Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surfers, Sandy, and talking to your neighbors

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization made up of surfers who advocate for clean water initiatives, etc.  But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the east coast branches of Surfrider have shifted their focus to humanitarian efforts.

I recently joined a group of volunteers organized by the foundation  to help with post-hurricane clean-up efforts in Long Beach, Long Island.  
We took two vans from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the destroyed, coastal neighborhoods.  At 8am I didn’t know anyone in the group, but by the end of the day I felt I’d met a unique collection of kindred spirits.  Urban surfers, as it turns out, are almost as laid-back as those who spend their days closer to the shore.  They are working to help restore not only the beaches they love, but they are also aiding people whose homes were ruined by sand, saltwater, and rain.

When we arrived in Long Beach, I partnered with two strangers, Erin and Annie.  The three of us stood in the corner of a windy, bayside parking lot, huddled beneath a rented tarp waiting for instructions.  Our assignment at first seemed a bit pointless.  We were asked to go door-to-door, gathering information about how people were doing and what we could do to help them.  Tyler, the group organizer, had given us specific instructions, “If you go into the houses, wear your masks; never do anything that makes you uncomfortable; write down any needs and send your lists to Joy.  And really, what most of these people want you to do is listen.  They just want to talk.”  My initial reaction to this assignment was to assume people would find us invasive and sort of weird.  The prospect of wandering around asking vague and probably unanswerable questions made me nervous.  I’m a bit of a loner, and barging into the homes of people who are at their most vulnerable made me feel like a Peeping Tom with a clipboard.  I wished I’d been assigned to something a bit less intimate, but I wasn’t willing to speak up and ask for a different task.

Throughout the day we walked up and down East Chester Street knocking on doors, and we did make lists of items people needed in attempt to rid their houses of mold, debris and even sewage that had flowed into their lives.  We filled ten massive bags with the sodden walls of a destroyed basement and we helped one family find the location of a community lunch.  Some residents we met were resilient, “We’re just lucky to have each other,” said a middle-aged man whose wife admitted that the one thing she missed most was her “overpriced, but super soft bed”.  Others gave in to defeat.  One woman angrily told us she was packing the last of her things with no intention of ever coming back.  Most people, however, did just need to talk.

An old man who likes to read about great American presidents spoke at length about Harry Truman while the four of us watched a machine with a giant claw lift all of his belongings high above, dragging ruined clothing and treasured photos from the sidewalk and into the bin.  When chairs and fence posts fell onto his new Toyota, none of us shuddered as Sandy had already ruined his and almost every other car in the neighborhood.  

It was hard to know what to do about the broken hearts.  Cramming heavy detritus into trash bags was easy when compared to the weight of sadness we couldn’t carry away.  

When the van came to collect us, I felt comforted by its familiarity.  Everyone inside, those strangers from only a few hours before, seemed like old friends.  We swapped stories and drank cold beer, and though the Saturday night traffic made for a long journey home, the conversation never waned.  It was good to have someone to talk to.


  1. Thanks, Annie! I follow your terrific site as well! Your photos are great and I love the people you profile.