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G9 Reflect: Post-Hurricane Sandy relief efforts with Team Rubicon

November 21, 2012

It’s now been one week since I left friends and colleagues in the New York/New Jersey area and have been thrust back full-force into photography life here in San Francisco. After seeing so many tragic and beautiful stories develop first-hand, it has been hard to decipher the essence of what I took away from this experience.  Some lives had been destroyed, some had been saved. It’s interesting to photograph a situation with such historic magnitude and infamy: seeing everything unfold through a lens creates an emotional distance for the photographer. Sometimes I feel that we don’t even fully process what happened until we review our images. Needless to say, life this past week has been surreal, going from disaster relief to socialite event photography in 48 hours. After much reflection, I’ve decided to share some thoughts and experiences (along with images). Here is the story:

On October 29th, 2012 Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard, bringing with it widespread destruction and flooding to many communities in the New Jersey and New York region.

Team Rubicon sent out the activation email later that evening that all regions were to deploy to New York and coordinate a full-scale disaster relief effort. Over the course of the next week, hundreds of volunteers from all over the US jumped on planes and flew to New York City. I arrived via JFK airport on Nov. 6th, a full week after Sandy had departed. After seeing status updates on Facebook from friends in the Northeast, I thought I had a clear understanding of the scope of damage… but nothing truly prepared me for the emotional roller-coaster ride I was about to take.

Volunteers assembled at Brooklyn Boulders, a local climbing gym that graciously lent their space to Team Rubicon for staging and a makeshift dormitory. I arrived around midnight to a dark and ominous gym. This would be home for the next week.

Having worked with Team Rubicon on a Burma humanitarian mission in 2011, I was very aware of how mobile, motivated, and ambitious the organization was. This disastrous perfect storm was also the perfect environment for the veteran-based volunteer organization to come together and orchestrate a massive disaster relief effort. Being a ‘civilian’, I’m always fascinated, though with a feeling of being slightly out of place, working alongside veterans. Their stories feel like they come from a different world, the common bond they share seems sacred and impenetrable. Photography is an interesting medium though: it allows for walls to be broken down and I get a quick glimpse into a soldier’s post-combat reality. During these relief efforts, I saw forces of good coming together for a common cause: vets being slammed into chaotic scenarios and organizing for the benefit of communities and humanity. This video — captured and edited by our good friend, Kirk Jackson with Going Home Pictures — gives a glimpse better than any words I could ever write:


It was working alongside veterans like Harry Golden that shed light on the beautiful side of what was really happening here. These volunteers were all changing inside: little pieces of their former lives were coming into play. Everyone was moving with a purpose. These guys knew they had a mission at hand. It was almost as if they were in that combat mentality again, except this time to help people rather than shoot at them. Before dinner, many volunteers would recount events from the day with a huge smile; this was a time of nourishment and food for the soul. A magical experience.

Even though every Team Rubicon volunteer had a mission and/or work order and proceeded to accomplish them with complete commitment, the stark reality was always a bit overwhelming when we arrived back at the devastation — people’s lives had been destroyed, residents still didn’t have power, water, food, warmth, medicine… This was a bad scene: looters were still entering houses at night and police presence was sparse. FEMA and Red Cross were still contemplating their next moves. Team Rubicon was on the ground and getting things done and residents took notice.

When I first arrived at the Far Rockaways neighborhood in Queens, I was walking down Main and 134th St. trying to make sense of what had happened. I was carrying a camera in each hand, 40lbs of gear on my back, wearing a black fleece, black beanie, and looked flat out paramilitary. A woman walked towards me from half-way down the block. From my experience, people affected in disaster situations are typically not friendly to photographers; they tend to see us as benefiting at the expense of others (although I argue that we’re preserving the reality of history and capturing the human spirit at its best). She came directly at me, and I became wary. As she got closer, she opened her arms and gave me a huge hug and said ‘thank you’. Again, reality set in. This was heavy. We were doing good things here; we were changing lives for the better.

The extreme damage of Hurricane Sandy in the Far Rockaways was mostly limited to the shoreline homes. For many, the entire beachfront living space had been opened and exposed to the elements. Bedrooms, televisions, kitchens, pictures, heirlooms, rugs clung to their structure by cables, nails, and raw wood. Residents walked the beach, standing and pointing in utter disbelief.

In addition to the the beachfront damage, many homes were still habitable, but presenting different challenges for residents. With the arrival of snow thanks to the nor-easter storm, many elderly found themselves in homes without electricity and heat. Team Rubicon prepped search-and-rescue (SAR) teams to go door-to-door and distribute blankets and further aid.

So, what does it feel like to live the life of a Team Rubicon disaster relief volunteer? Our daily routine went like this: rise at 6am, pack gear, head to staging, drink coffee, prep supplies for the day, jump in a van, drive an hour, rally with team leader, receive work orders, move ruined appliances, shovel sand, chainsaw trees, hand out food, rip out drywall, quick lunch, more work orders, load up in van at 6pm, eat dinner, drink beer, crash out, repeat. For us photographers, life was a little more complicated. All of the above applied, but when the other volunteers went to sleep, we stayed up downloading photos, sorting, editing, and uploading, usually until 3am or later.

Most of the photographers were ‘civilians’ and had also traveled from many different places across the US. We were a strange bunch, all putting up fronts when initiating conversations for the first time, sizing each other up, checking out each others’ gear. But that usually only lasted 5 mins, then we find ourselves best friends, geeking out with our common bond and discussing “best editing practices” and “oh, can I see that lens”. I met some amazing photographers throughout my week there, and couldn’t have asked to photograph alongside a better group of guys.

After three days of constant movement around the Far Rockaways, two of us jumped in a van and headed south to join fellow volunteers in the New Jersey area. We had heard reports that the damage was on a different level along the Jersey shore. On our way down, we passed what from the distance looked like normal harbors, but upon closer inspection, turned out to be boats literally piled on top of each over throughout every marina. We knew we were headed into something different.

I’ll let the images speak for themselves. Never in my life had I seen something like this first-hand.

Union Beach, NJ

Family photos, torn scarves, roof shingles, brush, mud, destruction. I found myself walking from one decimated lot to another, there were no words. I paused many times, with heavy sighs and bewildered thoughts. These homes, memories, and lives were uprooted and no more. How does life move forward after something like this? How do families regroup and start anew? How would this whole community recover from something like this? I began to lose it. One of the residents was standing in front of his lot, completely lost and obviously struggling to comprehend everything. I approached him, introduced myself, and asked if we could help him in any way. He stared at the exposed foundation of his home, now a one-bedroom swimming pool. He turned to me and said, “I can’t find my roof, it had white shingles…” Its strange how in times of utter chaos, we as humans choose to dwell on the these small things… the only things we can make sense of when absolutely nothing else does. I offered to help him search. We walked around the neighborhood as he pointed to different items of debris, signaling to me which belonged to which neighbors. After walking almost 5 blocks inland, he bent down and picked up a small chunk of shingles, white in color. He grimaced.

Team Rubicon helped resident after resident in the Union Beach region. We plowed driveways, removed decks that had migrated three blocks from their homes, helped homeowners pick valuables from the rubble. Again, Team Rubicon worked alone in these neighborhoods. Local police patrolled the streets from time to time, but FEMA and Red Cross were still nowhere to be found. This was 1.5 weeks after Hurricane Sandy. On the whole, residents were pleased with our help and shared drinks, candy, and snacks with our volunteers. Many laughed and tried to make light of the situation; many also shared tears together.

This is one of those events in life where little pieces of you change. A new understanding develops about how robust and resilient the human spirit is. As volunteers, I know that we will each take away a deeper meaning of hope and community. We heard the word “heroes” a lot from residents and law enforcement during the week, but the reality is that we were not the “heroes”… the residents and communities that came together to support each other in this grave time of need were the real heroes.

As much of the media world now moves on to more ‘relevant’ topics such as Israel, Palestine, Thanksgiving, and Black Friday, please remember that there are residents in America STILL without hot water, power, and a roof they can call home.

To donate to Team Rubicon, please click here: http://www.teamrubiconusa.org. 100% of your donation goes directly to the field.

A big thanks to Jesse Levin w/ (Archer Group Investments) for being the unsung hero and aligning the stars for Team Rubicon and Brooklyn Boulders.

– Marc Fiorito

Image Courtesy of Andrew Herrold

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana permalink
    November 23, 2012 6:33 pm

    Thank you. Beautiful. Shows Team Rubicon’s heart and hard work well.

  2. chap. eddie greyfox permalink
    November 23, 2012 6:39 pm

    After 25 yrs with the red cross this is amazing ! Hooraahhhh!

    Chap. Eddie Greyfox

  3. November 23, 2012 6:49 pm

    NIce work Team Rubicon!

  4. November 23, 2012 8:21 pm

    This is a beautiful story and it really conveys the heart of Team Rubicon. Thank you for painting such a clear picture, visually and verbally for us.

  5. February 2, 2013 9:10 pm

    Good stuff, Marc. And good work.

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