An Ode To A Devastated Staten Island

As mentioned in my previous post, I have many, many friends who have been directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Some have lost cars, some have lost power and some have lost possessions. What I failed to mention, however, was that one of those friends was on Staten Island, one of the most hard-hit areas on the East Coast. My dear friend, whom I call “Grams,” both out of affection and humor, was pummeled by the storm. Yet, in spite of the destruction that her hometown sustained, she considers herself to be one of the “lucky” ones.

When her power was restored this morning, Grams sent me an e-mail. With her permission, I have posted it below for you to read. It is long. It is heartbreaking. It is beautiful. I urge you to read it in its entirety, but if you don’t, I’ve excerpted a particularly poignant section:

I’m equal parts grateful and heartbroken. I know you have this blog on which you write about being grateful. And I’m certainly grateful for people. But I’m also grateful for the most basic things–clean water, a warm meal, a shelter that can protect you from the elements (or at least be at a comfortable temperature). I could probably write pages about the beauty of a hot cup of coffee or a hot shower. But I am also grateful for the intangible things that can’t quite be explained–the sense of a home, the spirit of a community, empathy for your fellow (wo)man.

I’m not sure Staten Island will be able to give these intangibles to all of its surviving victims, but we are definitely doing our best to provide essentials as well as empathy and comfort to as many as possible. And I will continue to take jokes about the stereotypes of Staten Island and about how we are ignored as a borough. Garrulous, gaudy, less-cultured, less-educated, less-wealthy, less-worth it. I think we’ve got enough character and heart on this island to not worry about what others think of us.  But I hope we get enough assistance for my community to return in full force and for me to make new memories in some of the places on this island that I love the most.

As you can see, Grams is a special person.

Her full letter is pasted below, and it contains graphic descriptions of the ruins that replaced her hometown. When I read it, I was stunned; there is such an overwhelming sense of gratefulness, accompanied by a heartbreaking heaviness. I would like to extend a special thanks to Grams for being brave enough to write it, and, as always, a special thanks to you for reading.

Oh my god, Molls. This has been the longest week of my life. I feel like I’ve lived an entire life in the past week. I’m completely disoriented. And honestly, I was only mildly inconvenienced compared to what other people have been through. I lost power Monday at 2:30pm… got it back at 5 until about 7 then was without power for 73 hours. But I have a home, I have my car, all of my immediate family members were safe. At the height of the surge (8-12pm Monday), I laid in my bed in the dark, feeling my house shake, scared to look out the windows at the trees swaying and falling. Before this, I had seen pictures of disaster and I had felt sympathy. I had felt emotional looking at pictures and hearing stories about Katrina. But it’s a completely separate experience to see with your own eyes the places that you know intimately be completely and utterly destroyed. To see your community demoralized. To walk down a few blocks and see the sharp line from where devastation ends and where the spared land begins. To know that this was only a Category 1 storm!! And what if it had been as bad as Katrina? To know that in spite of the terror I’ve seen, there are other places in far worse circumstances. 

I know that people don’t really understand Staten Island. It’s about 14 miles by 7 miles. It’s sort of big. Physically, it’s bigger than Manhattan. And we have about half a million people living here. I live in Tottenville–the southern-most part of the borough. By the beach there is even a little South Pole (a literal pole that says southern most tip of New York State!). I moved to Tottenville in 1999. Tottenville is a little town in Staten Island…less than 2 square miles big. There were no chain stores located in the area at that time (we have since gotten a Burger King and a McDonalds and Subway and Target, and you-name-it! It’s really built up in the past few years) But it’s a tiny little town. I walked to school. As a kid, if I saw a person walking down the street, I knew who that person was. On Yetman Avenue–where a 13-year-old girl and her father were found dead because the storm surge literally collapsed their house and sent them flying down another block (They didn’t evacuate because when they did evacuate during last year’s Hurricane Irene, their belongings were stolen from their house)–is the same street where I went to school 4th through 8th grade, went to CCD, where I played basketball, where I first kissed a boy… This destroyed area along the shore is my usual running route!! I like to be right by the water so I get a view and a little breeze. I’ve been terrified to go by there not knowing whether I will find a body or someone’s home appliance or sewage. But when I went to high school, I went to a school on the other side of the Island…near South Beach, near the Verrazano Bridge. The South Beach boardwalk where I had many a high school track practice is also where two young boys—2 years old and 4 years old—in their mother’s SUV were swept away by the storm surge as she had tried to escape. There are several different locations extremely hard hit and far away from each other. It’s weird because you go through devastation to relative normalcy to devastation. And even though Tottenville is where my house is, my friends and family are spread out across Staten Island and I have emotional ties to almost every neighborhood here. 

My stupid friend Mary lives in Zone A mandatory evacuation zone in Midland Beach (more towards the center of the island, on the East Shore). I texted on Monday morning asking her if she really wanted to stay, then wished her luck. That night, she took to Twitter saying bottom of my house is flooded, Mom and I are trapped, fire a block away, we have no way out if it spreads, please call 911. I didn’t see this tweet until the morning after. My heart dropped. I couldn’t breathe. And for most of the day, I had no idea what had happened to her. And then, finally, a Twitter confirmation of safety that evening. Luckily, the fire didn’t spread and she had a second story to go to when her first floor got flooded. Their cars are ruined. But honestly, they are still waiting for bodies to wash ashore and be identified. A lot of these are from these mandatory evacuation zones so I have this conflicted feeling of anger for their decisions to stay and sadness over the decimation of my community. I’m not sure it will ever be the same. Restaurants and houses no longer standing. Boats and sand and garbage in the streets. The train I take everyday is out of service indefinitely. Places that I know that give context to my memories simply ceased to exist in an instant, streets that I’ve run on and walked on millions of times are unrecognizable. 

When I woke up the morning after (Tuesday), I looked outside of my house to see that two trees had fallen where I normally park my car. (But anticipating this, I had pulled into my driveway). I thought, oh I’m relieved. Walking around the immediately adjoining blocks, we found trees fallen clear across all of the roads that would lead us anywhere. I went back inside. We were told to stay out of the way so they could start cleanup.  The first day and a half without power is almost relaxing (aside from panicking about Mary). I read Saul Bellow’s Letters–a book I started reading back at Villanova and never got to finish. We even had a radio. We would hear stories about how Manhattan had no power. Manhattan and Brooklyn would get power back in 2-3 days…These bridges and roadways are re-opening… the Jersey Shore is ruined…. But what about Staten Island? 

The hardest part was not getting any information about what had happened to areas that are a 5-minute walk from my house! Not knowing when we would get power back. And then finally, I would get some 3G and I would look up Staten Island information and I was stunned with how much had happened and how much I didn’t know. But nothing on the radio about us! I mean, people on Staten Island have a lot of anxiety about being the “forgotten” borough and I sort of brush it aside like it doesn’t matter. I joke about it. I take it in stride. But this was a moment when it did matter. This was a harsh reality. A couple of days later, the media began paying more attention to us and giving us the resources we needed. I’m grateful. But they’re still holding the marathon which people are flipping out about because they are still pulling bodies from the beach just a couple of miles from where the start is located (right before the Verrazano Bridge)! People are still sitting in their homes without food, without heat, without information. To not have those emergency personnel working to restore people’s lives is insane! I understand wanting to show that the city can move forward, that we need to return to normal—but we are not there yet. And my dad is running it, my friend JP is running it, I’m a part of the running community and I know what goes into a marathon and I still think it’s absurd. And none of the anger should be directed at the runners! It’s not their fault. But whoever organizes this event is—point blank—taking resources from people who need them the most. 

As time passed in the dark in my house and we watched the temperature dip closer to freezing, we grew worried. Our one resource was that we had clean water, but that would be gone if the water froze. Not to mention how cold it was in my house! My neighbor had knocked on the door earlier saying he had to leave because his grandchildren were too cold and they couldn’t stay as it got down to the 40s at night. I ate Halloween candy for the trick-or-treaters that didn’t come and drank water and ate chips and pretzels and bread. Every hour that went on, I had an hour that I was hopeful, that I knew it would be soon that the power would go back on and then the next I would be depressed, hearing that it might be another 10 days. And then saying to myself, I am lucky I have a home… that I have some food and water. 

My parents and I kept saying the world is divided now into 3 parts–the destroyed, the inconvenienced and the oblivious. On Thursday, my dad walked down to the FEMA truck distributing water and food to people in Tottenville but didn’t dare take anything. He biked down to the destroyed areas. Emergency personnel asked him to show ID, where was he coming from, why was he here? He replied, I live right by here, I just wanted to know what is happening. The emergency guy said,“I’m sorry. It’s best that you go home. We’re worried about looters.“ LOOTERS! taking from people who no longer have a house, whose belongings are strewn across the streets. The worst kinds of people in the world. Thursday at 8PM, the lights turned on. My parents and I sat still, scared to scare it away. We walked outside the front of our house and rejoiced and saw our neighbors outside their houses yelling too. Another surreal moment. How do we be happy for ourselves and not let ourselves become the part of the world that is oblivious?

They just said the SI Ferry is returned. Okay, If I can get gas to drive myself to the ferry, when I arrive in downtown Manhattan–how will I get up to 68th Street to go to school? I’m sure it will work itself out by Tuesday. I hope. But the SI Train is gone indefinitely. 

I’m equal parts grateful and heartbroken. I know you have this blog on which you write about being grateful. And I’m certainly grateful for people. But I’m also grateful for the most basic things–clean water, a warm meal, a shelter that can protect you from the elements (or at least be at a comfortable temperature). I could probably write pages about the beauty of a hot cup of coffee or a hot shower. But I am also grateful for the intangible things that can’t quite be explained–the sense of a home, the spirit of a community, empathy for your fellow (wo)man. 

I’m not sure Staten Island will be able to give these intangibles to all of its surviving victims, but we are definitely doing our best to provide essentials as well as empathy and comfort to as many as possible. And I will continue to take jokes about the stereotypes of Staten Island and about how we are ignored as a borough. Garrulous, gaudy, less-cultured, less-educated, less-wealthy, less-worth it. I think we’ve got enough character and heart on this island to not worry about what others think of us.  But I hope we get enough assistance for my community to return in full force and for me to make new memories in some of the places on this island that I love the most. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45755883/ns/msnbc-the_last_word/#49652895) 

I’m still in shock. Last I heard, 19 dead from Staten Island and I’m expecting that number to rise.

 

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2 thoughts on “An Ode To A Devastated Staten Island

  1. This is a beautiful piece! I live in Manhattan and am still without power, but am grateful to fall merely in the “inconvenienced” camp – “Grams,” thanks for giving us all a little perspective around this whole ordeal, and best of luck in the aftermath. As a recent NYC transplant, I had no preconceived notions about Staten Island, but now my only thought is, “those folks are tough.”

  2. Thanks, Olya! Hope you are warm, fed, and doing what you can to help your neighbors in need. It seems like Manhattan is slowly creeping back towards normalcy. Even a little bit here too…New Yorkers are nothing if not tough, resilient, and actually quite neighborly! I’m so glad to share this beautiful city with you.

    Moll, I thought you only called me Grams out of affection. What’s humorous about it? 🙂

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