It shouldn’t take a disaster to appreciate what you have, and it shouldn’t take the displacement of 30,000 people to show kindness. The greatness of the impact brought by Hurricane Sandy has been increasingly compared to that of Hurricane Katrina’s in New Orleans. As a witness to the state of both cities post-disaster, I can only confirm the comparison. Both cities were inadequately prepared, the residents of both cities did not take the storm warnings as seriously as was needed, and the devastation experienced in each city after their respective hurricanes is nothing short of surreal. Seven years later, New Orleans is still being rebuilt. The same amount of time should not be allowed to pass before New York is fully back on its feet as well.
New York’s symbol is bright lights, a skyline that lights the path at night. Not even the fanciest of imaginations could imagine that it would possible for those lights to go out, for New York to fall into a coma, to enter a state of paralysis. On Monday night, into the early hours of Tuesday, the city that never sleeps was suddenly doing just that.
Today, New York is barely recognizable. Replaced by taxis are Con-Ed trucks. Replaced by homes are firetrucks. Replaced by residents are policemen. There are looters everywhere.
Nobody expected Hurricane Sandy to strike so ruthlessly, but there was no reason that the magnitude of its hit shouldn’t have been expected. In the preparation stage, when warnings about the impeding Hurricane went out, people’s reaction was dismissive. “Everyone warned about the dangers of Irene, but when it came, nothing happened – my efforts to protect myself were for nothing. So I decided that the same thing would happen with Sandy, and decided not to do anything,” can sum up the common sentiment. Irene was the boy who cried wolf, but Sandy brought the wolf.
Such is the flaw of human nature – feeling omnipotent, all knowing, safe, particularly against a force that will forever stand above humans. Had more people been prepared, had there been a serious demand to evacuate BEFORE the emerging hurricane began flooding basements at the mere start of its arrival, had there been reason applied to the perfectly clear picture of Sandy, as compared in size to Irene – perhaps people wouldn’t have been able to save their homes, cars, or businesses; but at least they would have been able to save themselves.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans, killing hundreds, wiping out entire neighborhoods, and scarring the city forever. Five years later, I went to New Orleans as a volunteer to help rebuild houses. Prior to taking the trip, the need for my presence as a volunteer to me seemed hasty, as I assumed that five years was enough time to restore the city to its original state. My thoughts reveal another human flaw – the inherent inclination to assume without knowledge. As I traveled through New Orleans, all I could feel was a grave sadness. I saw abandoned houses that were barely standing, with a cross drawn on them with a number to signify the amount found dead. Sometimes the number was zero. Sometimes it was five, or higher. I saw poor neighborhoods, with kids running around from one damaged home to the next. I saw the Ninth Ward, the neighborhood right next to the water that flooded the city, and the neighborhood that suffered the most. I saw the levees. The levees that were carelessly and inadequately built, and therefore toppled, to subsequently let in the water that was responsible for flooding New Orleans. To think that so many lives could have been saved if only those levees were ground enough.
Before the definitive strike of Katrina, people were also told to evacuate, to leave behind everything and drive up to where the storm wouldn’t hit. But human nature is stubborn. Many didn’t want to leave behind their homes, their TV’s, their brand new furniture. They stayed and waited, hoping that the storm would be hold off by the deceptively reliable levees.
As did New Yorkers. Fooled by Irene, New Yorkers thought themselves to be stronger than the force that Mother Nature was bringing. They ignored warnings. But now is not the time to blame.
On Friday, three days after Sandy departed the tri-state area, I visited several neighborhoods in South Brooklyn – Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, and Sea Gate. These neighborhoods, surrounded by bodies of water, held a dusty fog – sand that had been washed up, remaining in the air. In fact, the streets of these neighborhoods were all dirty from piles of sand. Beyond the smoky clouds, were toppled trees, creating a dessert-like feel. Lack of human presence on streets only added to the effect. Usually lively, Brooklyn was not recognizable. Like the rest of New York, it fell dormant.
I spent that day delivering food to the elderly, who were stuck in buildings without electricity; most were in apartments on high floors, and could therefore neither take the dark stairwells, nor use the elevator that wasn’t working. With every knock on the door came out a fragile, sick body, shivering from the cold. It was defeating to watch these people suffer the consequences of natural disaster. It was even more heartbreaking to see that their children were not there to help them. These elders’ faces lit up with hope as they were handed some sandwiches, fruit, and bottles of water. They expressed a never ending amount of thank you’s. Some offered to give money in return. I had to hold back tears. After each visit, the mood got more somber. It was harder to leave behind somebody each time.
My message is this: now seven years later, New Orleans is still in need of volunteers, as it is still trying to restore itself to normalcy. Please don’t let the same become of New York. Please don’t leave the neighborhoods of Rockaway, Sea Gate, Coney Island, Breezy Point, and many more across the five boroughs, to depend on over seven years of time to get back to normal. Please go out and volunteer, lend a helping hand. Please visit shelters and give whatever you can. It shouldn’t take a disaster to be selfless and giving, but in time of post-disaster, please don’t forget to be just that.
It is easy to see what is bad and unpleasant on the outside, but allow yourself inside, and see what is really happening. See how others are forced to live because of a cruel disaster, and understand that your help is needed, and the kindness of your heart and the effort of your hands will help a person, a city, and it will do wonders for yourself.