NEW YORK — On Oct. 29, Sandra Brown's life went underwater, and she's been trying to claw her way to the surface ever since. A native of Staten Island, Brown had weathered many a hurricane and seen the streets flood repeatedly. Fortunately, on this day she heeded warnings on Facebook and noted the way the tree outside her window was bending in the wind.
"I said, 'Time to go.' I knew it would do what it did," she recalled of Hurricane Sandy. She left her rental on one of the low-lying streets behind Cedar Grove Beach. Otherwise, she might have been one of the 23 who died on Staten Island that day, many drowning in the 10- to 12-foot tidal surge that overran beach dunes and hit the densely settled working-class neighborhoods like a tsunami.
Brown returned days later to find her first floor had been destroyed by the salt water. Kitchen appliances, furniture, everything had to be tossed. The streets were choked with mud and debris. Her husband's truck was also totaled, thrown like a toy into a telephone pole, and her boat and trailer were missing.
The trailer she later found in a parking lot by the beach. Her boat had somehow floated around the block and ended up on top of a car one street over.
While it might not seem like a big deal, recovering an old boat she used for pleasure cruises on the Lower Bay in the summer, it was another step in reassembling the puzzle pieces of her life. Ultimately someone lifted the boat off the car and deposited it in a parking space on the street.
As she pondered how to get the boat onto her trailer, the noise and panorama of the relief effort resounded in the background: the ubiquitous generators; the siren from a Red Cross truck crawling the streets, its loudspeaker announcing a free hot meal; the crews of teen volunteers dressed in red and blue T-shirts, wielding hammers, walking from site to site offering their help in demolition work; street corner tents where church groups distributed food and clothing; or the somewhat whimsical "Occupy Sandy" encampment near the beach where big guys in biker T-shirts barbecued food for anyone passing by.
"I can't stop crying," Brown apologized, wiping tears from her cheeks. She was scheduled to meet with a Federal Emergency Management Agency worker that day but was afraid to hope. Her house was a rental, and she couldn't get her landlord to say when he'd fix it. However, he did answer one of her pleas by returning her security deposit, which she took as a sign she wouldn't be going back to the home she'd known for seven years.
"I want him to rebuild that home, and I want to come back here. I love the people out here," she said.
Answering the call
Welcome to Brooke Haughen's world. A 29-year-old Transportation Security Administration inspector from Minneapolis who inspects freight and rail shipments, Haughen was one of more than 6,000 Department of Homeland Security employees across the country who answered a request for volunteers two years ago, to be ready to back up FEMA workers in case of a major disaster such as Sandy.
The agency picked 1,200 and gave them some basic training, but their real schooling began with an all-too-brief two-day session at the National Fire Academy in Maryland before they were deployed to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy's training ship T.S. Kennedy berthed on Staten Island and its sister ship the T.S. Empire State from New York's maritime academy docked in Brooklyn. A second wave of relief workers arrived two weeks later.
Like many of her fellow relief workers onboard the Kennedy, a 540-foot floating classroom for the Buzzards Bay academy, Haughen's full-time job didn't really prepare her for going door-to-door, handing out literature on the help that was available to survivors, and gathering phone numbers and other essential information to begin the application process for federal aid. She expected she might experience some of the notorious New York toughness, combined with some post-Katrina cynicism about the response capability of federal agencies, but found the reality quite different.
"I was expecting a lot of strong personalities, being a little in over my head being from the Midwest," Haughen said. New Yorkers were not only approachable but appreciative, she said.
Reflection of diversity
New Yorkers are also incredibly diverse, both ethnically and in the languages they speak. FEMA had to form language teams to go into neighborhoods where most people spoke Vietnamese, Chinese or Russian. That diversity was also reflected in the makeup of the relief workers onboard the Kennedy.
Daniel Ortega, 28, from El Paso, Texas, works as a mechanic for the Border Patrol, but he served in the Navy as a military policeman. He saw this as an opportunity to help people. A trip to the Queens community of Breezy Point, where 111 homes were destroyed by fire at the height of the storm, only fed that desire.
"I saw a lot of frustration and appreciation that we were there," Ortega said. "The ride back to the Kennedy that night in the van was very quiet," he said.
The one common desire was to help, to make a difference to those most in need, almost to a fault, said Dave Gronsbell, one of the mentors in charge of so-called Surge teams.
"They all want to be where the action is, where they will do the most good," he said.
Putting in long hours
Like many of the crew onboard the Kennedy, Dave Maccini of Falmouth didn't have much time to go out and see the areas devastated by what the locals called Superstorm Sandy. The tidal surge on Oct. 29 rose seven feet above Homeport Pier, where the Kennedy is berthed, destroying much of the pier infrastructure, including the electricity, so the crew was busy, putting in long hours with reduced staffing to supply electricity and heat, keep the large bunk rooms clean and provide meals for nearly 500 relief workers. The Kennedy, which departed Buzzards Bay on Nov. 4, is scheduled to be in New York until Dec. 15, according to Rear Adm. Richard Gurnon, maritime academy president.
Maccini, a refrigeration engineer working far below decks in the cavernous engine room, was more isolated from the real purpose of the mission than most. Like others in the crew, he developed an admiration for the work ethic of the federal employees who rose in darkness to grab a quick breakfast, trudge down the gangplank and board vans. They didn't return until 6, 7, sometimes 8 o'clock in the evening, ate their suppers in the ship's large mess hall and retired to their bunks to do it all over again the next day, and the next, seven days a week, for weeks at a time.
"I talked to some of the FEMA guys out back (on the ship's fantail, where some would go to smoke and enjoy the view of the New York City skyline)," Maccini said. "I said, 'What are you guys doing?' And they said they were beating the streets, out looking for people who needed help."
The randomness of the storm's impact made an impression on Maccini.
"One lady said they'd have this family living like a king and a family next door that had nothing. They are there to help and to serve them," Maccini said.
"Most of the people who do this have an open heart," said Keno Koehl, 64, a Customs and Border Protection employee from Indianapolis. "They like meeting and talking to people."
Distributed by MCT Information Services