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.
As he began mopping the floor, Joshua seemed content with the progress. More than three weeks after Sandy hit his family finally got heat and power back on Thanksgiving Day.
On a day when Americans traditionally give praise for all the things they value in their lives, he told us, his family was thankful they were able to have a hot shower.
As we left, he embraced each of us with a heartfelt hug as he repeatedly thanked us for taking the time to help.
Back at base on Beach 96th Street, our group of volunteers huddle in the makeshift medical supplies room upstairs to eat our packed lunches.
Michelle Cortez, a Rockaways resident and the leader of the Small Water charity, drops in and shares her concerns with us about the future of the neighborhood. She is disappointed with the lack of federal assistance.
“Given the amount of money the Red Cross has raised, it should be annoying how much we see them. Their presence should be huge,” she says.
A tall brunette, Cortez is dressed in overalls and several layers as she tells us she returned from a two month surfing trip right before Sandy hit. Her new full time job is helping her neighbors through the Small Water charity, alongside a handful of full time volunteers.
“A lot of people are without heat,” Cortez explains. “A lot are without power still.”
One month on, the two biggest concerns for residents are the dropping temperatures and mould Sandy left behind in their homes.
“It’s like a bomb fell out of the sky.” Cortez said. “I spoke to a woman who lost everything, her home and business. She is living off credits and has two small children.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do or where to turn.”
Four weeks after the hurricane struck volunteer numbers are starting to dwindle, but Rockaways residents need help now more than ever, Cortez says.
“Everyone fears people are going to forget about us,” she adds.
Later on that afternoon our group of volunteers piled onto the two yellow school buses for our journey back to Manhattan. People shared stories about their experiences.
The atmosphere was upbeat; we had helped in some small way. But as our buses drove through the streets of the Rockaway Peninsula, the debris piled high on the sidewalks served as a reminder there was a lot more action needed.
The most alarming thing about the Irish Day of Action was the visible inaction of the federal government. How four weeks on are people still without power and heat in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world?
If we can learn anything from theIrish Day of Action, it should be that Saturday was just the beginning. Our fellow New Yorkers in the Rockaways, in parts of Long Island and Staten Island need our help. Let’s not forget them in their hour of need.