STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Thanksgiving morning dawned off the fantail of the T.S. Kennedy as a coppery haze burned away, revealing the Statue of Liberty. Blue silhouettes of tanker ships loomed just beyond the sweeping curves of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Somewhere among the tall buildings of Manhattan to the north, millions celebrated with a parade of colorful hot air balloons and marching bands. Aboard the Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship, tired emergency workers lingered at breakfast in the crew's mess, enjoying their first day off in 2½ weeks of 12-hour days, helping those who had lost their homes and businesses to Superstorm Sandy.
By 9 a.m., chef Johnny Norcross of Bourne put the first of eight roasted turkeys and 15 turkey breasts into the ship's ovens. Five hours later, they were ready, and roughly 300 Federal Emergency Management Agency workers and the 45 in the MMA crew sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner away from home.
They knew there would be a distinctly different Thanksgiving for storm victims.
"I'm very thankful, and hope I can help people," said Nichole Maline, 33, of Brunswick, Ga. This was the first time she would not spend Thanksgiving with her husband and 5-year-old son. A security officer for the Transportation Security Administration, Maline didn't mind the somewhat Spartan accommodations on the ship.
"I don't need a hotel. Let the people who lost everything sleep in a hotel," she said. Her husband planned on sending her videos of their Thanksgiving back in Georgia.
Within days of Sandy's landfall, the Department of Homeland Security requested that the Massachusetts Maritime Academy ship travel to New York equipped to house as many as 600 FEMA workers and volunteers from other federal agencies. They all were canvassing neighborhoods to assess damage and begin the flow of federal aid to homeowners and businesses.
Normally, the 540-foot-long vessel is used for cadet instruction, including an annual training trip to distant ports. In some ways this wasn't all that different, except the mission was vital to helping the post-storm recovery.
"My job is to house over 600 people, give them hot meals, a warm bed and a shower," said Kennedy Capt. Thomas Bushy.
With post-storm housing hard to come by, the Kennedy and another training ship, the State University of New York's Empire State, were vital in providing shelter for the 1,200 federal employees who volunteered to augment the more than 3,000 FEMA workers tackling the economic and housing needs of the estimated 15 million people affected by the monster storm.
"I don't think anybody is here just for the money," Bushy said. "They're here because they wanted to do it."
Bushy praised his crew and the staff of Chartwells, the food service contractor that serves the MMA, for getting the ship ready and loaded with 135,000 pounds of food and supplies in just four days, instead of the usual 10. Missing Thanksgiving at home was an easy decision to make, said crew members, considering the mission.
"It's for a good cause, those poor people," said Nancy McGinn, an administrative secretary. "We were all happy to do it."
On just a few days notice, federal workers from multiple agencies — such as Customs and Border Protection, the TSA and the military, hailing from Guam, El Paso, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, Hawaii, San Diego and elsewhere — assembled in Maryland for a few days training then were transported to the ship.
For many it was their first time aboard a large vessel. Most expected to serve 45 days, working 12-hour days, seven days a week, going door-to-door offering federal aid, connecting those in need with vital services, or just listening to the frustration in neighborhoods devastated by the massive storm.
Keno Koehl is a big guy. The 64-year-old Customs and Border Protection facilities engineer from Indianapolis was a little worried at first about the accommodations onboard the Massachusetts Maritime Academy's training ship T.S. Kennedy, especially squeezing into bunks stacked three high in a room he shared with 60 other paid volunteers.
"At first things were very different (from his life in Indianapolis). No privacy or time to yourself. You can't be shy or bashful," he said. "It's fantastic we have this ship, but it's not a cruise ship."
It took a storm, a raging nor'easter the week following the hurricane, to put life onboard the ship into perspective.
After another long day, Koehl found himself sitting in the crew's mess, eating a hot meal with snow driven by 50 mph winds lashing the windows. Surprisingly, the big ship barely moved at its berth on a Staten Island pier, and Koehl suddenly felt thankful for what he had.
"The food was very good. I like the security. There's no one breaking into your room. It's peaceful. Not quiet, just safe," said Koehl, who endured tents and ravenous hordes of mosquitoes while helping out with the Katrina recovery effort.
Mike Traidman, 63, of Palm Springs, Calif., works for the TSA as a scanner, one of those men or women who pat you down at the airport. His wife thought he was crazy missing a family reunion in San Francisco to be in New York and sleep in a narrow bunk with 30 other guys to a room.
"I talked to a gentleman who swam out of his house with his 90-pound dog, who couldn't swim, under his arm. Three of his neighbors died in the storm," Traidman said. "It's a nice thing to do, to give back. I've had it pretty good."
If they had any doubts about the importance of what they were doing, they only had to drive six miles south of where the ship was berthed and walk the warren of narrow streets west of Cedar Grove Avenue. "Most people lost everything," said Father Pancrose Kallish, descending the steep stairs from his church after celebrating Mass in the dark, without heat.
These Staten Island neighborhoods, just a short walk from the beach, were once vacation cottages, but their proximity to the city also made them attractive as year-round residences.
Enrique Rodriguez and his wife bought their bungalow five years ago. It was a nice, friendly neighborhood with schools nearby and, of course, the beach.
"We didn't save even a pair of shoes," Rodriguez said Thursday morning, looking mournfully at a large pile of tools, toys and appliances stacked outside his home that had been ruined by salt water that rose nearly as high as the ceiling. While he'd remained in his home through other hurricanes, he didn't want to take a chance with this storm, especially with two young children, and went to stay with relatives.
The tidal surge had pushed his home off its foundation and a large red inspection sticker on the front door declared it uninhabitable.
Unable to find a rental within an hour's drive of his home, he was unsure of what the near future held as he struggled to shelter his family despite having flood and home insurance and a FEMA check to cover rent.
"I wish (to rebuild)," he said. "We were so happy here."