Mission to Midland Beach: Running in Sandy Relief Supplies

by Shamala Kandiah Thompson and Paul Thompson

Last week we were holed up in Peekskill with no where to go, thanks to Sandy. Other than a touch of cabin fever, we were lucky. We had power, water, internet and cell phone access, gas, and the ability to work from home. But there were many less fortunate and in need of help. So we decided to put our legs and lungs to use by running supplies into Staten Island, one of the areas hardest hit.

By mid-week a different sort of storm was brewing. After first having declared Sunday’s New York City Marathon (NYCM) would go on, New York Mayor Bloomberg cancelled it on Friday evening. Many, especially those from Staten Island where the race started, were against holding it. The cancellation was a huge disappointment to those who were going to be on the starting line but many decided to redirect their efforts to where it was most needed.

The runners heading off into Staten Island.
Photo Credit: Shamala Kandiah Thompson

Through my workmate and fellow running enthusiast, Robbin we learned about New York Runners in Support of Staten Island. Paul galvanized some of his Warren Street teammates and by Saturday night we had 20 people ready to run in with supplies and to help out as needed.

Paul on the ferry with some of the Warren Street Runners

Here are our accounts of that day:

Shamala

I knew that I was not going to be as fast as Paul and his team-mates but for once I didn’t care. I was determined to help. If that meant running 10 miles with a full backpack I was happy to do it.

At 8.30 am we joined about a thousand other runners most of them dressed in orange and carrying backpacks at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. We had decided on a 5.5 mile route that would take us to the Midland Beach area. I formed a group with Robbin, her friend Betsy and Larry, a Central Park Track Club runner and his wife, Catherine. We set out at a slow but steady pace letting the faster Warren Street runners surge ahead.

Betsy who had the biggest backpack of us all proved she was a tough cookie by keeping up with us and acting as our navigator!
Photo Credit: Robbin VanNewkirk

Moving through neighborhoods that seemed largely untouched by the storm I began to wonder if the media had hyped up the extent of the damage. The only signs of anything unusual were the long gas lines. But as we got closer to our destination things changed. We saw sidewalks piled high with sodden furniture and household items. Oddly, for such an obsessive photographer, I  had no desire to take photos of the damage. The damage was someone’s misery.

There were some big pieces that needed to be moved out of the yard.
Photo Credit: Robbin VanNewKirk

Spotting a community center we popped in to offer manpower and supplies. We were given a warm welccome, including offers of soup and coffee, which we declined. While clothes and toiletries were welcome what they really needed was physical strength. We were quickly dispatched to help a family clear out their flooded basement and backyard. When we got to the house we found that although they had been working for four days there was plenty to do. We started in the damp, muddy basement carrying out debris but the owners, worried about our safety, soon moved us out to the yard. There we carried out soaked, muddy items, to the curb or straight into a garbage truck. We were told that until the wires are checked and insurance sorted they won’t get power back. And after all that their house could still be condemned if the foundation was affected.

Walking around neighborhoods most impacted I saw for myself how the storm had ruined the lives of residents. People thanked us for coming and shared their stories. And they had come together to help each other. There were spontaneous soup kitchens and supply drop-off points. But almost no sign of any government help. This was a community desperately trying to rebuild, largely DIY, who were grateful for the little assistance we gave. I wish we could have done more.

We were touched when the family we’d worked with asked for a group photo.

Paul

Within minutes of departing the ferry terminal a group of 9 of us (Larry, Lauren, Roos, Michelle, Jess, James, Kevin and I) opened up a big gap on Shamala and friends. After a few attempts to merge the groups we decided to go our separate ways and meet later. From here on the group was in the unreliable hands of me and my Google Maps App.

Paul trying to convince his teammates that he won’t get them lost.
Photo Credit: Shamala Kandiah Thompson

We ended up running a parallel course to the official route but I convinced the group I knew what I was doing. I managed to explain away a few course ‘corrections’ as shortcuts but I think they saw through that. Halfway there the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge loomed into view, the start of the NYCM, teasing those of us that were meant to be there at that very time on the start line.

As we approached ‘ground zero’ things started to change. For the worse. The roads were descending towards Midland Beach. Proud, comfortable, family homes on higher ground, largely untouched by Sandy, slowly gave way to entire blocks that had clearly been under water. The scale of the devastation was enormous. We were still over 15 blocks from the sea and the shoreline stretched about 4 miles. And it could only get worse as we closed on the sea.

You could feel the trepidation in our group. Jolly banter turned to stunned silence as we each in our own way tried to take in and make sense of what we saw. People milled around as if there homes had evicted them. It dawned on us the contents of their homes were in piles on the roadside, one huge pile per home. Once precious possessions waiting for the sanitation truck.

Keen to have maximum impact we wanted to focus efforts where most needed. We felt like an elite military team airlifted into the area. Only fitter. The residents greeted us with cheers and hi fives. Most knew we were connected in some way with the NYCM. But we badly needed to find work to do, otherwise we’d start to look like tourists taking in Sandy’s sights.

We sought directions from the 122nd Precinct and found a make shift distribution centre on the side of the road a few blocks from the seafront. Offering our help we were told to run supplies into the Midland Hotel across the road. It was dark, damp and few residents seemed to be home. So we bailed out.

And for the next few hours we – now joined by Michelle, Rachel and Eitan – scoured the streets with a storm damaged shopping trolley piled with supplies, volunteering our labor. We helped clear a flooded basement, breaking up and bagging sodden dry wall. We then moved on to clear the yard and basement of an elderly hispanic couple. Their single storey home and car had been overwhelmed. Once we were done all their worldly goods were in a pile in the road. I left them with a Home Depot giftcard, trifling given the damage and loss.

As we were heading back we bumped into New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg, on her own doing her bit to help. On the route home our bags were lighter, relieved of the supplies. I ran back with Pascal, a Warren Street runner, who had started with us in Manhattan but gotten separated along the way.  We made good ground and virtually sprinted the last mile in a desperate but successful bid to make the 2:30pm ferry. We were so keen to catch it we’d have swam for it. On the train home  Shamala and I  headed towards home comforts: we were lucky and very thankful for that.

Postscript:

Warren Street runners were featured in these  news stories: http://www.news-record.com/blog/64298/entry/156783 and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/sports/marathon-runners-embrace-chance-to-help-storm-stricken-new-yorkers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (see the photo section). You can find a lot more stories from runners who went in to help on Sunday on New York Runners in Support of Staten Island’s Facebook page.

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