Rockaway Beach is a community on the south shore of Long Island in Queens. Some residents speculate that they were hit the worst by Hurricane Sandy, tore through their homes and their livelihood, Oct. 29.
Even though the worst of Sandy hit this small peninsula when the storm made landfall just weeks ago, the neighborhood was still alarmingly reminiscent of a scene from the film “I Am Legend.”
I walked down one of the main roads, Cronston Ave., on Nov. 11 along with nine other BYU-Idaho students, each of us wearing a yellow vest that read “MORMON HELPING HANDS.”
Signs of disaster were everywhere. An emergency services truck from the Red Cross, a silver Mini Cooper with a busted back window, garbage bags caked with dirt lining the curbs and the faces of residents who were dressed in their grubby work clothes for the umpteenth day in a row.
Five students turned onto 127th Street. Weathered houses missing siding and covered in mud greeted us. The ocean was less than a mile away.
When we reached house 527, a small man named Eddie, his arms full of water-logged boards, motioned for us to follow him.
“I need help,” he said in a thick Chinese accent.
I followed Eddie down to his dingy, musty basement.
“All the walls and the ceiling have to go,” he said
Eddie explained that when the storm hit, the water filled the entire basement and 4 feet of the main level.
In the two weeks that had passed since the storm and the following nor’easter had passed through, Eddie had paid $1,800 to have his belongings removed and an additional $400 to get the water pumped out.
With only a shovel, a hammer and a blue garbage can, Eddie was tearing out what was left of a portion of his home. His walls, which were the consistency of soggy graham crackers, crumbled at the smallest impact.
But Eddie was one of the lucky ones. His neighbors to the right were cleaning out their houses only to have them demolished; Sandy had done irreparable damage to the foundations.
We got to work quickly, tearing away portions of the drywall with our hands. The strenuous labor was exhausting, but knowing how much Eddie had already been through, I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
It wasn’t too long before Eddie found out where we were from.
“You came all the way from Idaho to help me?” Eddie asked us in utter disbelief.
It was not until that moment, standing in Eddie’s gutted basement, the smell of mold and dirt filling my lungs, that I was truly proud to be an American.
I have always loved my country and have always felt gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy, but never have I felt the swellings of pride in my heart until that sunny afternoon as I cleaned what was left of one man’s home.
What we did inside Eddie’s dark and damp basement represented the foundation of what this great country is built on — heart, character and a willingness to lend a hand.
The service offered that day by over 200 volunteers in yellow vests represented the care and compassion from 50 states that make this blessed country.
It just so happened that at 527 and 127th Street, Washington, Utah and Idaho were represented.
Tears began to surreptitiously creep into my eyes, and before I knew it, I was searching for a clean part of my sleeve to wipe them away.
Hours later, the five of us said goodbye to Eddie. I don’t plan on seeing him again, but I also don’t plan on forgetting what I learned in his musty, dirty basement: America thrives in the heart of its citizens.