Answering the call

(Editor’s note: Athena Pepe, 18, lives in Keene and is a senior at Keene Central School. She and her mother, Aline Pepe, went to New York City Nov. 17 to 19 to help out after Hurricane Sandy hit Oct. 29.)

The night of Hurricane Sandy came with such intense worry for the victims of Hurricane Irene, who had still not yet recovered, that when the storm passed, I was instead flooded with relief. Then the news stories about the city rushed the television, and I knew I wanted to help somehow.

When we drove to Staten Island, the traffic began to slow even though it was chaotic. I didn’t realize how close to my destination I was; I thought that the streets were just dirty and covered in more garbage than I had remembered and that city drivers were really as bad as they say. My mother, who had been there days before with my sisters delivering supplies, scolded me for pointing this out and informed me we were just minutes away from Midland Beach, the disaster area. Then I realized that the traffic was so bad because of the lack of electricity and traffic lights – leaving police officers to direct traffic. Adding to this were the long lines at the police-guarded gas stations, making it nearly impossible to get off or onto the crowded street. Next, I noticed the sidewalks rolled up like broken carpets and trees tilted sideways, like they were permanently blowing in the wind, showing how, like in upstate, the flood would always remain.

We were bringing more supplies that had been donated by people in our community from Keene, Keene Valley and Upper Jay – no strangers to flooding. As we got closer to the beach, the streets narrowed, each side piled high with debris and sand. A heavy fog weighed down on the streets, making what I was seeing even more eerie and unbelievable. The emphatic beeping of more garbage trucks than I had ever seen and National Guardsmen marching through the streets with face masks made it seem like a sci-fi disaster film. A small church had drifted into its graves, and someone, not in vain, had tried to patch the side of a house with an American flag.

Seeing this, however, was not the most resonating sight. Not even seeing the people waiting to get FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance, warm clothes, showers or gas was as difficult as watching entire families lined up on the street for food, alongside a boat crushing a midsize sedan, making it just so clear that this was their new reality.

Our destination was the Red Cross tent set up at Miller Field. We filled out an application on a Hurricane Sandy relief website where they were recruiting “spontaneous volunteers.” A few days later, we got our assignment with the Red Cross. Once we found our way through the heavy fog, we were greeted, thanked and assigned the task of putting batteries in hundreds of flashlights, provoking some secret eye-rolling between my mom and I.

When they were finally completed and supply trucks came, we got the strenuous, but welcomed, job of distributing the different supplies evenly to the four or five other trucks. These Budget moving trucks with Red Cross logo stickers held cleaning kits, comfort and care packages, blankets, diapers, juice, bleach, work gloves, water, dust masks, garbage bags, hand warmers, paper towels, baby formula, first-aid kits and, rewardingly, flashlights. Armed with disaster area maps, to ensure we went up and down each street, we set out to deliver supplies.

When we stopped at the first location, honking and flagging down people outside their homes, we were mobbed by people, showing me just how much they really needed what was on board. Among the homeowners receiving supplies on the street were other volunteer organizations and church groups. Many said they had been in other disasters – such as the group from New Orleans who came to cook jambalaya and muck out houses, a skill they had perfected during their own struggle with Hurricane Katrina.

The amount of damage was different throughout, from the homes closer to Father Capodanno Boulevard that were completely under water, to farther away from the water in the predominantly Russian and Greek neighborhood. It was interesting to see the different groups of people and their take on the situation; needless to say, I met some characters and came out a little more street-smart.

Although we had signed up for one day of service, we were asked if we could return the next day because they were receiving more supplies and had not enough volunteers. Before we headed back, we went to Breezy Point, Rockaway, where more than 160 homes had burned to the ground. We were given supplies from the Red Cross tent to bring along with the items donated back home. Chaos could not even describe the situation there – endless lines, National Guard tanks, the roar of pumping machinery and constant flow of supplies going in and out of one small, packed-to-the-hilt building – yet it was made known that our donation was no less needed and appreciated.

Part of our duty was to tell people where they could get further, long-term assistance, other supplies, occasionally but all too often convincing the grief-stricken or proud person to accept the aid, and just talking to people. When we drove through one street, our driver rolled down his window and asked someone if he needed anything. He didn’t respond, and with much to do that day, the driver waited and then continued on. A little while later the driver approached me with a box of supplies and told me he just found out that the man we had seen earlier had watched his son get electrocuted to death, and asked me to run back try to get him to take it. He was wandering down the street, but finally I was able to convince him to accept it.

Another man, who looked lost but said he didn’t need anything, explained to us that his brother and sister had drowned trying to escape the flood. As we talked to these people in particular, we realized that the most important thing we brought was ourselves. Each person was extremely grateful, not just for the items we handed out but, as we were held by the hand and told over and over again, to have someone who cared.

So many people just like me rush to disasters immediately after they happen. While this is, of course, widely appreciated, it is also important to realize that the struggle often continues for months after. The victims of Hurricane Sandy will surely need help for months to come. Although I took illegal absences from school, I would highly recommend taking some vacation days and experiencing this for yourself.

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