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

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


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

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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.

On Friday afternoon, after two-and-a-half days of labor in Bettina's basement (only one of which I was involved in), we switched houses. Fifteen blocks away, we cleared two other, less lived-in basements. One belonged to an older man who repaired bicycles. He had 30 or 40 of them crushed against one wall, tangled together like paperclips. He watched us clean and offered us cigarettes and apologized that he couldn't do it all himself.

His neighbor, an elderly woman whose first floor was just low enough to sit under a thin layer of water when the storm surge came, had not yet reconciled herself to the extent of the destruction. She asked us not to tear out the wood walls in her basement, so we pulled insulation from the gap between the top of her wall and the bottom of the ceiling. The insulation had the heft and feel of a soaked-through sock. The pipes in the basement were red, and rusty nails jutted from boards that the flood had torn from the walls. Tetanus is a concern. Governor Andrew Cuomo has authorized pharmacists, EMT's, and dentists to administer vaccines in hurricane-afflicted areas.

Unless you build or destroy homes regularly, it's easy to forget how much raw material goes into a house. Beneath the carpet, there is flooring. Behind the drywall, there are wooden studs, insulation, brick, and metal joints. Above the ceiling, there are pipes, wires, panels, and more insulation. Even when a room is empty, there are still thousands of pounds of building materials to destroy and remove.

Both days, we ate lunch from trucks. The Mayor's Fund is working with the New York City Food Truck Association to provide free meals for locals and volunteers. Many of the trucks congregated around the headquarters of Team Rubicon, an organization composed largely of military veterans willing to volunteer for a few weeks. The people who flew in from Illinois and Kansas to help were living in tight quarters in a climbing gym in Brooklyn. They were taking cold showers out of buckets. None of them were being paid.

The Team Rubicon camp had work gloves, shovels, crowbars, masks, and wheelbarrows. They also had three latrines for volunteers. They didn't stop working to take pictures of themselves. At Rockaway Relief and Occupy Sandy, the volunteers seemed similarly diligent.

I frequently find it hard to feel genuinely useful volunteering. More often than not, I'll stand behind the counter at a soup kitchen and think, "If I weren't here, this guy could grab his own sandwich." Or I'll find myself getting involved in some minor power feud over which volunteer is going to use which ladle.

I felt useful cleaning basements.

The people on the Rockaways don't particularly need food. When we went by one of the churches, it turned down the blankets that we'd brought. Cleaning supplies and winter coats are important, but the valuable commodity right now is unskilled labor. There aren't enough contractors to clear these houses before mold sets in. The resources they want are any workers who will come. The donations they need are hands and effort.

On the ride back both nights, the sun had set and the ocean was dark. The cars smelled of flood muck and we sat silent and exhausted. At stoplights, if we opened the window, we could hear the wind and smell the water.

I think most people have an atavistic relationship with the ocean. When a storm spurs the water into spasms, we sit in awe, like spectators staring at King Kong, hoping he won't break loose, praying he won't kill us if he does. We try to tame the ocean through the possibility of rescue. If we swim and cramp, there will be a lifeguard. If our ship is overturned, the Coast Guard will save us. If we are stranded at sea, someone will find us. In the aftermath of disaster, as in most of life's important moments, our best hopes rest with the efforts of other people.