To the editor:
I have learned two very important things — the resiliency and the generosity of the human spirit. I called upon neighbors, friends and acquaintances and, ultimately, strangers, to help me collect supplies to distribute to hurricane victims in my hometown of Long Island, N.Y. The response was overwhelming, from those who jumped immediately to my aid, to strangers who came to my door after some unexpected publicity from The Daily News. Special thanks to Sharon Pacenka, who kept me sane, sorted and organized while we were inundated with donations, calls and emails.
As I sit down to type this, I have only just returned from Long Island (Nov. 12). My husband Paul and I made the trip and arrived with our donations at the Oceanside High School early Sunday afternoon. Oceanside is a beachfront community on Long Island where thousands of people still are without power and people still have standing water in their homes . The community held a rally on Friday morning to try to draw attention to the slow response of Long Island Power to return electricity to the area. Hundreds of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey remain without power today.
The high school in Oceanside (powered by a generator) is being used as a warming spot, a charging station, a place to get a hot meal, a location to connect with FEMA representatives and a place to acquire needed supplies. When we arrived, besides a few canned goods, some diapers and wipes, all that was there was clothing, in huge piles, semi-sorted and not labeled.
Once residents saw we were unloading donations from the van, we were inundated with requests for supplies. I gave flashlights and batteries who a woman who told me her she and her husband sleep in shifts because her neighborhood, still without power, is subject to looters every night after dark, and gave lighters to a family who still had candles but were out of lighters and matches to light them and had been for days. Paul helped a woman find dog food whose German shepherds hadn’t eaten in five days. I helped a woman find diapers for her toddler who had been wearing diapers two sizes too small since Tuesday! I even used my rudimentary Spanish to help a non-English speaking family find adult diapers.
Many have not had a shower since before the hurricane and are out of clean laundry.Their cars are destroyed or were swept away in the flood, so they have no transportation to purchase necessities or find an open laundramat. I listened to story after story of people who simply had nothing left, and watched them scrounge through pile after pile of the discarded items of others, looking for something to call their own again. What was happening there was primitive. People trying to meet their basic human needs, after life as they knew it was over.
After we left the donation center, we took a quick drive through the flooded areas of town. Most driveways were empty because the majority of cars in the community were swept away with the overflowing ocean waters. Stores were completely destroyed, in the process of being gutted by their owners. Some roads were barely passable between the fallen trees and giant piles of trash lining the streets. Some streets have never had trash picked up since the storm. Backhoes and dump trucks were scooping piles of trash from people’s front lawns. Entire contents of people’s homes sat on their front lawn — destroyed. Floors, rugs, couches, beds, giant screen TVs, stereos, book shelves. Almost every house had a resident outside — most just standing surveying the contents of their life-destroyed and waiting to be collected with the trash.
We drove with the windows down, and besides the smell, which was one of the most foul things I have ever smelled, I could hear neighbors, sharing stories of what they were told by their homeowner’s insurance, to what they heard about when power might be restored (would you believe some people are being told Christmas!). I don’t feel like my words can remotely convey to you the devastation and desperation in this community.
I left Long Island feeling confused, and honestly pretty disappointed. Why is there not more humanitarian aid going to communities like the one I was in today, and why is our federal government not involved in getting power restored? I also left there knowing there is much more work to be done, and that it is up to people to help each other.
The principal of Oceanside High School, after marveling gratefully at our collection of donations, essentially begged me to return with school supplies for their elementary school. It was completely flooded, and all the school supplies destroyed. Lockers were also flooded, so books and backpacks were also lost. I could have told him I was too busy with holiday travel plans, and my kids’ birthdays and getting ready for Christmas, but it is up to people like me, and all of you, to help each other.
The generosity of our human spirit feeds the resiliency of theirs. I cannot express to you how much your donations were valued and appreciated by the community of Oceanside.
Valerie Natoli Paquette
Editor’s note: Paquette will be returning to Oceanside, N.Y., on Friday, Nov. 30, with school supplies for an elementary school. Donations can be dropped off at three homes: 27 Little Pond Road, Merrimac, leave in shed if not home; 9 Cherry Tree Lane, Groveland; and 22 Milk St., Newburyport, leave in shed if not home.