29 October 2012 – New York is hit by Hurricane Sandy. These are my stories.
The original blog posts are linked below, and an edited version including all of them can be found on this page, with some changes (particularly to I’m a doctor and this is what I do. which has been entirely rewritten.)
Reality, Surreality, and Survivalistic Humor in the wake of Sandy.
I am (almost a doctor) and this is what I do (Life in Sandy’s aftermath)
Getting back to normal?
A Royal Priesthood
It takes a village.
s(a)-ndy: defending men; of Greek origin.
November 1. Day 3.
Hurricane Sandy in text messages from day 0 to day 3.
Monday – day 0: Come on over. Address to follow.
Monday – day 0: Yeah. Hosting a group of evacuees.
Tuesday – day 1: What am I supposed to do? Say, sorry, stay in your flooded apartment?
Tuesday – day 1: There was some minor flooding at the hospitals up here and some wind damage, but otherwise, here we’re safe. Hosting several evacuees, though.
Tuesday – day 1: Did you make it through ok?
Tuesday – day 1: Ok. Keep me posted. If you need someplace to go after, you’re welcome here.
Wednesday – day 2: Surviving the evacuee apocalypse?
Wednesday – day 2: A power station exploded (I’ve never seen anything so bright.) 1/3 of Manhattan is without power. The subway tunnels and most of the major tunnels off the island are flooded. They’re afraid the saltwater storm surge is going to corrode other power stations. The lower part of the island was under 12.75 feet of water. Flood sludge is into the second story of buildings down there and cars and construction beams are piled on top of each other. I went down yesterday to evac some people and was driving over debris and through mud and around collapsed structures. New York Downtown closed before the storm. NYU, Bellevue, and Beth Israel all had generator failures. We’ve got hundreds of extra patients in every hallway of the hospital and they just keep bringing more in. All clinical students have been made “essential function” and we’re all working round the clock shifts.
Wednesday night/Thursday morning – day 2/3: Someone stole my coke [while I was working at the hospital.] Hurricane looting.
Thursday – day 3: Downtown Manhattan is a mess. I drove through there on Tuesday.
Thursday – day 3: Late night doing evac patients. Going to sleep.
Thursday – day 3: Roommate is still sleeping. Spent both of the last two nights working at an evac shelter.
Thursday – day 3: Sorry, I was pulling a shift at the hospital. NY Downtown, Bellevue, NYU and Beth Israel are all closed so we have hundreds of extra patients. (And that’s not an exaggeration.)
Thursday – day 3: Probably won’t be getting a lot of sleep. We just had a hurricane and our hospital is full.
November 2. Day 4.
Reality, Surreality, and Survivalistic Humor in the wake of Sandy
It’s a little surreal to get on Google Reader in the morning and see fashion blogs with fall trends and food blogs with fresh recipes and humor columns with new cartoons. It’s strange to get on Facebook and see election news and engagement announcements and witty remarks and snide putdowns. It’s bizarre to turn to CNN where the international version’s headline is “Mitt Romney’s Vision for America” and the US version’s headline is “US hiring increases.” The first page that pops up on Slate is “Should Your Digital Calendar Look Like a Real One?”
And here, there’s no way to describe it but a disaster zone.
Here, in New York, the reason I’m tired is because I spent most of one night transporting evacuated patients around in our eerily crowded hospital, and my roommate spent two over-nights volunteering at our local evacuation shelter. The reason I’m behind in my studying is that we’ve had a rotating door of evacuees and friends and people in need of a meal, and it hasn’t stopped. More are coming in tonight. The reason my bathroom isn’t clean is because I’ve been running errands, driving into the disaster zone that is downtown Manhattan, making calls, coordinating new living arrangements, checking on hospitalized friends, having long conversations with someone who just needed to talk, sending dozens of text messages, trying to turn the food I’ve randomly stock piled in my cabinet for the last three years into creative meals and wondering how to get the laundry done so that when a new person comes in through the door, they’ll have clean sheets and fresh towels. For once, I’m not tired because I’m procrastinating.
You know what else is weird? That I’m sitting in my apartment in Manhattan, typing this. We never lost power or electricity or even had water leakage through our roof that always leaks or around the windows that don’t quite shut. What they’re calling The Dark Zone is a 20 minute walk south, and that’s just an area without power. The Financial District, Chinatown, Staten Island, Redhook, Far Rockaways, and hundreds of other places throughout the tri-state area are bona-fide calamities. People talk about ‘getting the power back on’ and ‘pumping out the water’ but I’m not sure most New Yorkers realize that the answer to our problems isn’t more power and less water. Flooding damages things. It destroys electrical connections and corrodes plumbing, eats into drywall and rots lumber used in framing. It shifts the ground underneath buildings, strains foundations, and weakens roads and sidewalks. It leaves behind debris and dangerous chemicals and strange bacteria. ‘Water out’ is the first step, but that’s a long way from being finished.
I asked a friend yesterday if people in this area were used to flooding or knew about the ramifications. His answer “No. No one has any idea.” Rebuilding isn’t a matter of the power on by Saturday (although that would be awesome, ConEd!) or the subways pumped out by next week. It’s a slow and painful process of going over everything the water touched, ripping out what’s not good and replacing the damage. It’s a psychological nightmare for the people who are used to well-furnished apartments or running a small bodega or even being able to walk through a neighborhood park.
I know that disasters happen all over the world, and news media continues to cover them, but people move on to the next story and the latest headline. I do it myself. After an earthquake in China, I follow the news for 5 days or a week, but then it’s on to the next ‘important’ thing.
Living here doesn’t let me do that. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make dinner today because I might get called in to volunteer for a 12 hour shift at the hospital. I drove through the muck and horror of the Financial District less than 12 hours after the storm hit and walked into a building where the flood line reached the second story in a creepily unlit stairwell. Lucky for me, I was the one doing the rescuing, not being rescued. Even in two or three weeks or months, or maybe even years, this city is still going to be mourning losses and scraping itself back together and trying to figure out what to do next time. I know that everyone in New York has a story right now – about watching the water rise and praying it won’t reach their apartment or losing their home to a fire or their children to a flash flood or working for five days straight in a shelter or handing out rations and water in Alphabet city or standing in a drugstore, waiting for a chance at an outlet so that they can charge their phone. Their stories are on their own blogs, in local papers, on the news, quickly updated onto Facebook or sent through text messages and they’re all worth hearing. They remind me over and again – I am blessed.
All the same, there are some moments of brevity, like when I yell from the bedroom to the living room, “Hey guys, it might be standing room only in here!” There are already five of us in our 500 sq foot apartment with one usable bedroom and in the space of ten minutes, I got texts asking if two more people + a dog and two cats, one more person, three more people + 5 who just want showers – could they come join us? And I said of course I said yes, and then most of them very wisely found slightly less crowded accommodations.
Moments of levity occurred throughout the whole ordeal, too. These conversations helped us stay sane.
Prior to the hurricane:
Roommate: We’re going to the store to get smores supplies!
Me: We’re the only ones out here in flip flops.
Roommate: Woah. Look at all the rainboots and massive coats and inside out umbrellas.
Roommate: I feel like we’re prepping for the superbowl instead of a hurricane.
Me: Is it windy outside?
Roommate: There’s a pigeon sitting on our windowsill, so I doubt it.
Me: Poor birdies. Do you want to come inside?
Roommate: They’re pigeons. They’re evil, and yucky, and like the rats of the sky.
Me: I love how everything is shutting down today with comments that “we’ll be back up and running on Tuesday” and I’m like, “Hello. That’s when the storm is actually supposed to hit.”
Friend stranded in Queens: So btw… I dont think I’ll make it to your place to study today.
Friend stranded in Queens: Dude, the MTA is not running…
Me: Don’t worry. I got everything on my normal grocery list except cream (forgot it) and in addition, I got tootsie rolls and cream soda, so we’re all good. But I also forgot popsicles. If the power goes out, it would have been popsicle-eating-party!
Me: We’re gonna be out of tootsie rolls by the time Sandy gets here.
During the hurricane:
Me: And…we’re out of tootsie rolls.
Roommate’s Fiancé: We should go boating!
Me: We could borrow the kayaks from Hudson River Park.
Roommate’s Fiancé: AND KAYAK DOWN BROADWAY BECAUSE I BET NO ONE HAS EVER DONE THAT BEFORE.
Mom: Parts of Connecticut are already flooding and thousands are without power. Keep us posted as you can.
Brother: There is no storm. I’m sitting on a roof holding a long metal pole. And tied to a giant kite.
Morning after the hurricane:
Dad: Brother, how’d the kite work out?
Roommate’s Fiancé: I wish we had taken a picture of something crazy happening!
Me: You mean like water flooding over the FDR highway and up the block?
Days following the hurricane:
Me: Someone stole my coke from my volunteer area. Hurricane looting!
Roommate: Some of these homeless guys at the shelter know *everything* and then they start talking…and it all goes downhill from there.
November 3. Day 5.
I’m (almost) a doctor and this is what I do.
It’s almost silent in this corner of the ER, known as pod B-west. The stillness is punctuated only by the occasional beep of a nurse’s radio, a phone ringing, or someone requesting a blanket. Each bed is carefully sectioned off from the one beside it with temporary, vinyl dividers. The little spaces are labeled with a handwritten number; none of the papers match. Some are printer stock, some notebook, and the numbers on them have been written by at least two hands and three different pens – this numerical identification system has been hastily patched together. The patients, each in their own, screen enclosed space (which we are generously terming “rooms”) are tired from long waits, constant transfers between hospital departments, and lack of sleep, but they are mostly happy to be settled into our “pod.” An elderly demented lady, who, when I try to explain that I’m going to put in an IV, just smiles and nods, clearly unable to understand what I’m saying past the hoarseness of laryngitis in my throat. A teenage boy is alternately excited and terrified that he needs emergency surgery for appendicitis and chatters quietly to his brother. A mid-fifties man here for a ROMI (rule out heart attack) is propped in his bed, bored with the surroundings and wondering what to do at three in the morning when he is stuck on a stretcher in the middle of a lobby where all the medical supplies are on a folding table and the nurse is working off a computer on a rolling desk.
That’s where we are. This odd assortment of patients and stretchers and makeshift rooms – of handwritten numbers, hastily scrounged medical equipment, radios for communication, and random baskets of bandages – this is pod B-west. Up until 4 hours ago, it didn’t exist. Up until four hours ago, the ER had three pods – A, B, and C – and suddenly it has more than double that. Tonight we also have B-west, B-east, C-south, and 4-west-central. Every hallway and lobby has been pressed into service for the massive influx of patients that have been flooding into our hospital for hours.
The towering, three story ceilings of “B-west” and the immense glass windows looking out into a garden usually belong to the Greenburg Grand Lobby, where quick footsteps echo off expensive floors and the names of benefactors are carved into the regal granite walls. Usually, this is a place off awe, designed to show off the history, grandeur, and importance of the hospital. The donors staring down from the wall have never seen their great foyer looking quite like this.
Stretchers four deep and three wide are shoved against the illustrious portrait wall waiting for more occupants, as the charge nurse plays tetris trying to figure out where to put patients. I interrupt her challenging task of allocating bed space, but my voice is so distorted by laryngitis that she can’t understand what I’m saying. I finally learn to start slot/room 3 on IV maintenance fluids. Slot 3 – a sweet and completely demented grandfather – has no veins, anywhere, as I, another med student, and the nurse search for a spot to place even a tiny, pediatric sized 24 gauge needle. Luckily for us, as we lift his shirt, we find the EMTs have already placed an IV in his shoulder and all three of us breathe a sigh of relief.
Quickly, I’m dispatched to a tiny space behind the radiology room, usually designated for a mop or a chair or some other temporary item, and I find another patient to come join our motley bunch. For the number of patients stacked into the hospital, things are surprisingly calm. Dragging stretchers along behind me is more of a challenge than usual because there are people, gurneys, and EKG machines everywhere. Even so, every patient has a nurse, every area has a doctor, and no one is running, yelling, or bleeding excessively. We are out of regular blankets, so I start to tell my patients that these replacement covers are ‘the special fuzzy ones’ to head off any complaints. They are fuzzy, but I have no idea where they came from.
As our supply of empty stretchers dwindles, it becomes obvious that this deluge of patients is not going to slow to a trickle anytime soon. The email sent to all the clinical medical students the previous evening had been very clear. One of the major hospitals downtown finally had a generator failure and so now, two days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, all of their patients were being brought here. We don’t know their medical histories or their treatment plans or their favorite foods or their family members. We’ve never cared for them before. That lack of knowledge alone would be challenging but there are also rumors that we have hundreds of extra patients. Hundreds. Hundreds that are all arriving at once. Our staff is stretched thinner than I’ve ever seen, and so we med students have been called in to supplement the normal personnel. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.
It’s not just the hospital evacuees, either. With four major hospitals in lower Manhattan closed, we become the next available care facility, so every emergency that would normally go elsewhere is coming here. People escaping the flooding, housebound elders with no heat, patients dependent on home care or oxygen or insulin that has been ruined by the lack of refrigeration – they are all descending on us.
The practical part of me wonders where all these spare beds came from. Is there some secret room in the basement full of stretchers? I stop for a second to take a swig of my coke, only to discover it has disappeared. Jokingly, I comment to another med student that it must be ‘hurricane looting.’ Whoever took it is in for a nasty surprise if they end up with a throat infection from my backwash.
We’re all moving faster than normal and everyone is stepping up to fill roles they wouldn’t normally touch with a ten foot pole. I’m technically on leave from clinical duties, but someone takes the time to thank me for my help – even though he knows I’m not required to be here. Then he’s off, weaving around wheelchairs to hand off a medication. This constant dance of providing care, intaking patients, and trying to find a clear path to walk has taken its toll on the staff. Even copious amounts of caffeine can’t keep the weariness from drooping their shoulders.
No one thinks this is glamorous. It is not sexy or impressive or flashy. It’s just what needs to be done. We’re a hospital. We take care of people. End of story. The fact that I have other important things to do doesn’t really seem to matter. A licensing exam that means the difference between a good job and a bad one is in a week and working in the hospital at 3am is not good preparation. But that exam, even though it may determine my future career path, isn’t as important as this. Struggling against the storm to even get to the hospital, I’m reassured by a few words. “You’re a doctor. This is what you do.”
That comment is true. I’m not a doctor yet, but I will be and this is what I do. When people need me, I go, even if it’s just to move gurneys, take vital signs and help the nurse remember which patient is behind which divider. Even more, this is what I want to do – not dermatology or pediatrics or oncology. Disaster relief is my passion. Responding to these events – I love it. This is who I am going to be; not the TV doctors the exciting work of cracking chests or stabilizing amputations or resuscitating burn victims. I’m going to be the doctor who is there when I’m needed, who takes care of the “boring” cases, and who sees that each patient has her own story. The brief moment of excitement, when a trauma is called in, keep life from getting dull, but those are few and far between. The ER is not a movie set or the plot of a novel and definitely not General Hospital or Grey’s Anantomy. It’s just getting things done. It’s taking care of sick people, one at a time. It’s setting up a fourth ER in the grand foyer when patients need a place to sleep. It’s passing out ginger ale to anyone who asks. It’s when you stop counting the number of patients coming in through the door.
That score that I’ll get on my exam – it doesn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things. Being a physician matters. Knowing how to prioritize and realizing that people come first, even ahead of personal goals, are important lessons to learn. Being there when it’s inconvenient, losing sleep for days on end, going home to a tiny sixth floor walk-up that’s packed with refugees from the floodwater and power outage, staying past the end of my shift, and willingly suturing a wound, changing an adult diaper, tracking a blood pressure cuff from the fifth to seventh to third to first floor, or making a bed – that matters.
Pod B-west is full and still the ambulances are coming. Bed 4 needs a wound bandaged. The nurse needs me to move a patient. A family member asks for a glass of water. Welcome to the world of disaster medicine.
I’m (almost) a doctor and this is what I do.
November 4. Day 6.
We’ll get back to normal.
I’m not a journalist or a writer, and my little trials seem trivial next to what some of my neighbors are going through, but they’re also honest and real. I figured I was done writing about Sandy; no more blog posts on my little-read blog, no more middle of the night thoughts typed up on the computer. But even though the storm is over and the immediate crisis is past, the storm is still affecting us and still impacting me.
As this side of the country cleans up in the wake of the storm, things are settling down and power is coming back on. The death toll is still going up, but hospitals are re-opening and subway lines are running again. One news headlines trumpets “Still No Murders After the Superstorm” and the internet is full of pictures and stories showing people helping neighbors and strangers. So far, there has been no looting, no rioting. We’re seeing the better side of people.
It’s still hard. This morning, I sat on my roof in my pajamas and cried just because I was exhausted and needed to. Strange that my roof, in full view of the 8 skyscrapers around me, was the most private place I could find, but my apartment was full of friends and my neighbors were trekking up and down the stairwells. We’re all tired here and every day we continue to get emails and phone calls and personal requests for more volunteer time, more assistance, more help. We’ve learned that ‘you can go a long way after you’re tired.’ Having refugee friends staying with us makes our lives easier, even if the line for the shower is sometimes congested, because they help with anything and provide support when we need it, though we should be providing support to them. A little laughter or a drink at the bar downstairs prior to a night with no sleep can go a long way towards improving your mood.
I wouldn’t trade-in my experiences in the past week, though. There were a few adventures, which helped. Driving through Manhattan 12 hours after the storm, dodging traffic in the stoplight-less streets and maneuvering around storm debris made me feel a little like Indiana Jones. Watching the East River surge over the highway and up the street was awesome and awe-inspiring and terrifying. Prepping for a power outage that never hit my neighborhood allowed me to play with candles and fire.
Life will get back to normal and while Sandy will always stand out, the small sacrifices we’ve made in the past week will rightfully fade away into barely-memories. The thank-yous we’ve received, while appreciated, are unnecessary and once I get a little sleep, I won’t need the roof for anything but late-night summer parties with cold drinks. More importantly, though, service is what I’m gifted at, and even though this week stretched me a little, I’m incredibly joyful through the tears at how God has used me to help.
November 5. Day 7.
Getting back to normal?
Yesterday, I wrote We’ll get back to normal. – the period indicating a statement, a finality. Thinking I’d let it stew a for a while, I planned to edit it later. But now the Northeast is in the throes of another big storm. Friends and I have been talking all day – tomorrow it’s back to the shelters and the volunteering and the disaster relief. The freezing temperatures tonight might kill more people than Sandy did and so life’s not gonna be back to normal as quickly as we hoped.
November 6. Day 8.
A Royal Priesthood.
It’s odd. The trees are confused. They should be a mismatched collection of oranges and purples and reds and yellows and dying browns, but they’re not. The leaves are green. Bright green. Surprisingly, many of the leaves survived Sandy’s wind and still cling tenaciously to their branches. The less fortunate compatriots lie on the ground, covering sidewalks and front stoops.
8 days since Sandy rushed through the tri-state area, leaving mass destruction in her wake. Power is still out to thousands of people. Homes have been reduced to less than kindling, because the wood is so saturated it will never burn. My roommate trudged home through the leading edge of winter storm Athena and stomped the snow off her shoes.
“Why do they give storms pretty names? Athena was the goddess of something, wasn’t she?”
“Yes. The goddess of war.”
“Oh. Fitting, I guess.”
A short time later, I suited up to visit the grocery store, craving a slice of store-made bread for a grilled cheese sandwich, after having eaten loaves and loaves of homemade bread, which, although fabulous, had a denser texture than I wanted at that moment. My roommate questioned the wisdom of my trek and I responded,
“It’s a small blizzard. It’s not like the apocalypse is happening. Plus, I actually put on boots, instead of thongs.”
Outside, snow covered the stubborn, tree-clinging leaves and mingled with the fallen green on the ground. It was a surreal picture of absolute whiteness against the brightness of almost-spring fresh leaves all mixed together and littering the walkways. The roads were deserted on the two block walk to the store and already, the storm sewers were blocked and puddles shin deep had collected in the crosswalks. The store, I discovered was out of bread. Apparently, bread is a hot commodity, even for Nor’Easter preparation. As I remarked on this to the cashier, she was excited to point out the freezer par-baked bread, the type you finish at home in your oven. I explained to her that I had been making loaves of bread at home for the past week and a half and I really just wanted a slice of Wonder Bread.
Wonder Bread. I was upset at the lack of Wonder Bread.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
By the time I got home, I was cold and my nose was glowing red. I stripped off wet clothes and stood by the radiator, carelessly remarking that I was freezing before I remembered that thousands of people were actually freezing. Those without homes, electricity, adequate blankets. Housebound patients. Senior citizens. Families with babies. Single adults. People who gathered around barbeques and candles for warmth and prayed that something anything would get them through the night.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
The news media is moving on, and so is the rest of the country. It’s natural. I do it. I follow the earthquake in Iran for a few days, then switch over to the latest financial crisis. The mine collapse in China captures my attention for a some gut wrenching moments but it soon passes into distant memory. With a world as connected as ours, disasters, tragedies, wars, disappointments, famines, genocides, mass murder – there is always a new one to catch our attention. We watch body counts go up as CNN issues breaking news alerts and some of us secretly pray that an ice storm will hit our town because it sounds like an adventure. We skip to the next story, because dwelling on the same-old same-old becomes tedious and emotionally exhausting and we want to stop giving, because there’s always another cause begging just around the corner.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
Even living in the middle of this disaster, I get tired of giving and I slip back into my regular and sometimes petty life. I wander into the kitchen declaring I am starving before remembering that less than two miles away, that is actually the truth for my neighbors. I bemoan the poor heating in apartment without being grateful I have it at all. I go to the cinema and order take out and go to bed under a thick, down quilt, carefully compartmentalizing the overflowing hospital, the desperate requests for donations, the urgent need for volunteers. Sometimes, I just don’t want to give. It’s tiring and hard work and not very glamorous. I’m not going to end up on the evening news and no one will ever make a feature film of the simple tasks I’m being asked to do. I make up excuses. I have bronchitis, and, as one friend puts it “Perhaps the patients would prefer you stay at home and not share your nasty cough with anyone else.” I’m busy planning a party to celebrate the engagement of two friends. My old roommate from Paris is in town and there is so much to chat about. Giving is just too much work.
‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
I’m not dedicated, like one friend who spent five days straight in a shelter, then returned every afternoon when work finished to assist wherever he was needed. I don’t have the drive of a medical school friend, who, on her only day off, helped canvas a neighborhood, discovered a couple without power or blankets and spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down sleeping bags and fleece coverings. I don’t have the perseverance to go back to the same flooded clinic day after day to try to provide medical care in the midst of impossibilities. I haven’t hauled myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to catch a ferry or a shuttle bus out to the worst hit areas. I haven’t given money or canned food or diapers or pet supplies or batteries or flashlights.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
I volunteered at the hospital and responded to requests for medical help from area hospitals, the Red Cross, the New York Medical Corp, but was never called into duty. I helped some evacuees get out of zone A. I opened my home to refugees whose buildings are uninhabitable and could remain that way for three months (my roommates may hate me for turning our flat into a hostel.) I watched a baby, walked a dog, fed the people crammed into my tiny apartment. I did easy stuff, just enough to allay some of my guilt at not doing more. The rest of the time, I spent in bed because bronchitis had laid me flat, hopped up on Dayquil and hacking up phlegm that was trying to choke me. That’s a good excuse, right? Surely bronchitis means I’m exempt from showing hospitality.
2 Corinthians 9:12
For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.
Tragedies happen everywhere, all the time, whether it’s the destructive force of a hurricane, the ravaging heat of a wildfire, or the sad murder-suicide of a mother and her child. No human could carry the emotional burden of every negative event that occurs and so, in a proper defense mechanism, we mourn briefly and move on. It’s natural and it’s right, unless you want to spend the rest of your life depressed by the awfulness that occurs in the world. Even if you live in the middle of it, staring at destroyed buildings and wondering if Athena, following so closely on Sandy, will kill more people than the hurricane itself did, it’s easy to ‘get back to normal.’ My apartment is powered, gassed, heated, watered. I become complacent and ignore the needs around me, forgetting to give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given in just the past week.
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
But this isn’t a news story for me. It didn’t happen half a world away or even on the other side of the state. It happened here. The hospitals that evacuated sent their patients to my hospital. There are people sleeping on my couch because the storm surge was 14 feet and destroyed important parts of their buildings. Friends are unable to get to work because tunnels are flooded, trains are down, airports are running at low capacity. People develop lung diseases from trying to shovel out mold infested drywall from destroyed homes. Children starve because infrastructure has collapsed and the canned goods ran out two days ago. This is not a time when I can be apathetic, have excuses, pat myself on the back for the little efforts I make and call myself a good person. This is a time where I need to be a part of the community, working together to protect each other when other organizations are limited and failing. This is when I need to look out for the interests of others.
Humans are broken and selfish people. We can’t ever achieve perfection or get the good-bad scales to balance in our favor. We can’t wallow in complacency and assume a few well-intended deeds is ‘good enough.’
As Christians, we are supposed to be set apart, of the world but not in it, salt for the earth, light in the darkness and a city on a hill. We should be on the front lines as Christ’s hands and feet, his ears and eyes. We have been given a special calling and it’s not an attitude of complacency. We are charged to be the difference in the world and my little world, centered on three islands that make up a community of millions, my world needs the body of Christ right now. It’s begging us for help.
1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
November 11. Day 13.
It takes a village.
The massive church is one of the more beautiful I have been in recently. Old gothic architecture in red sandstone is set off by stained glass windows running the length of the building, crowned with a sparkling rose window. The tiny courtyard out front is packed with people and the UPS trucks are double parked three deep in the now one-way street. The inside front fall is littered with signs directing donations to the left, volunteers to the right, bathrooms up the stairs, and announcements for the day. Inside, the pews had been pushed together to form makeshift shelves, although someone explained that the day before , Sunday, the church looked as it normally did, with none of the huge piles of boxes lining the aisles and all the pews properly spaced so that parishioners would bump their knees against the hymnal cases as usual.
Today, this church has turned back into operation central for our community. Occupy Sandy, regardless of all of our political sensibilities, has become a lynchpin in the fight to help our neighbors, still powerless, heatless, out of necessary medications, starving, freezing, breathing contaminated, mold filled air, scrounging for water. Dying.
Today, we’re told that a woman one of our teams had talked to yesterday had died overnight. She was one of the last women the team had spoken with and by the time they called her needs in, night had fallen and the streets were impassable until the next dawn. The darkened boulevards, with their new sinkholes, the debris across them, the downed power lines – all of this means that we work during daylight, which is short as we get closer and close to winter equinox. Early the following day, when the sun was new in the sky and watery light barely made it safe to drive, the team returned to give the woman blankets and a heater, food and safe water, and the necessary comfort of more human interaction. She was dead. Just like that. The previous day, she had talked and laughed with our team, grateful for friendship and hopeful that we could help. Today she was dead because she had run out of food, didn’t have enough blankets, and she couldn’t survive another night calorie-less and shivering to try to stay warm.
Less than a week ago, I said we’d get back to normal. It’s still true, but it’s going to be a new normal. It’s a normal where roller coasters now sit in the ocean, towns are being bulldozed because there is nothing salvageable. It’s a normal where people spend three days navigating FEMA, the NYC bureaucracy, the line wending through Red Cross, and still end up with only a few hundred dollars in cards to the Salvation Army and no place to sleep for the night.
It’s into this mess that Occupy Sandy has stepped. Thousands of volunteers work together every day. The church hubs collect donations, make hot meals, train volunteers, and then match volunteers with others who have cars and send them out to canvass neighborhoods. They stop at each house or apartment, talk to the inhabitants and determine what their needs are. They report back to the hub, and the group there puts together the necessary supplies and sends them out to the people who need them.
At the same time, the kitchen is churning out 10,000 meals a day. One day while I was visiting, I was grabbed to go work in the kitchen because I’d worked in a kitchen before and had food handling experience. In the largest pot I’ve ever seen (I’m fairly certain I could have fit inside without ever scrunching), I made a pot of chili for 200 and in another, a split pea soup for 150. Somewhere along the line I burned my arm and the scar will remind me of this amazing community of people pulling together to support their neighbors.
Sandy destroyed a lot and her after-effects are still wreaking havoc. But in the middle of that, I’ve seen the best in the people who are coming together to form community in this giant, disparate city of millions.
The name Sandy means defending men, and most would say she did the opposite of that – that she attacked us.
But having seen what this disaster has done to the people around me, I think she’s aptly named. Her effects have reminded us what’s important. She has stripped away the self-imposed isolation and independence in my corner of the world. She has defended humanity against their own selfishness and apathy. Sandy defended men.
s(a)-ndy: defending men; of Greek origin