Op-ed column: Aftermath of a disaster, part 2

I stood ankle deep in mud in a dark, fetid basement in Rotterdam Junction, dumping murky river water
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette
Mark Wilson/For The Sunday Gazette

One Saturday in early September, I stood ankle deep in mud in a dark, fetid basement in Rotterdam Junction, dumping murky river water out of plastic bins that were once neatly packed with a stranger’s possessions. Winter coats, Christmas decorations, a fall wreath, board games, purses and shoes were now sodden, muddy and well beyond saving. Everything was carted to an enormous junk pile at the curb.

After the basement was empty, I emerged, filthy and tired, queasy from the stench of mold and mud, but none of that mattered when I saw Lisa, the homeowner, standing lost in her own driveway, mourning a home decimated by the flood. I hugged her, told her things would get better, and she clung to me, muddy stranger that I was.

That moment changed me. Standing there, comforting this woman I had never seen before, I felt stronger, I felt needed, and in some small way, I felt like a lifeline to this soul whose world was piled in a muddy heap in her yard. Since that day, I have come back to lend a hand in Rotterdam Junction time and time again, and have gone to Schoharie as well, fueled by a certainty that my small contribution does matter.

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For a related op-ed piece, click here.

Site for volunteers

I encourage everyone to join in the recovery effort. I’ve devoted a Facebook page, TimeShare Volunteers, to that mission, and I’ve been amazed at the response I’ve received. Friends, family and strangers alike have jumped right in beside me, to tear out walls, rip up floors and lend a sympathetic ear to those who lost so much to the flooding.

Volunteers unable to do the grunt work have provided food for workers and displaced residents. A yoga teacher, photographers and a masseuse have also offered to lend their unique talents to the cause.

I’m no good at math, but I know that all those little contributions add up to a whole lot of positive change, both for those hit hard by the hurricane and for those who have the privilege of helping the survivors piece their lives back together.

Each time I put on my battered work boots and head to the flood zone, I am heartened to see that things are slowly improving there, thanks to all who are lending a hand.

Many stories about how volunteers are aiding the recovery effort have made the news. What I haven’t seen publicized are the equally inspiring accounts of how the simple act of giving has enriched the lives of those volunteers, as well as the lives of others who have witnessed their acts of kindness.

Dose of reality

Kristen Zepf of Charlton joined me in Rotterdam Junction a few weekends ago. She admitted she wasn’t looking forward to mucking out flooded homes, but aware of how much help was needed, she decided to do it anyway.

“Being down there and working in these homes was a bigger dose of reality than any news program could give,” she told me. “It was a hard thing to see firsthand, and I left there overwhelmed by the power of Mother Nature and sad to leave these folks with still so much work on their hands.”

At the end of the day, as our group trudged, exhausted, to the car, Zepf stopped, went over to the homeowner and said, “Good luck.” His eyes met hers and he said, “I’ll need all the luck that I can get.”

“It is a moment I will never forget,” Zepf said. “We spend so much time seeking out experiences for ourselves that are pleasurable in some way, but oddly enough, this hard life experience left me with such a feeling of purpose and aliveness.”

Annie Grzywaczewski of Burnt Hills spent a recent morning washing possessions salvaged from a ruined Rotterdam Junction home. She left with a greater appreciation for her life.

A longtime volunteer, Grzywaczewski had never contended with a natural disaster before Irene blew through the region. “This was out of my comfort zone,” she admitted. “I have my own day-to-day struggles, with an adult son with autism; however, I still have a roof over my head, food on my table and a place to call home. That is why I wanted to help.”

Volunteering to help with the flood cleanup can be dirty and dangerous but without a doubt it is inspiring work. Many times I’ve seen the selfless acts of others inspire the uninvolved observer to take action. Meghan Craig, of Cobleskill, is a perfect example of that.

Craig’s home was spared the wrath of Irene, but because of a storm-related bridge closure, she was stranded away from her home and children. What should have been a two-hour trip home from a wedding photo shoot turned into a white-knuckle, six-hour journey.

As she crept along the congested roads on her way home, Craig was heartened to see volunteers offering comfort to harried motorists. “There were people set up in their driveways with food and water, for the people who were traveling,” she said.

Once safe at home, Craig admitted it would have been easy for her to continue on with her “everyday, non-affected life,” but the compassion she had witnessed during her harrowing commute spurred her to take action.

She began volunteering at a food pantry set up to serve flood survivors, and was once again struck by the generosity of others. “Late into the night, people were doing whatever they could to try to help people who were in need,” she said.

Craig’s family now volunteers alongside her; they’ve worked at a shelter, helped friends shovel mud; and gone door-to-door in flooded neighborhoods, offering cleaning products, food and water. She has also started a volunteer effort called Home Warmings for Schoharie County Flood Victims, which provides household goods to those in need.

Meeting the need

“It has just been us, doing what our friends and neighbors need: helping when people need help,” she said.

The story of the hurricane recovery effort is slowly fading from the media spotlight, but the work has barely gotten under way. There are still so many people who need help, and who need to know that there are people out there who care.

And no matter where you focus your efforts, you will make a difference. You will walk away changed for the better, you just might inspire others and, my bet is, you’ll be back to help out again.

Kelly de la Rocha lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion, Schenectady County

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