Dispatch from a basement in the Rockaways

December 7, 2012: 10:50 AM ET

After Sandy, the long and difficult cleanup continues.

By Ryan Bradley

sandy reliefFORTUNE -- The day started like a bad joke and ended like poetry. How many Fortune editors and writers does it take to clean out a storm-ravaged basement in the Rockaways? The answer was nine, plus our leader, Bizzi (short for Ysabel).

The space was filled with soiled and moldy and sodden stuff. Unexpected objects had become unimaginably heavy -- waterlogged diapers, for instance, felt like bricks. We took out everything and filled nearly 40 extra-large black contractors bags with a lot of it. We wore hardware-store-bought gloves and dust masks and goggles that fogged. Stuff we removed: a refrigerator, a rusted file cabinet, a dressmaker's dummy, two guitars (one electric, one acoustic), a Yamaha keyboard, at least 100 pounds of pulpy material. Stuff we did not: a second refrigerator, too large to fit through the doorway, which we nicknamed the White Whale.

We piled all the bags on the curb and all the way up the sidewalk to the front yard, leaving a space around the fire hydrant in the middle of it all. We had a quick lunch around 12:30. The elderly couple, whose home this was, sat away from us: she in the front, he in the back. I think it must have been painful for them, to see so much of their life rendered garbage, and strange to have it carted away by yuppies from Manhattan. He was a musician; those were his instruments; he wanted to make sure we got pictures of them, for the insurance. Bizzi already had. Bizzi managed to handle most everything.

MORE: Torn apart after Sandy, the Seaport community comes together

After lunch she showed us how to strip a room of drywall, the wood floor, and even the ceiling. We were working in one corner of the room, Bizzi and I, peeling crumby drywall by a fuse box and wall socket, when suddenly she stood up, turned to me and said calmly, "I'm pretty sure I just got electrocuted." She bent back down to investigate, poking a hammer near the socket. Sparks flew out of the wall. "OK," she said, and stood back up. She went over to the fuse box and turned everything off, then she asked us all to leave. Not fifteen minutes later, three fire trucks from two different stations pulled up on either end of the block and a dozen New York firemen spilled out and around the pile of trash. A few filled in the space we left around the hydrant.

The dispatcher told them there was an electrical fire in the basement. There had been some miscommunication. After she was shocked and moved us all outside, Bizzi found some FEMA workers and asked them who to call, given the situation. They said to call 311, the city's information hotline. Before Sandy, Bizzi worked out in Montana, building trails through wilderness. Now she was in charge of a crew of desk jockeys with no demolition experience. And suddenly here were a dozen New York City firemen who wanted answers from her. Worth noting: Bizzi was younger than the youngest of us by at least three years.

She was a total pro. She led a few of the firemen down into the basement and explained the situation. They were incredibly understanding, and kind, and loved that we had taken the day to do this hard and not very glamorous project. One checked the fuse, saw that everything was off, and said: "Don't go near that. It's all rusted out and terrible in there. You can work down here, just stay away from this corner." So we did.

MORE: How Facebook and Twitter changed disaster relief

We stripped the basement of most everything going rotten, including the floor, which was extremely difficult. Above one bit of ceiling, we found a case of old .22-bullets and a purple rabbits foot keychain, for luck. We worked from about 10:30 until 4 and just about cleaned out the whole place. Looking at the space, at the day's end, and considering how it appeared five hours earlier, it felt monumental. And yet it was just one house, one basement -- there were so, so many more. Driving back we passed block after block where such work was still desperately needed.

There is really just one person responsible for getting us out of the office and into that basement on Tuesday: our colleague, Katie Benner. She has spent day after day in the Rockaways and Staten Island, working with folks like Bizzi to do the real work to restore the homes and businesses destroyed in the storm surge. Early in the afternoon, not long after we began stripping the place, Fortune editor Tim Smith saw Katie working away and came up with this couplet:

Katie Benner with a sledge
Pounding on a window ledge

By the end of the day he had finished the verse:

Isn't in it for the bucks
She just thinks that Sandy sucks.

Click an image to view gallery:

*******************

Katie's comprehensive and wonderful Tumblr, Sandy Sucks, has all kinds of information about volunteering and donating. If you live in the area and would like to help clean up—and you should!—Katie's page about various organizations and efforts is here. Below, Katie has some extremely good advice and recommendations for cleanup crews:

In general:

- Be prepared to get dirty/lift heavy things.

- Feel free to bring a donation or two if you're driving all that way. Right now people really appreciate soap, shampoo, dish soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, paper towels, and germ killing cleaning supplies. You're already donating time and manpower, so don't sweat it if you can't. (Saint Gertrude's Church and Smallwater take donations as well as run demo projects).

- It takes about an hour/hour and 15 to get to the Rockaways from pretty much anywhere, maybe a little more with traffic.

- The day ends between 3:30 and 4pm because it's hard to work after the sun goes down.

To work with Nechama/World Cares (the organization we worked with):

- They ask volunteers to meet at Saint Gertrude's Church at Beach 38th Street and Rockaway Beach Blvd at 9am.

- Please bring your own protective gear. This means gloves, goggles, and a P100 respirator mask. These can easily be purchased online. (Mask, gloves, goggles). And consider donating the goggles/gloves when you're done... A headlamp/flashlight is helpful, too, since many people still don't have power in their basements.

- On the weekend, you can just show up at Saint Gertrude's and World Cares will put you to work.

- These guys tend to work in poorer parts of the Rockaways, near the projects, from the Beach 70s to Beach 20s.

To work with Smallwater:

- Smallwater is an organization run by friends of Veggie Island and Rockaway Taco, the nice hippie juice bar and hipster taco stand in the Rockaways.

- Smallwater asks volunteers to show up by 10am at their big white tent at Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Blvd.

- Bring your own protective gear (mask/gloves/goggles). Right now Smallwater is focusing on home cleanup/muck outs/demo. But sometimes they want people to sort donations.

- In the days before you go, let Smallwater you're coming by emailing volunteer@smallwater.org. Tell them how many people you'll be and say you want to do home demo/clean up.

- I like these guys because they were part of the Rockaways community before the storm and will continue to support and help the community after the clean up projects end.

- They work all over the Rockaways.

To work with New York Cares:

- NY Cares has taken up where Team Rubicon left off, working on a 40 block section of the Rockaways near Belle Harbor. I believe this covers from around Beach 100 to around Beach 140, but am not certain. These are more middle class neighborhoods, and there were some fires nearby.

- They are pretty well organized and they are doing demo/clean up/mold remediation.

- NY Cares ask volunteers to meet at 9/9:30 at Beach 123rd and Rockaway Beach Blvd.

- NY Cares provides masks and gloves.

- They say they're running muck out projects every day through the spring.

To work with the Brown Cross in Staten Island:

- The Brown Cross asks you to arrive between 9 and 10 at 95 Hett Avenue in Staten Island

- They provide protective gear.

- They are running projects on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

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