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A Perfect Storm of Compassion

When the seas subsided, humanitarian instincts surged after Hurricane Sandy

Picture for a moment the waters of Onondaga Lake being lifted up, as if on an enormous freight elevator, and transported over all six lanes of Interstate 690, filling the old steel mills and all the homes and offices in Solvay between the lake’s shore and Milton Avenue.

On the other side of the lake, imagine the waters rising up and flushing through half the village of Liverpool, coursing through the streets, covering lawns and porches and playgrounds all the way to Route 370. Heid’s under water, cars floating in the parking lot at Destiny USA, everyone between the south shore of Oneida Lake and Route 31 flooded out and seeking shelter in churches and gymnasiums.

That was the scene in most coastal neighborhoods of New York City a year ago, when the hurricane they called Sandy came ashore in the middle of the night. Sandy was not just a wind whipped rainstorm: The tides and the wind and the geography of New York harbor conspired to produce an effect more like a tsunami than a storm.

This havoc did not just descend from the sky, the way we think storms should, but as the rains and the winds howled, the ocean itself surged out of its bed and into the places where, just hours earlier, people ate and slept and played. Jetties and dunes and boardwalks that had contained decades of seaside turmoil collapsed before the onslaught.

The storm defied neighbors’ imaginations and their best efforts to save their homes. Two days after the storm, I met a corrections officer named Pedro Correa on Staten Island. Correa was a hard-working man who had bought himself a shack near the water and turned it into the two-story home he dreamed of his kids growing up in.

As the sea prepared to surge outside, Pedro and a friend went down the steps into his basement, on a mission to refuel the generators that powered twin sump pumps that he hoped would keep his home dry. A few minutes later, the futility of that effort became apparent. He found himself swimming for his life, struggling underwater, then climbing to the second floor on the staircase he himself had built.

The water welling up from below shook the house and tossed the two men through a window. They floated on a table top, which sank. The roof of a neighbor’s home floated by like a raft, and they rode, along with a river of debris that had once been his house, more than a mile inland. All that was left of the house was the concrete foundation.

Two fundamental forces of nature met at the shore when Sandy rolled in. One was the force of the hurricane herself, and the other was the near universal need that people experience when they see their neighbor in need.

As soon as the winds died down, people the world over rushed in to help.

Within days, a tent city was created on the lawn of an old man’s home, and refugees from Sandy formed lines to unload, fold and sort clothing being donated by families just a few miles outside the flooded area. Food trucks pulled up dispensing hot meals. Parents of infants unloaded crates of disposable diapers.

Leadership emerged from the damp ground. I remember riding late at night in a van outfitted like a portable food pantry. Knocking on doors in darkened apartment buildings, we found people who had stayed behind, reluctant to take assistance, asking how folks in other parts of the city were doing.

That weekend, the New York City Marathon was to be run, and tens of thousands of athletes descended on the city to find the race cancelled. Many instead laced up their shoes and pitched in to help jump-start the recovery.

In Central New York, miraculously spared the storm, a community emerged to help their downstate neighbors. National Guardsmen from Hancock were on the ground in Staten Island distributing food within days. National Grid linesmen, Rural Metro paramedics and church volunteers headed south as soon as the roads opened. Syracuse runners joined with Armory Square pubs, brewmasters and the Nation of Islam to collect more than $10,000 worth of gift cards to send to the island. Even the twin powerhouses of print journalism, The Syracuse New Times and The Post-Standard, set aside their rivalry and worked together to promote Syracuse Sandy Relief.

In the kindness of strangers, Hurricane Sandy may have met its match.

Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@twcny.rr.com.

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