Tuesday, March 19, 2013

We're Almost Outta Here

It's been two and a half months since we came back to New York City after winter break, four-and-a-half since Sandy roared through the upper East Coast while we were at the Emergency Management Institute in Maryland, huddled in our rooms while the rain poured down outside and waiting for an assignment. We spent one day in Connecticut before being transferred again to NYC. We've been working here ever since And on Sunday, we're piling everything into the van, closing the doors and pulling out, driving south for the warmer weather and kudzu-covered hills of the distant land of Vicksburg, Mississippi. So I guess this is my way of looking back on everything we've done.

The list of different jobs we've done, things we've accomplished, is ridiculous. Everybody on my team has canvassed door-to-door in hard-hit areas on Long Island. We've waited in shelters to register disaster survivors with FEMA, talking to people who maybe didn't have a home to go back to--scared, confused, in the middle of a nightmare that just wouldn't stop happening. I've handed out food and blankets, water and baby formula, diapers and Red Cross cleaning kits and endless mounds of toilet paper, to survivors who trudged one by one through a rain-slick parking lot to the mouth of our manna trailer. I've worked in a FEMA office, collecting and calculating data and generating report after report; I've recruited voluntary agencies to join a long-term disaster working group, an organization that will outlast FEMA's brief time here. Outside our official duties, I've mucked-and-gutted houses, helped clear a vast beach of garbage, painted a future day-care, helped move an unfathomable amount of ham. One of my teammates is working to improve FEMA's inclusion of people with access and functional needs, which many know as 'disabilities'. And my compatriots across the New York disaster area, from the hinterlands of Nassau County to the shores of Staten Island, moved and carried and registered and drove and typed and lifted and advised, consoled, helped in I can only guess how many ways. The numbers say we directly assisted two hundred and sixty-one thousand people, a number that simply will not fit into the mind.

We met the President of the U.S.A. We lived on a ship. We peed in friendly Subway bathrooms, got hopelessly lost in a darkened New York the day after coming here, turned down countless offers of food and bottled water from kind survivors, tore our hair out with frustration. We worked twelve-hour days and longer. I dug my fingernails into my palms and gritted my teeth as a bearded old FEMA supervisor, dubbed "Santa Claus", told my team that we couldn't be allowed to talk to survivors without a minder so that we didn't screw up, and I laughed for joy a week or so later when a smarter, savvier Reservist turned us loose on Freeport to plan and canvass as we would. As a group or on our own, we made countless trips into New York City to see the sights and visit with friends, and I got so lost in the New York subway system that I swear I saw the Minotaur. We helped people at countless front doors, got cussed out of houses and booted out of churches and came back for more. John and I helped get food to an elderly, car-less couple who couldn't walk to the grocery store, and we also (in a separate incident) accidentally reminded another elderly gentleman of the inexorable workings of entropy. "There are worse things." *pause* "LIKE DYING." We ate lunches in the van, typed our daily reports with surpassing speed and fury on tiny Blackberry screens, and took pride in "knocking out" hundreds of houses in a single day. We proved what we can do.

I will remember New York for the astonishing kindness of strangers, for all the people who told me "No, my house isn't that bad. We're fine. You should go help those people at the end of the block, they had it much worse than we did". I will remember New York for the daily odyssey in our van, for the crazy drivers, for the cat-in-a-yarn-basket highway system, for the towering buildings and flashy billboards and Mediterranean food of surpassing quality at a little kiosk in Times Square. I will remember New York for vegetarian Thanksgivings and nagging hungry cats, heart-stopping jumps and crazy long-haired wigs and lunchboxes used for unexpected purposes, all of them good. I'll remember New York for the jerks who inexplicably accelerate into your lane on the highway when you're trying to move over, for the graffiti and the trash decorating every building and sidewalk, for the crowds and crowds of people filling every corner of the Manhattan streets. I'll remember the work we did and the work we didn't do, and everything I learned along the way.

And I'll remember the people, those we helped and those we encountered along the way. I'll remember the elegant old architect in Far Rockaway, the kindly principal in Nassau County who called down the wrath of five thousand townspeople on us, the old Jewish couple who loaded up on boxes of kosher noodles at the POD, the grandmother who took forty-five minutes to get registered in a Nassau shelter and drained me of so much energy that I collapsed on Malinda's shoulder afterward, the gloriously profane homeowner in Freeport who told me that anyone who left their car in the driveway to get flooded should receive "the dumb-shit award", the immensely capable FEMA reservist who taught me about disaster response, the intelligent Sikh man who owned a huge gray dog with testicles like walnuts hanging pendulously off the back. I'll remember the laughter and the hard times and the immense satisfaction of knowing that you helped somebody today. I'll remember the looks on the faces of the half-dozen people who told me the water went right up to the bottom of their doorway and stopped.

There's a lot I'll remember about this place, and a lot more I kinda wish I'd gotten to do--places and people seen, things I have or haven't done. This experience and everything that came with it will define all of our FEMA Corps terms, like it or not. It's been a long road since I was sitting in a backroom office in Atlanta, hearing vague reports about some storm named Sandy down in the Caribbean and how it would probably turn out to sea soon enough. All of us have grown a lot since then.

Here's the last project.
Time to see where we'll end up.
I'm hoping Texas.

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