I remember driving into Far Rockaway, located in Queens. I was crammed in the third row seat of a Mercedes Station wagon, next to a middle school teacher from Manhattan. Her name was Tess, and we were both dressed in heavy jackets and boots. My feet were rested atop a case of bottled water. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were both part of an envoy of a few cars bound to do some relief work in the lower, recovering region of New York, I would’ve never met her.
A freelance film and media producer was driving, along with his brother in the passenger seat, accompanied by Brendan and our team leader, Adam, in the backseat. A truck was also following behind us. A man named Spencer, who was into construction, was driving alongside my friend Sean. Looking out of the car’s windows, there was sand everywhere, and cars stranded in the middle of the roads and intersections. Houses and business both had tons of debris and damaged goods such as furniture out on their lawns for garbage pickup. One sight that I will never forget is that of the Queens library, with bags and bags of water-damaged books in multiple plastic bags on the side of the road. The drive there from Brooklyn would’ve been 20 minutes taken on any normal, ordinary day. But it wasn’t a normal, ordinary day. The coastal region was just ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that just happened to slam into the upper-East Coast, attacking New York and other exposed states with the wrath of angry Atlantic waters. Add about another 30 minutes to that 20 and that was about how long it took with all of the traffic.
When we finally reached our destination, I was absolutely appalled at the state of disarray that the Rockaway community was actually in. There were mounds of sands in the street, uncleared rubble and debris everywhere, and people wandering about, who probably didn’t have anywhere to go. Everyone thought that Hurricane Sandy came and went, along with the grief that she brought along with her. The storm’s over, but the struggle has just started for some.
We pulled up to a series of townhouses that were grouped in series of about 6. Cars were parked in the driveway, which had a light dusting of sand on it. We were greeted by a homeowner, a Latino man named Miguel, who was working on gutting his entire first floor, 43 inches from the ground up. Everything in his house was removed, from his kitchen cupboards to the tiles lining his bathroom walls. The only in his house remaining was a bunk bed, which was strewn with important documents, a few articles of clothing and items of sentimental value. To step into that house, and see all of this family’s valued possessions on a single bed really put my life into perspective. I don’t need another handbag or another pair of nice shoes. I was fortunate to have somewhere to sleep, clothes on my back and food in my stomach.
As our crew began with the breaking down of the Sheetrock and insulation, my task was to go around and mark a continuous, horizontal line across the house. It was decided that we would be gutting everything up to 48 inches due to the rapid growth of black mold. After doing so, the demolition began. With the din and swings of axes and crowbars, we all began to hack away at the walls of the house, exposing waterlogged insulation and breaking apart Sheetrock that would eventually be discarded using wheelbarrows and garbage bags. It took us about 3 hours of tedious labor, but we got it done. Towards the tail end of our task of gutting his house, Miguel asked everyone to take a picture with his kids, who were about 7 or 8. After we finished, we went around the block to his brother’s house, in which we had to do the exact same.
The second house we gutted was much easier than the first one. When we arrived, it was about a fifth done, thanks to some Samaritans who decided to join us in our efforts. We all went along, laboriously breaking the walls down. At this point, we had perfected our technique and things flowed fluidly. About an hour in, Adam came in to tell us that there was a woman outside who had made everyone lunches and would appreciate if we took a break to enjoy them. We all came out, curious and hungry. A woman, named Cynthia, pulled up in her Lexus and was distributing cute lunches containing wraps, chips and home baked cookies. She also ordered a pizza, despite our protests. She proceeded to tell her story. Cynthia and her husband lived in the very house we were working on their whole life and raised all of their five kids there. She said she wasn’t going to let any girl named Sandy take that away from her and thanked us tirelessly for helping her husband with the construction and broke down in tears. Cynthia also explained to us the long process of what it would take for her to receive power again. Residents would have to consult a certified electrician, put in a request to the local power company, and then make an appointment for an evaluation. When we wrapped up around 4, we took a few pictures with Cynthia and we were all left with a warm fuzzy feeling.
On the drive home, I tried to describe and processes all of the feelings and emotions that I encountered during the day but failed to do so. The reality check was just so sudden and abrupt. The experience and sense of community that I now knew was not only a paradigm shift; it changed my life.
One word could sum everything up exactly how I was feeling: satisfied.
The feeling hasn’t gone away yet.
Hey, I’m Trinh. You could say I’m the young padawan of Occupy Utica. I have an immensely strong attachment to the French Enlightenment and philosophy. I love food… For thought. You can find me vehemently hammering out lengthy rants online or you’ll hear me raving loudly outside of the pixels that comprise the internet. Either way, I’m quite verbose. And idealistic. I don’t have much of a filter and my humor is the polar opposite of apropos. Oh, and I’m one of those “corrupted youth.” Enchanté.