The Staten Island Recovery: The Little Things that Matter

A TIME journalist and resident of the battered borough reports on the relief efforts—and the search for priceless mementos

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Eugene Richards for TIME

Susan Aman searches the remains of her father's home, which was carried by floodwater into a marsh along Mill Road in Staten Island.

On Staten Island, where I live, there was an incredible outpouring of mostly local volunteers on Saturday. People walked up and down streets with shopping carts full of supplies and offers to help out. On street corners in New Dorp Beach, Oakwood and Great Kills, volunteers — many of whom have homes that were also damaged — set up tables to organize supplies. On the corner of Ebbits Street and Winham Avenue, the International Christian Center set up a prayer station where they served hot dogs and sandwiches. Much of the organization is happening on Facebook. Search for “Hurricane Sandy Relief,” and you’ll find tons of local groups all sharing information about where to find gas or bring donations. My cousin Jessica Dos Santos, a resident of South Beach, started Hurricane Sandy Help, the day after the storm. She says, “when I went to my mother’s house I started to realize what people needed: mostly bags and cleaning supplies.” On the page, she and her sister direct people to specific residents in need of immediate help, posting addresses of homes in need of extra hands for a clean up.

(MORE: Surviving Hurricane Sandy: The Island That New York City Forgot)

There is no denying the enormity of the work to be done — and the haunting emotions involved. In New Dorp Beach, residents spoke about the funerals that had begun, like that of John C. Filipowicz who stayed behind with his father John K. at their home in Oakwood Beach. They were found dead in the basement by relatives. Requests for help are being posted on Facebook like the one asking for assistance to help Patricia Dresch of Tottenville, who faces a double funeral after her husband George Dresch and 13-year old daughter Angela died in the storm. More people died here as a result of Hurricane Sandy than any other part of New York City.

Mementos are suddenly priceless. Early Saturday morning, even as droves of volunteers marched against a debris-filled wind on Cedar Grove Avenue, one resident pleaded with Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, an organizer of the effort, to use her bullhorn to ask the small army of do-gooders to sift carefully through the rubble in order to find and preserve photographs and personal objects. His family owned several of the small, renovated bungalow-style homes on the street. It is the little things that matter.

(PHOTOS: In the Eye of the Storm: Capturing Sandy’s Wrath)

On Kissam Avenue, the surroundings are surreal. The roofs of houses and patios have been tossed hundreds of feet into a nearby field; just as many are in the middle of the street. Christine Callan was doing her personal archaeology in what was left of her two story home, where both floors separated during the storm. “I’m really just looking for photos, I was devastated about losing photos.” She then pulled from her mailbox a single photo of her son from a Kindergarten graduation. The boy is now 20. “Stuff like this your not able to replace. Its not digital.” Though she has tried to stay positive, she would often stop to stare into the foundation of her house, now filled with water. She spent the afternoon pulling things out. Concerned neighbors stopped by to check in. A few objects would suddenly take on an outsized importance. Right before a bulldozer pushed the top story of her home from the street, Callan told me that she had to find her Verizon cable box to avoid what she believed would be a huge penalty for losing it.

Also on Kissam Avenue was Eddie Alvarez, a contractor and 16-year resident of Oakwood Beach. He too was saying goodbye to his wrecked house, after packing up a truck with what he could salvage. On the night of the storm, the Alvarezes had taken refuge with two dogs and a bird in a small attic above their bedroom. At 6:15 p.m. on Oct. 29, he says, “We saw the water coming up the street. In 10 minutes I couldn’t see the top of my pool. Then my fence disappeared and by that time it started coming in the house. The water came into the house and filled the whole first floor up to the ceiling. My wife told me to grab two important boxes—jewelry and important papers… As I ran down I smelled gas and I had to push my kitchen cabinets out of the way because they were floating in the water and turn off the gas.”

(PHOTOS: Staten Island — Christine Osinski’s Unseen Photographs of New York City’s Forgotten Borough)

“The house shook waved and bobbed. I heard things smashing, breaking all over. My wife kept asking me ‘are we gonna die?’ and I said ‘I promise you we are not gonna die.'” When the water was at its peak, aound 8:53 p.m, says Alvarez, “that’s when the house fell off its foundation and shifted to one side.”

But they and their menagerie survived. “We were stuck all night long,” he says, “until the next morning at sunrise. That night we prayed so hard. At 6:45 a.m. is when they saved me. Six firemen came. The rest was history… all tears.”

He takes one last look at the remains of his home and at the truck filled with belongings. “These are memories that I’m collecting from 28 years with my wife.” He handed me a disposable camera to take a photo of him in front of what was left of the house. “Now I’m going to live out my dream which is go to the Poconos, higher grounds, far away from water.”

MORE: Hurricane Sandy: Scenes of Wreckage and Recovery

1 comments
romano70
romano70

I have learned over time that, when facing massive destitution, people hang on to whatever they can to stay sane. This helps explain why after someone loses their home, clothes, electronics, in sum, everything they would just be happy if they found pictures to hold on to better times long gone. Random question to those republicans affected by Sandy: I am assuming you are not accepting any help from "big government" now, right? Otherwise, it would be incredibly hypocritical of you.....

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