MOLLY MULDOON was part of an Irish Day of Action contingent that cleaned homes along the Beach 90 streets. It was an experience she won’t soon forget.
Buddy is a tall guy. A retired New York firefighter, a dog lover, a Rockaways resident for the past 40 years. His home on Beach 91st Street is just one block from the ocean, an ideal location for an avid surfer like him. But a deadly address for a Category 1 hurricane.
Last Saturday morning was a chilly one, almost one month on from Hurricane Sandy, when Buddy opens the gate outside his three-story house and welcomes a group of 10 Irish volunteers into his basement. We were there as part of theIrish Day of Action that saw 1,000 volunteers travel to the Rockaways to help with the clean-up effort.
“Keep the gate closed,” he warns us. “Or else my dogs will get out.”
We are armed with shovels, masks and work gloves as Buddy leads us around the back of his house and down the stairs into his basement. It’s dark inside, almost eerie, and a musty smell hangs in the air.
Buddy leads us into the back room, where the walls have already been ripped down and are lying in soggy piles on the floor.
We start by picking up larger pieces of the saturated drywall with our hands. One of the girls comes across a school book and places it on a ledge, hesitant to throw away a personal belonging that may serve as a memory.
Shovels in hand, we begin to scoop the debris into the trash cans. The men take over the job of carrying the heavy bags outside, as us ladies continue our labor, our shovels scraping against the cement floor.
We fill at least 20 bags. Soon the interior walls that once protected this Rockawayshome are lying on the sidewalks in black polythene bags.
In one of the rooms next door, Buddy continued to rip down another wall with a hammer. Lying in the rubble is a Ouija board. “Ouija me a new house,” he jokes, as we begin to gather the debris from the floor.
Buddy stayed in his home just 150 yards from the sea during the storm. “There were waves coming down the block,” he says.
While we work on gathering all the rubble from the floor, a neighbor drops by.
“Get out of here,” he shrieks at Buddy as he descends the stairs to the basement. “I did not know the water came up that high!”
“Get out of here,” he repeats. “My mom’s water was only six feet,” he said in a thick Queens accent.
Upstairs, Buddy’s mom is watching TV with their four dogs stretched out by her side. A few blow heaters are providing the only heat that is circulating the room. She tells us she’s been waiting every day for the repair men to restore their heat. She’s grateful to finally have power back.
With all the debris cleared from the basement, we have done all we can for Buddy today. He walks us out through his front gate and thanks us for our help, offering us some plants growing on his porch as a gesture of thanks.
One volunteer tells him we will come back in the summer, to see them in full bloom.
The wind blows sand into our faces as we make our way back to the base of the Small Water charity on 183 Beach 96th Street. Almost a month on, there is still a thick carpet of sand on the streets.
An Irish Tricolor hangs from one digger that is gathering debris. Wrecked cars line the streets as mini diggers gather the sand. “Hooters Not Looters” reads graffiti on a garage door. A lone man walking his Alsatian dog smiles at us as we pass him by.
Back at Small Water, where a large two-storey home has been transformed into a distribution center, people are arriving with supplies. We grab some cleaning equipment before we head to our next task just one block over.
After a short walk we arrived at red brick building where Joshua and his family live, just a block from the beach. With the basement already gutted and the debris removed, we worked on disinfecting the downstairs of his home. Mould was the biggest concern for the father of three.
“We need to spray the mould with vinegar,” Joshua explains to us.’
We sprayed the rafters down. We washed the walls and pipes with bleach. We mopped the floor. We cleaned the family bicycles which were still covered in a thick coat of dirt and sand.