The deserted beachfront was only a few blocks away, full of destroyed homes and other detritus from a broken city. All around her, people piled ruined carpet and furniture on sidewalks in front of where their homes used to stand, salvaging what they could.
But everywhere neighbors helped neighbors and even strangers, sending more donated items than, at times, the still-organizing relief effort could find room to store.
“It was very difficult,” Aberdeen resident Tobi Buckman said of volunteering in post-Sandy New York City. “One gal told me she’s a single mom, she has a 4-year-old, they don’t know if they’re going to be able to rebuild. Her work was destroyed, her son’s preschool was destroyed. … I couldn’t make it better, so it was hard. But it was a nice community.”
Buckman has long been one of the people who run toward disasters, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. She recently spent 10 days helping in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New York City. A counselor by profession, she split her time volunteering with the Red Cross between shelters in Manhattan and distributing food on Staten Island.
On Staten Island, people tried their best to salvage as much as possible from homes that often were flooded up to their second story or attic.
“We would bring hot food so they had something hot to eat while they were working,” Buckman said. “I talked with people about how they were doing emotionally, how their kids were doing. Kind of normalize their response and give them some coping ideas.”
Buckman said one day soon after the storm, the neighborhood Red Cross workers were helping was inundated with spontaneous donations.
“By the time we got there in the afternoon, two sides of the street were just covered in black plastic bags of donations … even in Katrina I didn’t see it like that,” she said.
In Manhattan, one of the best things she and other volunteers could do was simply to listen to people trying to make sense of the disaster that changed their world. Buckman said some big struggles were still ahead, both in the practical sense of rebuilding, and in the emotional sense.
“I think the full reality hasn’t hit. There’s pretty predictable stages that people go through during disasters. The first stage is the donations and the heroism and people coming to help and you feel like it’s just stuff, we’re OK. Then you start to think, ‘Oh my gosh, my wedding pictures.’”
For many, their usual support structure for a disaster was swept away in the flood waters.
“If my house burned down I’d go stay with my daughter,” Buckman said. “But like in Katrina, we saw whole families wiped out, so your normal support is not there.”
Many of the homes damaged and destroyed weren’t covered by insurance, and even those that were are in for a long wait for any relief.
In terms of people affected and damage in dollars, Sandy is the biggest disaster the Red Cross has responded to, Buckman said. The sheer scope of the need after the storm was the biggest difference between this and other disasters she’s helped with.
For volunteers, helping after a disaster can be difficult in many ways, from sleeping in shelters with more than 200 other people — “There’s almost enough ways to snore you could almost make an orchestra,” Buckman quipped — to a persistent need to do more.
“You never feel like you help enough,” Buckman said. Hands-on work, like helping people replace medication lost in the storm or distributing food, can help that feeling the most.
For Buckman, it got her thinking about what she and her family would do in a disaster. Did they have enough supplies to support themselves for 72 hours? Did they have a communication plan to let relatives know they were OK if something happened? Those are questions many families on the Harbor should be asking, she said.
“If there is a big disaster, Aberdeen isn’t going to be the first place people come. They can’t get here. We really do need to be ready to take care of ourselves,” Buckman said.
Even though she’s home on the Harbor now, Buckman said the Red Cross still has a lot of work to do to help people recover from Sandy. Anyone who’d like to help can donate at www.redcross.org or by phone at 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
“If everybody gave $5 or $10, it would make a world of difference,” Buckman said.
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org