A Beginner’s Guide to SuperStorm Sandy

My friend and fellow veteran Peter J.F. Meijer (In the photo he is the one holding the sign) wrote this recently and I feel honored that he allowed me to place it on my blog. 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to SuperStorm Sandy

For the past three weeks I have been living Hurricane Sandy. From working in the NYC Office of Emergency Management the night before the storm to search and rescue during and evacuation shelter management and debris removal after, I have been in the eye of this storm. I could write a book about everything that has taken place, and may very well do so, but here is the first of many dispatches I will send out. The following is a brief rundown of my work with Team Rubicon, a disaster response and humanitarian aid organization that mobilizes military veterans to respond to crises. If you are in New York, please come on out to volunteer! All are welcome; contact me and I will let you know where to be and when. Our operations in the Rockaways will be running for at least another two weeks. For previous dispatches, please check out my blog atwww.PajamaRadio.com

 

The reporter from Newsweek was trying to get a sense of timeline. The past couple days had been a jumble, with day bleeding into night, chaos into tranquility. Salt stains drew jagged line across my torso. I had little in my system save cigarettes, Red Bull, and the occasional Power Bar. I felt alive. The reporter was confused.

“Okay, let’s start at the beginning. What were you doing when you learned you would be working Hurricane Sandy?” He was interviewing me about a rescue I performed in the eye of the storm. My narrative could be afforded a certain amount of give.

“I was on the North Fork winery-hopping while dressed as Captain Kirk.”

It’s hard to make this stuff up. I did fudge things a little. Truth was, it was a friend who was dressed as Kirk. I had been assigned the redshirt, the disposable actor who was often the first to die during Star Trek landing parties. I didn’t know this during our tasting sessions until Trekkie after Trekkie told me to stay safe. For the interview it was a little white lie, Shatner-ized so as to be even more ridiculous. The truth is often so.

By the Wednesday morning interview I was going on roughly six hours of sleep since Sunday, the day before Sandy pummeled the eastern seaboard. After leaving the evacuation shelter my first stop was my new, still-being-renovated apartment. Before Sandy, its location just a block in from the river had been a selling point. Access to Hudson River Park, the Highline, and Chelsea Piers in the heart of Manhattan’s chic Meatpacking District.

Until Monday, the river’s splendor was figuratively at the door of my ground floor, on-the-street apartment. Then, thanks to Sandy’s storm surge, it was literally to my door. Funny how quickly an erstwhile selling point can drop resale values. I was fortunate that, though it lapped at my threshold, no water flooded my home. Not so for tens of thousands in the area.

None of this was at the top of my list of concerns Monday night. Since we starting working Sandy our primary mission was assisting the city with emergency shelter management. We ferried non-emergency patients, delivered supplies, and inspected shelters to see how to improve operations. I was at a shelter in Brooklyn as the storm rolled in when a volunteer from Gerritsen Beach pulled me aside. Her disabled husband had stayed at home while she went to a shelter to volunteer. Their home was in Zone B, which was recommended evacuation, as opposed to the mandatory evacuation in Zone A. But the sea was rising, and her husband called to say that the water had already started flooding their one-story house.

She asked me if I could go check on him. I directed her to call 911 and continued to oversee operations. She came back fifteen minutes later, saying the water was still rising, 911 was busy, and the storm had blocked the front and back doors, trapping her husband inside. I directed her to call the local police precinct, looking up the number for her. She came back ten minutes later, saying the water was still rising, no one was answering the phones at the local police precinct, and her husband had to struggle up a ladder into the attic to temporary safety. Nearing hysterics, she pleaded for us to do something, not knowing when the storm surge might peak.

My partner was dealing with a news crew that wasn’t supposed to be filming inside the shelter. I had an idea. I pulled my partner aside and laid out my plan to solve both issues. There wasn’t strict consensus; we were not supposed to do search and rescue. After a rather spirited conversation in which I may or may not have made an expletive-rich argument about not coming out there to sit on the sidelines, my partner relented. We briefed the news crew on our changed mission and offered them a seat. Literally jumping at the opportunity, they followed us out the door and into our van. Off we went.

By then the city had ordered all municipal personnel to seek shelter, but we guilted our driver to continue on. The winds were already gusting at hurricane-strength, knocking down trees before cruelly watering them with buckets of driving rain. Via iPhone navigation we got within a half-mile of our target before the water grew too deep to continue. We jumped out of the van to see a guy unloading a rowboat full of people he had already pulled out. I asked him if we could tag along. He hollered, “Come with me or get left behind!” We each grabbed a side of the boat and drove on.

The news crew got out. The reporter wanted to follow along, but her cameraman protested in no unclear terms that he wouldn’t bring their expensive equipment into the eye of the storm. We left them behind as the wind blew down branches, power lines snapping and whipping the air. Sandy summoning Xerxes, the wind catching snapped electrical cables, lashing the surge in anger. In the distance we could see the Rockaways burning, like a faint sliver of sun rising on the horizon.

Imagine your neighborhood under four to eight feet of water. Headlights from submerged vehicles casting an eerie underwater glow. At first the water was to our knees, then our waists, and reached up to our armpits. Stumbling over unseen obstacles and struggling against the current we drove on. As debris flew and wind gusts topped 80mph it dawned on me that I might not have made the best decision, but there was no turning back. As we passed cars we checked to ensure that no one was stuck inside, and yelled out to homeowners to see if there were any emergencies. After wading into a couple other homes identified as folks in need we reached our target. His deck had floated up and blocked the front door; debris in the kitchen was pushed to the back of his house and stacked up by the storm surge. We hacked and pulled and freed a path inside, shoutingTom! Tom! until we heard him respond from the attic. We led him carefully down the stairs as he clutched his dog, Buddy, in his arms. Escorting Tom to a waiting boat, we made our way back to the van and drove him to the shelter.

We got what we needed, and so did the news crew: http://www.ny1.com/content/top_stories/171575/soldiers-bring-knowledge-to-brooklyn-rescue-effort

(If you got a story might as well tell it; we’re a donor-based organization after all.) Other highlights:

– http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/01/14838500-war-veterans-hit-sandys-front-lines-for-rescues-cleanup?lite

– http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-11-10/news/35038012_1_vets-rockaways-tour-bus

– http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2012/10/new-york-teeth-hurricane-%E2%80%93-heroes-and-errors

And that was just my first 24 hours of Sandy. I have been working her non-stop since. Highlights included quelling a lunch-lady riot, dealing with heroin addicts who were cut off from crucial doses of methadone, fixing a constantly-failing generator, driving into the Rockaways during Winter Storm Athena against a stream of evacuating National Guard and FEMA personnel, watching fistfights break out among quarreling clergy, and sleeping in the same clothes for six days while living but 40 minutes from my apartment. Plenty more stories to tell, but not enough time. Not just yet, when there is so much more work to be done.

If you would care to make a donation to support our efforts, please head on over here: http://fundraise.teamrubiconusa.org/fundraise?fcid=218129 . Exactly 100% of donations go to field operations, and any unused donations are refunded. More stories to follow in due time.

 –Peter J.F. Meijer
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