The eight students and one teacher shuffled into the center of what was left of the dining room of a red-brick ranch home on a canal in Long Beach’s East End last Friday. There they received instructions from an All Hands Volunteers team leader on how to finish ripping out the home’s appliances, floors and walls, after it was flooded with three feet of seawater during Hurricane Sandy. Safety was the team leader’s overarching message.
The homeowner, a smartly dressed man in his 30s or 40s, a Long Beach professional who did not want to be identified publicly, stood nearby, listening. He looked nervous. Why not? Strangers, the majority of whom were yet to graduate from high school, had come to help disassemble his once safe haven so that it might soon be rebuilt.
On Dec. 15, I followed a group of students from Calhoun High School in North Merrick, ages 16 to 18, who, as part of a leadership class, had volunteered to assist All Hands Volunteers, a U.S.-based international nonprofit organization that helps homeowners clean up after natural disasters such as Japan’s crushing tsunami in 2011 and, most recently, Sandy. The homeowner allowed me to tag along with the students into his house on a narrow side street halfway between Reynolds Channel, to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean, to the south.
Shortly after the Calhoun students went to work, a college-age woman, wearing a Bryn Mawr sweatshirt and faded jeans, arrived out of the blue to join in the rip-out effort. She signed a waiver and was assigned to slice open the seals around the front window moldings with a knife, peel them back and discard them on the curb.
It was a busy, dusty, almost raucous scene. I wondered what the homeowner must have been thinking, how all of this must have seemed like a nightmare. Surely, I thought, he must have wanted to wake up and find that the house where he is raising a family was magically put back together, and that all of these strangers, including a reporter, had disappeared.
But, of course, it wasn’t a dream. It was his life, his reality, being painstakingly torn asunder, piece by piece.