Upon arrival at the gathering/distribution center in Elizabethtown, one could tell that something big was going to happen. Folks who came to help milled about and mingled with coordinators from Essex County, New York State, and the National Guard. There was an air of expectation, a feeling that something important and vital was going on. It was busy and crowded, but there was organization.
It was one of first gatherings of the Governor’s Hurricane Recovery Team’s Labor for Your Neighbor initiative, which was organized to help assist storm-damaged communities in the very damaging wake of Tropical Storm Irene. On the morning of Sept. 4, we joined the crowds at the staging area at one of the buildings at the Essex County complex, figuring we would get a cleanup assignment, but wondering how it was all going to work. After a relatively short period of time, we joined four other people as a cleanup team of six. Our team gathered up our equipment, lunch, and water, and boarded a small county-owned bus for our trip to Au Sable Forks, an area that was particularly hard hit by flooding and power outages. Heading north and then west to our destination, we were all amazed at the results of the destructive force that was the Ausable River following the Aug. 28 storm.
Our team’s plan was to join another group of six helpers at the home of a family that lives along the Ausable River’s east branch, upstream of the center of Au Sable Forks. We arrived to find the other team already hauling sopping, mud-encrusted belongings from the basement of the home. We grabbed our shovels and disappeared beneath the house via a hole that had been opened through the concrete block foundation. For the next two hours, we (wearing our extremely useful hardhats) quietly hauled soaked and muddied personal belongings from the basement followed by two hours of shoveling large volumes of mud and concrete into wheelbarrows for disposal into a pit that was periodically emptied by a backhoe parked outside the hole in the basement wall. The pile of soaked and muddied things in the driveway grew large. Mud was everywhere, and people worked steadily — there was a job to do.
Water levels in the Ausable River rose 20 feet following the Aug. 28 storm. The basement of the home we were working in was flooded to the top of the 7-foot-high basement ceiling and a couple of feet high within the living space (immediately above the basement) of the ranch-style home. We had a chance to take a look at the tame and pleasant-looking river nearby — less than a week before the river was a raging and destructive torrent. The damage to this family’s home and the upsetting of the family members’ lives was evident. We had a chance to speak with parents and kids, and their strength of purpose and resolve was amazing.
At the end of the day, we were wet, muddy, and beat, but we had managed to help people who truly appreciated what we had done. The good feeling one gets from volunteering time and energy was present in all who came out for this “Labor for Your Neighbor” effort.
At the same, we know that the recovery is far from over and encourage all to call 211 (the United Way statewide telephone number that will link you to volunteer cleanup opportunities around New York State).
Mike Corey participated in the Labor for Your Neighbor event. He is a contributing writer for Denton Publications.