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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunday In the Rockaways

by May Jones (bio)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I suffered a little bit from survivor's guilt. Here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we watched on our fully-powered televisions in our well-lit living rooms as our downtown neighbors lost all power. Then, the next day, we saw the horrific scenes of homes on fire, coastlines obliterated, and cars completely underwater. We felt relieved, of course, but also somewhat helpless. So close, yet so far away. Some displaced families were brought up to live in our schools and we were able to provide a bit of relief in the way of clothing and toys, but we still wanted to do more. We started collecting donations to send in vans out to the hard-hit coastal areas of New York. Then, two weekends ago, thanks to Mormons Helping Hands, we got to go out to the Rockaways ourselves to pitch in.

On Sunday morning, bright and early, my step dad and I drove out to Plainview, NY, to a stake center there. When we walked into the cultural hall, about a hundred members of the Nashua, New Hampshire stake were sitting in folding chairs singing I Know That My Redeemer Lives. Everyone was wearing work boots and jeans and sweatshirts and several people had on bright yellow shirts or jerseys inscribed with the Mormon Helping Hands logo. The early morning sacrament meeting service consisted of the passing of the sacrament, a stake counselor reading a few scriptures, and then testimonies offered by those who had been out to the site the day before. We finished by singing Called to Serve. It was one of the most memorable Sunday morning services I've ever attended.

Afterward, we got our team assignments and drove out to Belle Harbor in the Rockaways in Queens. Other stakes met us there, including my own, as well as other non-member friends who wanted to help. Our team was assigned to two missionaries, who led us to our first house. I saw many missionaries throughout the day, with their name tags pinned to the front of their jerseys. They have been working day in and day out for the past three weeks and I wished their parents could have seen them out there.

My first impression of the area was that it felt like a war zone. Large trucks barricaded the ends of streets and piles of debris were everywhere. At our first house, we transported water damaged belongings sorted into huge piles in the backyard to the dumpster across the street. The homeowner shared with us his feelings of being overwhelmed at having to basically sort through his whole life and try to figure out how to replace it. And all with no power. Every time his wife came outside, she repeated, "Thank you so much, thank you so so much." With our team of ten, we were able to clean up the backyard in less than an hour. I know that if it had been my house, I would have gone out and stared at that pile for days, just trying to figure out where to start. I was happy that we relieved them of that burden, at least.

We filled this dumpster with the contents of just one house
A teddy bear among the debris
The water line on a fence

At our final house of the day, the family showed us into the basement, where over six inches of sand had accumulated on the floor. There were already two elders down there in the process of demolishing a washing machine so they could fit it up the narrow stairs (I noticed that the missionaries were always more than eager to help with any demo jobs; they would swing those crowbars with zeal. It appeared to be pretty cathartic.) I started to carry up buckets of sand one by one, but once my back began to hate me for that, I switched to shoveling instead. At one point, an elderly gentleman came downstairs and observed our work. I heard a woman upstairs calling, "Daddy! Where are you?" I asked her if maybe her dad was in the basement and she exclaimed, "He better not be! He's not supposed to go down there!" Then she told me the story of how, after the hurricane, her son had come to check on his grandfather and couldn't find him. Eventually, he discovered him swimming in the over six feet of water in the basement in a bathing suit. That anecdote made me smile because I loved to think of someone gleaning a bit of joy out of an otherwise hopeless situation.

One corner of the basement, pre-shoveling

During brief water breaks on the front porch, I chatted with the family and they told me that several groups of people had been coming out to the neighborhood to help. They also shared with me the not so warm and fuzzy news that some Queens residents with power and no damage had gone and snatched up the donations brought in by churches meant for those who truly needed the aid. I felt their pain and frustration, but also their patience and kindness, as they offered me water and food repeatedly. As it drew near the hour to lock up the house against looters, I hugged the family members and offered my hopes for their full recovery. I sort of hated to leave them behind in that state to face everything, knowing that I was going home to a warm, safe, dry apartment, but we also left behind a huge pile of sand on the street that would have taken them days to clean out themselves.

Our sand pile

I'm so grateful for the example of a Savior who invites us to look out for our brothers and sisters. I'm grateful for the organization the Church demonstrates in times of great need. I'm grateful for all the smiling faces wearing yellow jersies that day, and I will never forget those images. Even though I know that I barely made a dent in the efforts over all, I know that I helped make a big difference to those families, and that the purifying feelings that come from serving one another are beautiful and real.

For more information on Mormon Helping Hands in New York, visit the facebook site.

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