Tonawanda News

November 29, 2012

WERTH: A first-hand account of Hurricane Sandy relief

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Editor’s note: Teresa Werth is a City of Tonawanda native who now lives in the Rochester area. She has been volunteering with the Red Cross since 2008 and spent several days volunteering in the New York City area during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Here is an account of her experiences. 

On Oct. 29, I was just beginning my regular overnight rotation with the Red Cross Disaster Public Affairs team when I offered to come to the main Red Ross office in Rochester to help out with anything I could. I saw on the news that they were busy with activities ramping up for Hurricane Sandy. 

I did some phone answering and wrote a news release then went to Brockport and helped set up a shelter for people in the far western suburbs who might lose heat and light during the storm. No one sought shelter with the six staff that were there but I felt good knowing we were there if they needed us.

On the afternoon of Nov. 1, I got the call asking if I could leave at 9 a.m. the next morning to drive a rental car to New York City, picking up another volunteer outside of Ithaca on the way.

In the morning, my husband, Don, delivered me to the Red Cross where I got my paperwork. We loaded the car, set up the GPS and off I went to the Board of Elections to vote, then on to Trumansburg. 

I picked up my new best friend and roommate, Kristine Uribe, at her home near Ithaca. She is a pretty, petite, spunky 41-year-old Latino who is out-going, social and confident ... all good traits for the work ahead of us. “In real life” she is manager of Watkins Glen State Park. 

Kristine and I were transferred from our normal roles of sheltering and public affairs into bulk distribution because they needed teams of people who could navigate a 16-foot box truck to bring blankets, heater meals, clean up kits, water, gloves, batteries, flashlights, etc., to the affected areas. 

Providing disaster relief is an odd mix: the adrenalin rush of the unknown, the anxiety about spontaneous challenges and new experiences, the life-changing opportunity to be of service to people whose lives have been brutally and unfairly up-ended, the chance to meet thousands of compassionate human beings doing their best to provide basic human needs, comfort, and hope. In the end, what needs to be done is completely overwhelming and we had to take comfort in whatever we could do, no matter how small, to help.

Over the course of our 12 days together we made many trips with our truck, mostly to Long Island: Long Beach, Lido Beach, Nickerson Beach, Rockaway and Far Rockaway where the damage was devastating. Most of the homes cannot be lived in, businesses are boarded up and ruined. We passed police-monitored gas lines that were three hours long if there was even gas to be had or where people were sleeping in their cars overnight to be first in line in the morning. 

Most places we drove to outside of Manhattan there were no working traffic signals and common courtesy and common sense did not exist. People were not thinking clearly. They were afraid, panicked, frustrated and angry. There were curfews and for good reason. There had been looting.

The convoys of power company trucks were amazing and so encouraging until we saw the work that needed to be done. Every breaker box and outlet had to be cleaned, repaired and inspected before power could be turned back on. A box still dirty with salt water, if turned on, could start a fire. If a neighbor has locked their home and gone to stay with family, the whole block waits in the dark until they come back, unlock their home, and get fixed and inspected.

Imagine that tomorrow your house is in water five feet deep. Everything the water has touched is ruined and must be thrown out. Everything. In front of your house sits a mountain of garbage: carpeting and padding, wall board, bedding, furniture, appliances, clothing, dishes, kitchenware, pictures and knickknacks. Mixed in is the dark muck of sewage, debris and sand, piled more than several feet high on many streets. Your car has floated blocks away and won’t run when you find it washed up on top of two other cars. Where do you start?

The weekend of Nov. 10-11 was a big push effort when 6,000 one-time Red Cross volunteers, many college students from the tri-state area, came in to the warehouse to pack bags that would be taken to high-rise apartments — and there are many — where people cannot walk down the stairs and up again and carry food and water. Many of these places still have no power so they have no elevators, no heat and no light. Young people were going to run the bags of supplies up the stairs. 

We worked along state and local police, National Guard and firefighters. Volunteers came from around the world to help. We met wonderful Red Cross volunteers from just about every state, Canada and Mexico and felt an instant kinship with each one.

There were moments that made us laugh until we cried and times when we just cried. The times I hated the most where when I was handing out our last blanket or tarp or cleaning kit and there were dozens of out-stretched arms wanting that last item. I couldn’t process how to decide who to give it to so I just closed my eyes and somebody grabbed it. 

There are many stories and many faces that I will carry in my heart forever. It is a life-changing experience for everyone involved. I kept thinking of one of my favorite quotes: We are all just walking each other home. This is going to be a long, sad part of that walk for too many.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.