There were fallen trees everywhere. Twisted electricity pylons and crushed white picket fences littered the dark roadside as our Red Cross vehicle made its way to Locust Valley High School, in Long Island’s Nassau County. The roads were a labyrinth of dead-ends as a result of fallen debris and wrecked cars. Yet this was the heartland of Long Island’s wealthy suburban “white shoe” culture — mansions and gated communities surrounding country clubs for golfers and polo players. It also had sustained some of the most extensive damage in the wake of late October’s Hurricane Sandy. With the total blackout caused by loss of power to the region, the area was utterly deserted.
The gymnasium at Locust Valley High, which had been converted into a shelter, had the look and feel of a battlefield infirmary. The size of three full-length basketball courts, rows of makeshift green cots stretched from one end to the other. Red Cross blankets had been distributed throughout, and the remainder had been piled against one wall. There was no hot water, food was spartan and a fuel-operated generator powered the space. For the next 24 hours, at least, this was where we would be stationed.
It had been a rapid briefing that afternoon at the Red Cross’s headquarters on 49th Street in Manhattan. Those of us who had brought overnight provisions were deployed immediately as disaster relief volunteers, among us a singer, a theater director, a banker and two rabbinical students.
A man among the new arrivals seated at breakfast squinted at my yarmulke and asked whether I was Jewish and observant. When I told him I was training to be a rabbi, he looked surprised. “We didn’t know you lot cared about us,” he said. “Most of your types on Long Island have fled to hotels or to their second homes. We’re the ones stuck here.” It was issued as a challenge and as a plea for recognition.
Joe was unemployed and living alone. His house had been “washed away” in the storm, and after the police had evacuated the area he had nowhere else to go. “My restaurant business failed last year, and I had planned to sell my home so that I could downsize to a smaller place. I feel like I’m on the verge of going under,” he told me.
Later I met Margarite, a single grandmother of 55 who came into the shelter with five children — two of them her own — was beside herself with worry and anxiety. “My daughter left her kids with me to go with friends to the city for a hen weekend,” she said. “That was two days ago, and I haven’t heard from her since.”