Green 6 was deployed to the East Coast for disaster relief work January 8 through February 1. The next several posts will be about our time there.
Rest assured, when I heard Green 6 was going to be doing disaster relief work for Hurricane Sandy survivors, I was excited. A huge sway factor for me even doing NCCC in the first place was the potential that I would be able to help if a response was needed. It’s the glamour work that a lot of the people in the program think about when they join.
But, there was also a small sense of disappointment when I heard the news. I had began this program with the idea that I would see the West Coast, live in its vibrant culture, and experience something that I had yet had the chance to. New Jersey and New York, especially, had a familiarity to it, as though it was going to be a return to the unexciting and normal. This experience was anything but normal.
Since we were volunteers on disaster response, we were told many times to be flexible with our living and working situation. We had heard stories from teams coming back from deployment on the East Coast who had to sleep in unheated buildings and on church pews, all the while, never getting a day off from their efforts.
For the first week, Green 6 ended up staying at a United Methodist camp about 2 hours from our host site. Our days were extended by 4 hours and a sometimes crawling journey along the New Jersey Turnpike. But, each day we returned to a warm meal, and a heated cabins, which is more than could be said for some of the people we met. After about a week at the UMC camp, we were graciously invited to stay at Montclair State University which cut our commute to less than an hour.
Our host sponsor was New Jersey’s Bergen County Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), but we specifically worked with the Moonachie and Little Ferry Relief Fund and Rebuilding Together, Bergen County. Any idea of grandeur in relief work was forgotten when we found out the specifics of our duties to the community.
Our jobs became providing a community with warmth. We would be working in 2 mobile home communities installing insulation for the coming winter. We would be working in the cold, under homes that sometimes barely had a 2 foot clearance with fiberglass that cut our cheeks and wrists.
Many of the people in the mobile home community did not receive much aid money or any at all, mainly because the government considered trailers as a vehicle instead of a house. Because of this, repairs remained undone, and mobile homes unchanged after the disaster.
We were told by our supervisor that, “When people were first flooded out, they were like deer in headlights. And the 73 days since the hurricane, many have still not done much to cope with the devastation.”
73 days. It was the first time I would hear the time period since the storm relayed in these terms, but as I stayed on, I realized that homeowners, volunteers, and everyone who lived it, would only speak of Sandy this way. Sometimes, it seemed like people would tell me the days since their lives were swept away could think of nothing but. 84 days. 67 days. 91. I remember recording the days like this during my freshman year of college – to that point in time, one of the hardest experiences in my life. I’ve been here 8 days. 17 days. 34. It’s like you’re remembering to a time where things were simpler, or at least the vale in your mind says that they were more worth being in. The days are anniversaries since normalcy.
There were 13,300 applicants to FEMA in Bergen County, New Jersey. 13,300 people who needed something after Super Storm Sandy. Need is a funny thing to think about because it never manifests itself alone – pride, humbleness, and helplessness can come with it. But then again, sometimes hope does too. And after all of the sand is cleared away, and homes are repaired, and the hearts are given warm coffee and an honest embrace, sometimes there is where people find it. It lies dormant between the minutes our lives change and the moment someone reaches to help you. Between the time it takes insulation to mold and for someone to replace it. Our first day on the job, looking each of us in the eye, our sponsor told us, “Your effort is what’s going to give them hope.” We grasped to this on the cold January days.
After day 1 under the mobile homes, we had no illusions of grandeur in our work. But Green 6 did have something else – a spark in our hearts to provide for the people of Bergen County, for whom, it had been 74 days since a piece of their world had been washed away.