we did not see that much damage. I have not seen fallen facades or roofs blown off of high schools. I have not seen broken cranes. But I know they are there, and I cannot wrap my head around it. How do we even begin to clean up?

A few months ago I wrote a short story about a tidal wave hitting New York City. In my story, everyone survives, and the whole natural disaster thing? Well, to the New Yorkers in my story the whole thing is just really annoying. There was a particular scene I wrote where small waves start washing onto to the Battery Park boardwalk, an image I saw again and again Monday night. After Hurricane Irene last year, I had been inspired by the city's ability to band together, to partake in a city-wide experience and talk about it together on the street and in bars. It felt like our own secret club, a subject we could wax on for hours when meeting in other states and countries (sure beats the other shared subject of what train we take to reach wherever we're going).

I don't feel that energy now. I don't see people joking about the hurricane in the few places of business that are open. We all just look like we've seen a ghost, and wherever we go, we continue to be haunted.

I know sometimes we in New York can be our own secret club, but if you are wondering how to talk to someone who has survived Hurricane Sandy, whether they lost power, lost their home, or had a hell of a time getting to work this morning, I urge you to pick up to phone and just say hello. We are having a hard time getting back to normal, and need to hear your voice.

I know not everyone feels the way I do. Perhaps you are too busy burning candles to feel anything at all. But if you are feeling helpless and your New York chutzpah is bruised, I want to tell you that you didn't blow away. You will be fine.

-- One thing I do know, no New Yorker (or Atlantic City resident) will ever throw trash in the rivers, out the subway windows, or into the sewers again for fear of seeing it wash up on their stoop in the next hurricane, but that's not enough. We ALL have to clean up in every way we can. Here's how you can help (source: WSJ, NY Observer):

  1. You can donate $10 by phone by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999.
  2. NYCService urges would-be volunteers to email with their name, email address and borough. Mayor Michael Bloomberg described @NYCService in a recent tweet as the "best way" to help.
  3. Volunteers in New Jersey are being coordinated through an emergency response hotline, 1-800-JERSEY-7 (1-800-537-7397). Alternate numbers, for when the hotline isn't staffed, include 609-775-5236 and 908-303-0471 or emails can be sent to
  4. For those who want to send other kinds of help, the American Red Cross collects funds and coordinates blood donations. Find places to donate blood here.
  5. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) takes donations to rescue and shelter animals affected by the storm.
  6. Here's a list of initiatives organized by New York Cares, for both volunteers who have been through the program's orientation and those who haven't.
  7. New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has a Hurricane Sandy NYC Volunteer sign-up sheet here. After you complete the form, the City's Public Advocate Office will make contact by phone.
  8. New York City Councilman Brad Lander addresses the need for volunteers on his home page, linking to the city's service site for anyone who wants to volunteer in the future and also listing needs for the John Jay High School shelter in his district, located at 237 Seventh Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Items needed there include clothing for men, women and children, towels and shoes.
  9. The Lower East Side Recovers is a site intended to help organize recovery efforts on the Lower East Side. The site suggests using #SandyVolunteer on Twitter to connect with others who want to help.

    -- You can also text FBNYC to 50555 to donate to the NYC Food Bank from your phone.

    -- The Salvation Army is also asking for cash donations to keep its shelters running - text STORM to 80888 to make a $10 donation.