Feature stories

Hurricane Sandy — Pitching in, reaching out

Repaying a debt

Upstate teachers volunteer to help rebuild Staten Island town

Jonathan Fickies

Helpers from upstate empty the ruined contents of a home in Midland Beach on Staten Island.
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Jonathan Fickies The team of good Samaritans from Schoharie unloads donations they bused down from upstate.
Jonathan Fickies

Randy Gunther, a 5th-grade teacher at Schoharie Central School, tears down waterlogged walls from a home with his son, Robert (background) and other volunteers.

They arrived on Staten Island in a bus from Schoharie in upstate New York, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, sneakers or workboots, carrying shovels and crowbars and hammers and utility knives in their workgloved hands.

They turned down an offer to have breakfast. “We came here to work,” one said. “Let’s get started.”

It was just over a year ago when a delegation of UFT members bused upstate to help rebuild homes in Schoharie, a town that was decimated by floods caused by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.

So, after Hurricane Sandy battered New York City in late October, leaving thousands of residents in much the same shape as his town’s people were in a year ago, Schoharie Teachers Association President Martin Messner didn’t waste any time.

“As soon as the hurricane hit, I put a call in and asked, ‘When do you want us?’” Messner said.

It was determined that they would come to Staten Island’s Midland Beach, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

So Messner put out the word through the New York State United Teachers, the state affiliate of both the Schoharie Teachers Association and the UFT, that they were seeking volunteers to make the 200-mile trek. Educators and others from places like Glens Falls, Troy, Albany and Amsterdam also signed up for the trip.

“It’s great to see my upstate friends again,” Mulgrew said as the buses pulled up.

Unlike New York City, where much of the most serious destruction was caused by a storm surge of seawater and high winds, Schoharie was flooded by rainwater that came down from the mountains. Besides the loss of homes, livestock drowned in the floods, and an oil station off Main Street crumbled, causing 200,000 gallons of oil to mix with the water and spread a toxic muck through the town.

“No one was allowed in for three days,” Messner said.

Schoharie was left pretty much to fend for itself — with the exception of help from the UFT and other NYSUT locals.

One year later, only 40 percent of the homes have been rebuilt, Messner said.

Still, they knew what they’d need to do to help rebuild Midland Beach — which ironically mostly meant emptying homes and tearing down walls soaked by a storm surge more than 10 feet high in some places in the battle to prevent mold damage.

Power has been out across the neighborhood since the storm, and houses — many of them bungalows that still make up much of the shoreline community — are in various states of disrepair.

After delivering drinking water, cleaning products and other supplies to a holding center, the upstate group fanned out across Midland Beach, passing the ruined furniture and appliances that lined the sidewalks and sidestepping the heavy sanitation equipment that was moving it into piles. There they joined other volunteer crews from places as far off as Missouri, Texas and Virginia plus hundreds more from Staten Island.

Homeowners flagged down the swarming brigades to request help, but the Schoharie group had been given addresses and were guided to their assignments by UFT members who also volunteered.

Renee Zumbolo, who was one of three teachers from Lynch Literacy Academy in Amsterdam to make the trip, donated money to Schoharie a year ago, but said that coming to Staten Island was much more satisfying.

“What better way to make a difference?” she asked after helping to empty a home of still-soaked clothing and furniture. “What I like about it is you actually see and meet the people you’re helping.”

When their day was through, the volunteers headed back the eight blocks to meet their bus at St. Margaret Mary Church, which is serving as a hub for the area’s relief effort. Teacher Chris Clizbe marveled at the almost carnival atmosphere despite the devastation as he stopped at one of the many stands serving free food to the workers.

“The community spirit is amazing,” said Clizbe, who organized the group from Lynch Literacy and also brought along his wife, Angie, and 12-year-old daughter, Emily.

“Yes,” Angie added. “Still, I feel like with all we did, we barely made a dent.”

Dom, one of the homeowners who benefited from the group’s efforts, would beg to differ.

“They were a godsend,” he said.

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