‘More hands, less work’ was the motto of the day as 1,000 Irish people descended to Sandy-ravaged Rockaway beach to help people restore their homes and businesses last Saturday as part of the ‘Irish day of Action’ scheme.
‘The Irish have arrived!’, said one woman to her husband down the phone as Irish volunteer workers came into her home to assist in any way possible and the sheer volume of people surprised even the organisers as they scrambled to give all their eager workers something to do.
Orlagh Reilly, working in Human Resources in Manhattan, heard about the event via email last week and had to get on board.
‘I helped because I feel fortunate not to have been affected by the storm and I cannot sit around knowing there are some people struggling to rebuild their lives again so I have to help physically as I can’t afford to give money. It made me feel good in myself that I helped out and I had fun at the same time there was great camaraderie and team spirit while we worked hard’.
Pat Savage, whose ancestors hailed from Tralee in County Kerry, was stuck in Arizona during the storm and had to rely on news reports to gauge how bad the damage was to his Rockaway beach home.
‘I was in Arizona to buy a car and couldn’t fly back because of the storm. I was looking at the news and saw pictures of Times Square. There was no wind, no rain so I didn’t think it would be that bad’.
His daughter Monica Holland, was in Astoria with her husband at the time of the storm but boarded up the sidedoors at her parent’s house before the hurricane but her efforts were in vain.
‘Looking back we didn’t do too much to prepare for the storm but our neighbour prepared like a lunatic and still got flooded so I suppose there was no stopping it’.
When Monica eventually got to her parents house on Tuesday evening she was shocked by what she found as the basement and first floor were entirely flooded, and the family car was also destroyed.
‘There must have been over 8 feet of water at the height of the storm. The streets were covered in sand and rubble but you just go into crazy survival mode. I learned how to siphon gas very quickly and bartered for a generator so us and our neighbours could charge appliances. It was the shadiest purchase ever out of the back of a car but it had to be done’.
Her husband Donal Holland, born and raised in County Killkenny, stated that the community spirit in the neighbourhood has always been strong and didn’t disappoint in this latest disaster.
‘I am continuously amazed by how strong and together this community is. If somebody is sick, there is always benefit nights for them, people always help each other out no matter what the situation is’.
His father in law agrees with this and indicates that this community spirit is thanks to the strong Irish contingent in the neighbourhood.
‘We are all second and third generation Irish around here and I think it shows, especially in a disaster like this, everybody comes together and I noticed that most of the help came from other places where there is a lot of Irish, such as Sunnyside, Woodside and Bayside’.
Donal agrees with this and recounts his own personal experience of the storm.
‘I was working down in the basement trying to get rid of all the water and when we were down to about a foot and a half of water I began to think that we would never get rid of it. Next thing a whole hockey team arrives…not even friends of ours but friends of friends who knew we were in trouble. And when we finished we moved onto other people’s basements to help them before it got dark. Everybody was doing their part’.
Pat Savage has lived through a lot of hurricanes in his lifetime, including Hurricane Gloria in 1960, but states that he has never seen anything like the damage Hurricane Sandy caused.
‘There is still one third of the homes here without electricity, that’s a month after the storm. Houses were burnt down, businesses destroyed and houses and cars destroyed but I tell you what when you see the reaction of people…it just shows the money doesn’t matter…what matters is your friends and family.. the amount of people that has helped us has been touching’.
In an interesting twist, Mr Savage, a fireman for 28 years, a much revered and celebrated profession around New York especially after 9/11, hailed the unsung heroes of Rockaway beach during Hurricane Sandy: the garbage men.
‘They were absolutely fantastic. They worked day and night to clean up our streets and had no qualms, no agendas. They just came and helped us out so much. It’s a testament to them that we are even able to walk down the street right now. I don’t know where we would be without them’.
The Irish will return to Rockaway beach every Saturday until Christmas as part of the ‘Irish Day of Action’ scheme and there is still plenty to do as a lot of homes and businesses still lay in ruins as people attempt to get their life back on track in time for the holidays.