Sometimes the people of this town just blow you away. Maybe that’s not the best phrase to use when talking hurricane, but even hurricane isn’t the right phrase to use when talking about Sandy, the beast of a storm that slammed into our Atlantic coastline just before Halloween.
Think of the 1998 Labor Day storm. If you weren’t here yet, or weren’t born yet, ask someone who was here. It was a fearsome display of nature’s power, taking Central New Yorkers accustomed to winter-weather havoc by surprise. Who knew autumn could hold such fury? Check out these statistics: 110-mile-an-hour winds. More than 30,000 trees down. No power for a week. Tragically and at the same time, miraculously, only three people were killed by the storm.
Think about that storm. Then add a tsunami on top of it. That’s what happened to the crowded beach communities on places like Staten Island and other communities along the East Coast—in New Jersey, Long Island, in the heart of New York City.
Sandy’s storm surge is not properly called a tsunami, because it was not caused by an undersea earthquake, yet its impact was much the same. In Staten Island, a 20-foot-high wall of water rolled over protective dunes built 15 feet high by the Army Corps of Engineers. The wave of water traveled a mile and half inland. Homes, cars, boats, utilities, pets and people were all dragged away in its path.
That was the tsunami that tore up the beaches I knew as a kid. Three people were killed on the street we used to bike down on the way to fish at Oakwood Beach. The little chapel where my brother was baptized sits twisted and bent, kitty corner on its own foundation. The VFW post where we went to Boy Scouts meetings was flooded to the ceiling. After the waves receded, it became the center for neighbors to drop off supplies and find needed help.
The needs are endless and varied. Thousands have lost their homes, and tens of thousands more lost all their possessions. When the ocean comes into your house, even for a few hours, very little of the items that once constituted your familiar life are salvageable.
Since the storm hit nearly a month ago, Staten Island and other communities by the water have been witness to a tsunami of kindness in response. Agencies both private and public have done their part, some better than others. Most impressive and heartwarming has been the response of ordinary people who have come by to donate their time, their talents, their efforts and ingenuity to help their neighbors in need.
I spent three days working with the people in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Hour after hour, cars and trucks pulled up with bottles of water, packages of diapers, canned food, dog food, blankets and toilet paper, and offers of everything you can imagine. A Lebanese restaurant with a mobile truck pulled up and stayed for days, providing warm soup and dinners to hundreds of people 24 hours a day. More than 250 runners from around the country and around the world (45 came from Norway alone) set aside their New York City Marathon ambitions and arrived one morning with shovels and rakes, and labored for a full day hauling wrecked furniture, drywall, insulation and more out of damaged homes.
One man in particular stands out in my memory of those days. His name was Sunny. He pulled up in his black Hyundai with New Jersey plates, parked it on a street corner, and put up a sign “Charge Your Cell Phone Here.” Sunny rigged up a power strip capable of plugging in a dozen phones and ran it off his car’s cigarette lighter. Free. All night for at least three nights. In a neighborhood devoid of power and communication, this guy figured out one small but crucial way that he could be of help.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, asks us to contemplate the beauty of the notion that “so many grains of sand can contain the sea.” When Sandy came ashore, all of those grains of sand on the beach were not enough to contain the sea. But if we join together, we can be part of helping the long-term effort to restore the lives of those who remain when the sea went back to its accustomed place. Each one of us can be that grain of sand.
Sunday, Dec. 2, has been declared “Syracuse Sandy Relief Day” by the Common Council. Dozens of local businesses and organizations have come together to sponsor a fun run/walk and other activities on that day. Downstate and upstate are sometimes portrayed as distant relatives who don’t get along, but when calamity strikes, we know that we are all New Yorkers. This Sunday, please see how you can join in to help. You’ll never know how grateful your neighbors will be.
To learn how you can help, visit Syracuse Sandy Relief on Facebook.
Registration for the Syracuse Sandy Relief run/walk starts at 2 p.m. at The Spa at 500, 500 W. Onondaga St. The race starts at 2:30 p.m. Participants will be asked for a donation of cash or gift cards in lieu of a registration fee. Suggested donations are $20 for adults, $5 for children and a family donation of $45.
The run/walk ends in Armory Square, where Benjamin’s on Franklin, 314 S. Franklin St., will host a family-friendly party from 3 to 6 p.m. that includes a buffet, a deejay, chair massages, raffles, face painting and a visit from Santa Claus. Guests who do not wish to run or walk may go directly there at 3 p.m.
Donations will also be accepted at Benjamin’s on Franklin, which will sell beer and soda for $1 while supplies last. Suggested donations for massages will be $1 per minute. T-shirts will also be for sale. For more information or to donate online, go to Syracuse Sandy Relief on Facebook or contact email@example.com.