When Words Fail, Hearts Will Tell the Story

It’s been three weeks since Super-Storm Sandy made its way onto shore.  Three weeks since I have written words here, not because of the 13-15 hour days that come back to back, or the thousands of voices that echo through my thoughts from survivors, Team Leaders (TLs), Corps Members (CMs) and Volunteers responding to the devastation.  I haven’t written because I have not been able to find the words to describe the pain, the anguish, the fear, the sorrow that we face every day.

It’s hard enough to lead a team of nine other individuals, to make sure their needs are met and that they have everything to make it through each day, one step at a time.  I don’t know what I expected, coming into another disaster.  I saw the devastation of Joplin,MO, the flooding in Minot, ND, the waves of emotions that continue to flow from these places torn apart by Mother Nature.  I’ve seen death with my own eyes.  But yet I still don’t know what I expected here in the heart of New York City, along the beaches and islands that shielded the mainland from the most brutal attacks of the storms fury by sacrificing themselves.

We arrived that first day at the Incident Operating Facility (IOF) in Brooklyn and were immediately sent down to Rockaway and Breezy Point as the initial FEMA personnel on the ground to start conducting Community Relations (CR) efforts.

It was in those first hours that we saw the devastation first hand, with our own eyes.  We were told of the storm surge that covered the peninsula and the fires that ravaged the community, claiming hundreds of homes, but you can never fully comprehend the words of others until you see it with your own eyes.

Water still stood in the streets, several feet deep in places, as we snaked our way through parking lots of flooded cars and broken fences.  Sand from the beaches, located several blocks away, cleared the lines from the cement and covered the roadways in unrecognizable chaos.  We drove by homes that had been taken off the foundations.  Power lines that littered the ground.  Debris that had been swept away with the waters, wedged beneath vehicles.

As my team ventured out into the Breezy Point community alongside the members of several other FEMA Corps teams, they saw the extent of the destruction, block after block.  Mile after mile.  I sat in the parking lot in the event of an emergency with several other TLs as fire trucks and ambulances continued to pass by, sirens and lights blaring.  Emergency vehicles of all sorts, from across the nation, criss-crossed the thin sliver of broken land.

Although I wanted to see the destruction with my own eyes, I refused to let myself wander down the streets that were filled with flooded memories, broken dreams and lives that were lost.  I had my camera, but I could not find it in myself to document the sights that I saw.  This was all these people had left and I did not want to be the person to take that away for the ‘perfect shot’.

As the days passed by, we became numb to the damage that surrounds us.  I noticed it when I ventured out for the first time in Joplin, when I arrived in Minot after the waters had receded.  When we see the destruction every single day, it becomes normal.  We forget how things used to be and accept this new world of death and destruction, it is a sickness that comes from our minds to shield us from the impact of prolonged exposure to the assault of the destruction arround us.

We have to remind ourselves day after day that these people, the survivors lost everything that they own, everything that belongs to them, and even if they have something left, they lost the safety that was once home.

For two weeks (18 days actually) we have been working at the Mobile Disaster Recovery Center (MDRC) in Rockaway (DRC #9).  It is there that we work, sweating and crying, bleeding with the survivors that we are serving.  It is not easy work, but this is where we belong and I have fought (and gotten myself in trouble) to keep us where we are needed the most.

We are working alongside an amazing group of individuals that work with FEMA.  Individuals who are caring, professional, experienced, and encouraging to work with.  They are more than coworkers, but a family within this chaos that helps us to stay grounded in the present and gives us the ability to step back and see a larger piece of the picture.

I’ve watched my team grow through this experience, taking the lead on many aspects of the DRC.  They have faced irate survivors with calmness.  Taken criticism and praise with humble hearts.  Have learned to be professionals in the midst of this chaos.

It can be difficult some days, when survivors storm in with a rage against the system and take it out on the first person they see.  We’ve taken the shouts and the screams, faced the yelling and have stood our ground when the assaults have become personal attacks.  I’ve learned that standing beside someone sometimes isn’t enough, at times a leader must stand in front of the person they are leading, shielding them from the assaults by taking it themselves.

We’ve cried together, vented our frustrations, complained behind closed doors about the system that we work for, the very thing that we represent.  We’ve comforted one another when the pain becomes unbearable and the assaults just keep on coming.

Not all the survivors are angry.  Many our frustrated, but understanding, knowing that it is not our fault.  Others are confused, seeking answers.  Many are appreciative of the work we do and shower us with praises, hugs, and kind words that lift our spirits.

Out of the ruins emerges a great hope of change to come.

I do not know how long FEMA will be here in this city or how many lives the members of FEMA Corps will touch throughout their journey, but I know that, despite all the frustrations, these young adults, this generation is the light in the darkest of days.  I have confidence in my CMs and all the CMs of FEMA Corps that we can make it through the storm that this great city has faced and the storms that we face every day.

And although words fail to paint the entire picture, every single individual that has served here with AmeriCorps*NCCC, with FEMA Corps, and all the Volunteer Agencies across the area, have been changed by what they have witnessed here.  Like my time in Africa changed me, and my experiences in St. Louis, Joplin and Minot (not to mention Denver, Houston, Crown King, Williamsburg and the countless other places I’ve been) shaped who I am, our time here in response to this storm of the century, this perfect storm as some are calling it, has changed who we are, given us purpose and have opened our eyes to what is arround us.

I hope it will not be as long before I am able to post again.

God Bless and PEACE