Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Last of New York

"Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset..." -Alfred Tennyson

It's funny, really. After all this work, the things I've seen, the experiences my team has had... I really don't know what to say. 

It's not just the scale of the disaster that overwhelms me and leaves me powerless to express myself. I saw enough of that in Oceanside, Island Park, Freeport, Levittown, Long Beach... everywhere we went, there were flooded houses, wrecked cars, front lawns brown with spilled oil and thirty-foot boats lying cockeyed in the street. And the stories of disaster survivors, how the water went from two inches to five feet in just a few minutes, how it swallowed the road and flowed into their bottom floors? The hassle and expense that follows--the plumber, the electrician, the contractors who'll rip out floors and drywall and Sheetrock slabs, chip up tiles from the floor and hustle bags and bags of flood-drenched keepsakes out to the curb? The FEMA inspector, the insurance company's inspector, the STEP program inspector, the SBA packet to file, the FEMA letter to receive in the mail? Hundreds of thousands of people gingerly, painfully, clawing their way back. I can't count how many times I heard someone say 'I've lived here for forty years, and nothing like this has ever happened here before?' I've lost all track. 

And I'm grateful for the opportunity to help with the recovery effort. I drove here from Atlanta, was put up on the Empire State and given food and clothing on FEMA's dime, and in return I got to be an active part of the massive push--federal dollars, state expertise, local knowledge and good-hearted stubborn rebuilding--towards help and rebuilding. What my team and I did--we went to 3,477 houses, talked to something over 1,200 people, handed out enough fliers to stun a redwood, moved supplies and registered survivors and a dozen other things--changed hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples' lives for the better. And we were only one of 21 teams, which itself--~200 people--was only a small part of the FEMA force, tens of thousands strong, which itself was only a small part of everyone who came in wanting to help...

"...I am become a name; for always roaming with a hungry heart, much have I seen and known..."

All of that is true and good and I'm happy I was here for it. I just don't know what to say about any of it. This space is what I usually use to put things into some kind of order for myself, to make them make sense or to draw some kind of conclusion or lesson from them, but Sandy and my response to Sandy defy easy endings and quick analyses. I don't know if I've really grown from this, or what I've learned, other than "I'm never in my entire life buying a house on the water" or "it is impossible to bring too many socks on spike". I'm struggling to understand what the whole thing means.

And maybe there is no facile, easily digestible meaning. Maybe the meaning is that I should stop being introspective and just learn to take things as they come. Maybe the meaning is that huge, horrible disasters just happen sometimes, and all you can do is help the people who were put in harm's way fight back and rebuild their lives as best you can. Maybe it lies in the complexities of everyday life, the casual impossibilities of keeping your life together and repairing and owning a home and providing for your family when everything is a total fucking shambles around you, and the insane courage and willpower of people who have been doing that every day for six weeks now. Maybe it is nothing that I can say or figure out in this space, something I can only absorb by immersing myself in the recovery effort.

Or maybe I'm thinking too much about it. Maybe what I'm just overlooking, plain and simple, is the fact that I got to do all this, have this incredible experience, with my teammates and my friends. The way we bonded as a team when we begun to canvass in Freeport... the way we got better and better as time went on... the inside jokes, the laughs and frustrations we shared, the conversations we had and all the rest. Maybe it's the New York experience, in all its grime and all its splendor. Maybe it's plans for the future and dreams of the past, demons finally exorcised and memories that keep on coming back. Living one day at a time, cherishing each new experience and moment that comes my way, in this program and in this time that has been allotted for me. The late-night conversations, the stupid fun we had, the friends made and cherished, the feeling of standing in Times Square surrounded by happy people. 

 "And tho' we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." 

Maybe it's all these things and more. 

Maybe that's all you can really say. 

"I do what I do when I do what I do." -Malinda Probst

The soft thump you are hearing, dear reader, is the closing of the first book of the FEMA Corps story. In January, a new one shall begin. Until then, I am at your service.

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