On October 29, 2012, the United States experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history in the form of a devastating hurricane that worked its way up the seaboard of the Atlantic Coast, causing havoc and massive destruction across major population centers of our country. This most horrendous of hurricanes and one of the most major rain storms that our country has ever experienced, became known as “Superstorm Sandy”.
I have seen the aftermath of an earthquake in Turkey in which ten thousand people lost their lives. I personally saw the massive disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In 2008, I also was a student in Houston, Texas, and also personally experienced the hurricane called Ike that impacted much of the southeast part of Texas where I was living. However, nothing that I have ever seen prepared me for the terrible chaos and great despair that my Sox cohorts and I experienced during our trip to the East Coast following Superstorm Sandy’s path of horrific destruction.
Superstorm Sandy was uniquely different from any other natural disasters and emergencies to which Sox In A Box has responded over the years. Never in the history of our charity did we need to respond to so many emails and telephone calls in the space of a short period as we did with Superstorm Sandy. While in retrospect, the reasons seem clear: 1.) the disaster included the heart of New York City, one of the most important cities in the world where communication capabiliies are at their highest; 2.)capable responders such as our own organization on the other side of the country, had not been affected, and could proceed to provide aid at the very highest levels; and 3.)there is no place in the world like the U.S. providing aid to those in need and 4.)relief agencies such as ours, are trained for emergency situations.
Nevertheless, since communication was poor despite massive electoral blackouts throughout much of the Atlantic seaboard, our biggest surprise following Superstorm Sandy was the number of pleas and emails from every and any relief organization with whom Sox In A box had ever worked, with the request to send out not hundreds, but thousands of pairs of socks to countless agencies in need. At the time of the aftermath of the storm, we did not only receive out usual requests from agencies and organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross, but absolutely every organization with whom we had ever worked, including every religious relief organization, school related agencies, and even local and regional police and fire departments, had forwarded e-mails to agencies such as ourselves, begging, just not asking, for immediate help.
So struck by the overwhelming need for immediate action and help, our Board of Directors had an emergency meeting to send all the socks from our offices and warehouse, even several thousand pairs of socks that had not been sorted or yet put into boxes, meet the immediate and overwhelming demand for the thousands of people left homeless all over the East Coast.
More importantly, it soon became aware to our Board that distribution of our socks once they reached the East coast was going to be chaotic since communication in some of the areas was proving next to impossible and also, that many of the relief agencies with whom we work in tandem were completely overwhelmed by the continuing crisis. Thus our Board of Directors then became worried who on the other end would be able to accept our socks and make sure that they were delivered to the communities that most needed them.
Ultimately, it became clear very quickly that to be most effective, some of our older adults, younger adults, and even teenage volunteers would have to go to the East Coast and aid with distribution. One of the principals at one of our middle schools in the Los Angeles area, who has assisted us inour sock drives for so many years, had a relative who is an important executive with United Air Lines,and has continuously helped us ship our socks to many locations around the world, basically for free. This relative was able to secure some last minute discounted seats that allowed some of us to fly to New York from both Texas and San Diego. Others of us packed up as many socks that we could get into three big vans and two cars and simply made out way across country to New York City where we were able to stay in sleeping bags for nine days in the basement of a house owned by the first cousin of one of our Board of Directors. I cannot begin to describe the generosity of this amazing family, who without any proper notice, allowed us to invade their house and set up our temporary headquarters of distribution.
During our first week, it seemed like almost the entire neighborhood block volunteered to take us to parts of New Jersey, Staten Island, and Queens where we were shocked to see victims of Superstorm Sandy wandering around their destroyed neighborhoods in terrible circumstances: the weather was freezing cold; their clothes and houses were damaged or gone; some people were trying to light fires to keep warm in hazardous conditions because there was no electricity; and the conditions in the neighborhood looked like a bomb blast had destroyed everything.
For people from Southern California, our first shock was the extremely cold temperatures that seemed inconceivable for these poor people to bear. When we arrived at Staten Island the next day, it was maybe a week after the superstorm and a new cold front was moving in which made us literally freeze in our boots. What shocked us most moving through Staten Island and down into New Jersey and Maryland, is how frigid temperatures and ice made their way directly down to the ocean. In California, it is so balmy, it is rarely cold by the Pacific Ocean.
We were told that houses on the East Coast are built extra strong to withstand the more adverse weather but after seeing the total destruction and every type of home laying in total ruin with loose boards, wiring, roofs torn apart, sides of homes torn apart, our mouths simply fell open at the sight of immense destruction tat was obvious everywhere.
I had personally seen the destruction of the earthquake in Turkey that had killed 10,000 people and I also had gone to the sight of destruction left by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but this sight due to frigid temperatures that left victims extremely helpless, was one of the most difficult tragedies to absorb. Soon, we realized that with the overwhelming amount of physical collapse and chaos of both people and buildings that we needed a better and more organized plan of attack. Conference calls with FEMA and the Red Cross only emphasized the scope of the tragedy and that all of us would have to act swiftly to help victims and combat the cold.
After two more days, we realized that we faced several overwhelming problems: gasoline was being rationed so it was unpredictable if we would fill up everyday; many, many roads were blocked with so many wires down and parts of trees and buildings were littering the roads—all of which compounded our frustration of trying to reach some of the most hard hit areas; the police and other officials would not let us go into some of the hardest hit areas because of the danger coming from all of the debris and wires that were down; and a huge, huge problem that no one answered at the shelters that we were trying to reach because phone service was intermittent, if at all, even after ten days; out walkie-talkies were only helpful if we all stayed together..the question being if we would bemore effective if we split up in groups as we were used to doing in handling many of our emergencies.
Our first destination was Breezy Point, Queens, where a fire had broken out after the storm and caused several blocks of houses and buildings in the affected region to literally burn down to the ground. When we reached the blackened streets that were mostly closed off by the Fire Department officials, we were amazed to see several homeowners wandering around in their search for whatever they could salvage out of what had been their homes. It was so sad and we reached into our bags and gave them all the socks that they could carry and two of the men seemed so grateful to us, telling us that they had knew people who had no clothes other than the ones that they were wearing. So we felt really good about our efforts.
However, it was the fire marshals at the scene who would give us the biggest tip for our entire trip. All the fire department stations were becoming key centers for donation drop-offs and the firemen and women said our donations of socks would be most effective if we could drop out socks off at each site and that the firemen would be taking supplies out to needy people in various locations each day. They gave us a map of which stations were becoming active relief centers and told us that the fire trucks were always going to be let through in affected areas while our vans would not be admitted into those devastated areas as readily.
For the rest of our stay in New York and New Jersey, we tried to go to the worst areas including once again to Staten Islandwhich we knew very well since my father had once lived there while he was in school. We also visited the Atlantic city area of homes (after seeing the horrifying stretch of the Boardwalk); the worst places in some of the cities on Long Island, and our final place, in parts of New Jersey, where some of the fire stations told us that relief agencies were having a more difficult time reaching the affected areas.
Our time was too short although most of us were missing school and work and had to get back. Yet the memories will haunt all my team members and me for the rest of our lives. We can never forget the desperate looks on peoples’ faces and their suffering but also their resilience and determination to stay alive by lighting fires to stay warm with no electricity. If any one knows me, they know that I am also wild about pets and after seeing several dogs and cats wandering around aimlessly without their owners, we also will always how we took two lost dogs and 1 cat to a temporary shelter set up by a person with no experience but one who simply cared that animals as well as people deserve their safety and their well being. The resilience of the people of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland will long be remembered and respected by all of us for their bravery and the fact that so many caring relief agencies like ourselves came out to help others made us all appreciate how lucky we are to be living in the United States of America.