The two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the Mid-Atlantic region was last month. The storm would end up costing the United States around $65 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina.
It had been almost a full month since Hurricane Sandy came ashore when my family joined a group from my church in Pennsylvania on a day trip to help with the relief efforts.
The first thing I noticed was the garbage hanging six feet above the ground in the trees. The worst of it had supposedly been cleaned up. I walked past a muddy running shoe at the base of a tree which bark had been stripped off.
Douglas’ house was the first that we worked in. He is a carpenter with a heavy New York accent. When he saw our group standing in the front part of his house, he said he was simply overwhelmed that we had come all the way from Pennsylvania to help. New Yorkers don’t cry, but the glimmer in his eyes and his smile showed that he was holding back tears of thankfulness.
Douglas gave us a short tour of his house and told us of his experience with Sandy. The bay was only a couple hundred feet from his house, and his house had filled with four feet of water. It ripped off the front door and carried his furniture out. He brought us to his backyard where we could see damage in between the houses. Pools had been lifted out of the ground and air conditioning units carried away. Out in front of his house, a body was found tangled in the trees.
We worked that morning tearing out the wooden floor of his house. The work was simple but took some time. There were some areas underneath where the floor was still wet. Douglas had some of his workers helping out and they focused on demolishing the brick fireplace so they could get to the walls behind it. The insulation was dripping when they pulled it out.
During the four hours we were at Douglas’ house he never stopped smiling and joking around. He told us that he just looked at the whole thing as a chance to remodel, as a typical carpenter would.
After the floor was taken out, there was not much left that we could do as inexperienced laborers. We shook hands, wished each other the best, and then my group left for another part of the island. The next area was supposed to be a poorer section where the water had come almost two miles inland.
It took some time to find where we had planned to go. We drove around the area in hope of spotting the church van that had departed before us from the first project. It seemed as if every building had the front door open in an attempt to dry out before the mold took over. There were yellow signs on a few houses that allowed restricted use to the residents. People stood in lines in front of tents for food and clothing. Police and military vehicles patrolled the streets. Construction crews moved trash to large piles on what was left of the beach. The town looked like what I imagine a war zone would have. And it was here that I met Pablo.
Pablo lived next door to the house we were supposed to work in, but there were too many people and too few jobs to be done there, so we asked him if he needed help. The first thing we needed to do in his house was pull out the wooden floor in the living room.
While a group worked on that, I worked with Pablo to knock down some drywall. He had cut a line in the walls which represented the water line and said to knock everything below it down. I started with a small sledgehammer, but soon realized I didn’t need it. The walls were still wet and fell apart with little force.
He told us his story in pieces as we worked. The night of the storm he had been in his house watching television. A tree branch snapped outside and he looked out the window to see where it had come from. He watched the tree branch float away. The water soon began to pour into his house and he had just enough time to grab his three cats, work computer and a few more important things before climbing into his attic.
“It felt apocalyptic,” Pablo said. “The lady across the street was screaming for help and you could hear people everywhere yelling and crying for anyone to help them.”
He sat in his attic for seven hours before rescue workers rescued him at 2:30 a.m.
Pablo took us to his front yard and pointed to a one-story house across the street.
“A 62-year-old man lived there,” Pablo said. “He died in the water from hypothermia.”
The purpose of everything we did that afternoon was to help dry out the house before the mold took it. Pablo told us that he was still waiting to see if the insurance would cover the cost of rebuilding his house.
Pablo told us of a mother and her two young kids who were killed a couple blocks down the road. He said the mother had been trying to drive away before the water started to rise. She was stopped by the eight-foot wall of water coming down the street. She jumped out of the car, grabbed her kids and ran to the nearest house for shelter. They refused to let her in. The two kids, ages two and four, were swept out of her arms by the water and killed. She held on to a post for 12 hours before help arrived. She died the next day.
But for every story of the horrors of Sandy, there were two more about the heroes. One policeman was going from house to house and saved many lives. He was killed by a live wire in the water of somebody’s basement. While we worked, people drove by asking if we needed anything. We were given shovels, garbage bags, water, Gatorade and many other things.
“So many people have come from so many places to help out,” Pablo said. “It kind of makes me feel that if anything happens somewhere else, I need to be there to help out.”
Pablo probably said it best when he told me, “You know, you have to hope. You have to believe things are going to get better and that there are better things to come. If you don’t, how could you possibly carry on after something like this happens?”
I’m not sure what happened to Pablo or Douglas. I can’t tell you if they were able to rebuild their homes or if insurance covered the damage costs.
But I think what Pablo told me about hope is something we as Christians should understand better than anyone.
Bad things are going to happen, and many of those things will be out of our control. But Paul tells us in Philippians that we have a hope far greater than anything is this world. We know how this story is ultimately going to end. Even if your world is falling down around you, remember there is a greater story being written that far outweighs anything you are experiencing.
Erik Johnson is a senior journalism major and columnist for Cedars. He competes on the track team. Follow him @walkingtheedge9.