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A Personal Story: Now It’s Oklahoma; Before It Was Sandy; Always, There Must Be Compassion

May 21, 2013

tornadoEveryone remembers the first time they watched The Wizard of Oz, and that moment when Dorothy opens her door to discover that she has landed in Oz, a world of color. The twister that hit her house in Kansas actually did her a favor, according to the film, by bringing her to a land of magic, mystical creatures and, ultimately, self-discovery. As in most movies, reality is totally distorted, as the likelihood of Dorothy and her little dog Toto surviving such a natural disaster is slim to none. The only thing that may have an element of truth is that disasters tend to bring us all a bit of self-discovery. In my life, I have witnessed the power of the humanity after a natural disaster, as people discover what they really have to offer, and pull together to rebuild.

Growing up in the Midwest, tornado drills were regular events at school, although I never experienced one myself, thank God. Once, when I was in Canada for the summer, there was an earthquake, but my experience with natural disasters was quite limited. That was until I found myself on Long Island for the duration of Superstorm Sandy. When I say “I found myself on Long Island,” I mean it was a total accident, as I live in Brooklyn. I had gone out with a friend in Manhattan the night before and went home with her, rather than returning to my apartment. On Sunday, with the storm approaching, rumors of the subway system shutting down became fact  and, before I knew it, the Long Island Railroad stopped service and I had no choice but to stay.

Spoiler alert: I did not wind up swimming out the door in search of a dry home. I am so thankful, because it’s no joke; that really happened to some people. I spent Sunday shopping for essentials as there was no telling how long I would be marooned. On Monday, the wind started howling, but the rain didn’t begin until much later in the day, around 6 or 7 p.m. At that point, we were stuck inside, but safely playing Trivial Pursuit. At around 8 o’clock, we lost electricity. Candles were lit, the basement was checked for flooding (there was about an inch of water), and we continued sitting around, waiting out the storm.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I found my friend’s parents sitting at the kitchen table listening to a battery-operated radio as the damage was being reported. Subway stations and tunnels were totally flooded. Later in the day, I went out with my friend to discover a total wasteland. Trees were everywhere — not just branches and limbs — but entire trees, roots and all. We saw a wooden play structure, the kind that is built to be sturdy, on its side, having taken down a fence in its fall. Store windows were smashed, shutters on the ground. Another friend in the area reported that water had reached the main floor of her house, but there was no electricity to pump it out. That’s not to mention the countless numbers of people who had lost entire homes. By Wednesday, we headed to Queens, as food from the fridge was all spoiled, and we were getting cold in the house due to the lack of heat. I went back to Brooklyn that night, but my friend went home to a house that would not regain power for two weeks.

These days, between the Internet and social media, it is easy to see clear pictures of the damage that is caused by extreme weather. Our hearts pour out to the victims, prayers are said, money is raised, volunteers abound.  And then, slowly, the interest usually dwindles. After Sandy, however, it was truly incredible to see communities pull together. The Baltimore community chartered buses for entire displaced families to come stay with them for Shabbat, opening their homes to total strangers. Owners of food establishments offered free meals to those who needed them. Facebook groups were created announcing extra beds in Washington Heights, clothing drives in Queens, and makeshift soup kitchens in Brighton Beach.

Weeks later, I saw a reasonably well-dressed man with a sign, “Still a Hurricane Sandy victim.” That was the whole message, but those five words spoke volumes to me.

God gave us a gift when He gave us the ability to heal. It is only natural that eventually the shock of a disaster wears off. Carpool, groceries, the morning coffee. Our routines go back to normal. But for the victims of these disasters, life can’t simply go on. For those who have lost everything, picking up the pieces takes time, much more time than it takes us to forget the severity of what transpired.

The tornado in Oklahoma should be a call to action. To keep those who were hit in our thoughts and our prayers; to raise awareness for disaster relief; to donate not only financially, but also our time, in whatever way we can, without a time limit. And, of course, to appreciate every day that we have a roof over our heads. After all, there’s no place like home.