Seawater and Small Buddhas: 2 Days in the Basements of the Rockaways

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A volunteer sorts through soggy insulation and rusty nails, occasionally rescuing intimate relics from human lives.

rockaway-volunteers.jpg

Volunteers help clear out a home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. (Reuters)

Cleaning a basement is, in some ways, an act of archeology. You sort through someone's soaked and muddied possessions, you wonder what her life is like, and then you throw everything away.

I volunteered this past week to clean seawater and raw sewage out of flooded homes in the Rockaways. Or, rather: I volunteered for two days of this past week, helping a small army of volunteers, many of whom were out there every day, to clean flooded homes in the Rockaways.

Before you cross the bridge into the Rockaways, the flood line is head high and dirt and leaves cover all but the top foot of the fences. On cloudy days the sea is slate gray and it merges with the gray of the sky on the far horizon. If it's cold out and the wind is blowing, it feels like the sea might creep up and swallow the puny island across the bridge, which, of course, it did three weeks ago.

On Wednesday, we worked at the home of a woman I'll call Bettina. I barely met her. But here is a selective inventory of things removed from her basement:

  • three couches, waterlogged, of different sizes and colors
  • a small wooden Buddha doll
  • several telephone books, thoroughly waterlogged
  • two separate, still sealed, bottles of allspice
  • a photo album, muddied, containing pictures of a young man growing progressively older
  • a chamberpot, child-sized, set inside a miniature toilet
  • pictures of a Catholic saint
  • two televisions, one flat screen, one monstrously heavy, both enormous
  • a live turtle (one of a pair, we were told)
  • an overturned refrigerator, which reeked so strongly when cracked open that we evacuated the basement and called in the fire department for fear of a gas leak

The basement had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a laundry room, and a kitchenette. Now it has seven ambiguous rooms, each stripped bare of walls and flooring.

Bettina rented the upstairs and lived in the basement with her son and her mother. Her breathing approached hyperventilation as we fire-chained items onto the street. Before we arrived she had removed anything that might be embarrassing, so her remaining possessions spoke of an immaculate life: no toilet paper, adult diapers, tampons, or awkward medications.

The danger of leaving these stagnant basements sitting is that they will develop black mold. The insulation or the sheetrock or the wood will bloom with Stachybotrys chartarum - little patches of dark that spurt toxic spores that can fill a person's lungs and tear tiny lacerations in her respiratory system. If the mold appears, then FEMA condemns the house. If FEMA condemns the house, the people must leave.

The mold's timeline is uncertain: a spore must land in a basement and bloom and spread. The longer the basements sit soaking, the more likely this is to happen.

Here are other things that are uncertain: It's not clear how many houses were flooded. It's not clear how many people were displaced. It's not clear how quickly volunteers and sanitation workers are cleaning out basements. I found lots of people willing to give estimates, but the estimates varied pretty widely. Wikipedia tells me that roughly 130,000 people live in the Rockaways. So there's that. But FEMA's website doesn't yet have any report on the damage. So there's that, too.

Lots of organizations are soliciting money to work with the hurricane victims. Some are more effective than others. On Friday morning, the American Red Cross drove by in a large truck. They were handing out "cleaning kits." Each one contained two thick contractor garbage bags, a rubber wiper akin to one you might use to clean your windshield at a gas station, a bucket, a bottle of bleach, Pinesol, a sponge, a wicker broom head, a push broom head, and two handles for the broom heads and the wiper. We gave away everything but the wiper and the two bags. Pinesol doesn't polish rotting wood. And the broom head didn't fit any of the handles. The Red Cross guys took pictures of themselves as they handed us the kits and then they left.

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Nicholas Brown is a New York-based writer and actor who contributes regularly to The Huffington Post. His website is thisisnickswebsite.com.

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