Students clean up after Superstorm Sandy
In New York’s Rockaway area, student volunteers through the University of Florida Hillel spent a weekend helping repair a recovering neighborhood.
Salvatore Falcone, his brother and his cousin couldn’t believe the incoming storm could be as bad as his mother made it out to be. She chose to evacuate her house along the New York coast. The others chose to stay.
When water from Superstorm Sandy rose above the curb, then climbed past the first, second and third steps to his family’s house and burst through the basement windows, Falcone realized they had a problem.
The 24-year-old tried to save as many valuables as he could, grabbing things his mother would be devastated to lose.
He and the others headed upstairs to the second floor, taking refuge in his mother’s room. He looked back to see furniture and plants floating in the two feet of water covering the first floor.
“It was a crazy sight,” he says.
Since Superstorm Sandy dissipated Oct. 31, Falcone’s Rockaway neighborhood has relied on strength and support from strangers in volunteer services to help rebuild.
In November, some of that support came from UF. For two days, 40 Florida college students lent their time, hands and help to clean houses ravaged by the superstorm in a trip planned by the University of Florida branch of the Hillel Jewish student organization.
Help on the Way
Remnants of a boardwalk.
Blue signs marking the houses needing work.
Yellow for the ones that were still uninhabitable.
The wrecked beach houses and overall quiet of Rockaway disconcerted Melissa Stern, UF Hillel’s engagement associate. She says the area didn’t look like a neighborhood.
Such destruction, however, was exactly what students hoped to provide relief from. It was students who proposed the trip, and Boca Raton-based charity Hands on Tzedakah provided funds.
The volunteers left Nov. 15 for a 17-hour drive and worked the next two days in Falcone’s area.
While in New York, the volunteers donated buckets of cleaning supplies to a Jewish federation, Stern says. They had dinner at Columbia University’s Hillel and spent the night in apartments.
To clean the damaged ground floors of houses, she says the volunteers formed groups of four to five students and ripped up dry wall, mopped floors, picked out rusty nails and removed ruined furniture.
Gabrielle Harris (3CLAS), 21, cleared driveways by shoveling dirt and sand. The UF criminology and law student says she’s faced hurricanes in her hometown of West Palm Beach and volunteered in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.
She says although the trip was through the UF Hillel, not all the volunteers were Jewish and not all of them were Gators. Students from other Florida universities, including Florida State, joined the trip.
The volunteers’ differences didn’t matter, Harris says. They were united for a good cause, and she hopes to keep in contact with the friends she made on the trip.
“When you help out, you become a community,” she says. “Nothing gets in the way.”
The sight that stuck most with UF political science student Niels Sabin (3CLAS) was of a tennis court covered with sand despite being miles from the beach.
The Rockaway area was a stark contrast to up-and-running Times Square in midtown, about 20 miles inland.
As a volunteer, the 21-year-old from Gainesville helped a man rip up his deck, a woman carry furniture out of her flooded house and the Falcones tear down dry wall so the wall wouldn’t rot from water damage.
Sabin says cleaning the Falcones’ wall was the hardest job. He had to dig an inch and a half into the floor with screwdrivers to keep the wood from getting mold.
He says the Falcones were nice and joking toward the students, but he saw Salvatore Falcone’s parents were emotional.
“It was really hard for them. You could tell they were really having trouble with it,” he says. “I can’t imagine having to break down my own house.”
Gabrielle Harris says she helped a woman who didn’t have home insurance and lost pet cats in the storm.
Harris says if she knew how to rebuild a home, she would do so for the victims. But it still felt good to volunteer.
“It was very fulfilling,” she says.
Sabin says the trip was worthwhile.
“I enjoyed helping the people,” he says. “They were so grateful.”
Salvatore Falcone says he was glad to see everyone unafraid to get dirty to help his family. He says to ask people to take a sledgehammer to your walls was an emotional experience, especially for his mother, who furnished and built the house on a school teacher’s salary. The students, however, were free from sentimental attachment and were able to do the difficult work.
Damage to the house is about $30,000, Falcone says. His family didn’t have any insurance, and money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn’t enough.
He’s also out of a job beacuase the restaurant he manages 20 blocks from his house closed for repairs and to get new equipment.
For now, the Falcones are staying in his grandmother’s house in Brooklyn while the Rockaway house remains without power or gas.
Salvatore Falcone’s parents told the students to come back when the house is finished in another six to eight months so they can stay as proper guests and friends.
“I’m extremely grateful for all the help,” he says. “They made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
He says even with the destruction came the good of strangers coming together to help people in need.
“It’s unbelievable to see how humans are and how they want to help and are willing to help,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing that they came here out of the goodness of their heart.”
— Wade Millward (3JM)