Lending a hand, the American way

Pete Vredenburgh and Brendan Walsh measured sheetrock in Breezy Point, New York during a recent Habitat for Humanity trip to help those who suffered home damage from Hurricane Sandy. “People don’t realize this community still needs a lot of help,” Mr. Walsh said. “The experience of seeing it for yourself is eye opening.” The Category-1 hurricane devastated Breezy Point last fall, flooding and burning an entire neighborhood and ultimately destroying almost 500 homes. “Every bit of effort counts,” Mr. Vredenburgh added. “These people need us and it feels good to give back to them after all they’ve been through.” —Steve Coulter photo

Pete Vredenburgh and Brendan Walsh measured sheetrock in Breezy Point, New York during a recent Habitat for Humanity trip to help those who suffered home damage from Hurricane Sandy. “People don’t realize this community still needs a lot of help,” Mr. Walsh said. “The experience of seeing it for yourself is eye opening.” The Category-1 hurricane devastated Breezy Point last fall, flooding and burning an entire neighborhood and ultimately destroying almost 500 homes. “Every bit of effort counts,” Mr. Vredenburgh added. “These people need us and it feels good to give back to them after all they’ve been through.” —Steve Coulter photo

When thinking of concepts that define America, one doesn’t need to look much further than the unalienable rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

They are the goals we strive for every day when we wake up and what we dream about every night when we go to sleep.

However, what makes these standards sustainable — propelling us even in the midst of brutal and unfathomable devastation — is duty to community and hope in resiliency.

Both of these ideals are too often forgotten; nonetheless, they’re as important to our country’s survival as any other principle.

This past weekend, I was a part of a local Habitat for Humanity group that traveled to Breezy Point, N.Y., to repair homes that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in October.

Eight months after the storm that submerged every home in the community and burned down more than 100 houses, the private beach co-op located on the western end of the Rockaway peninsula is still suffering as it slowly rebuilds.

Six out of every seven houses remains unoccupied and dozens of homes have since been red-tagged for demolition.

The house I worked at was not near the epicenter of destruction — Ocean Avenue, where the fires, seen on the news by millions of Americans, erupted and spread uncontrollably.

Now, what used to be home to hundreds of Breezy Point residents has been mummified into a pit of sand, where the foundations of disintegrated houses pop out of the ground every 20 feet or so.

As much as the trip was about repairing homes, the mission was about getting to know the residents of this seaside community who received a significant amount of national attention in the wake of Sandy’s wrath, but have fallen victim to public apathy as months have flipped over on the 2013 calendar.

These are people who were suddenly misplaced from their homes and forced to live elsewhere without any assurance if they’d be able to ever return. And those who have returned are fighting an uphill battle against a bevy of opposing forces ranging from electric and insurance companies to this year’s looming hurricane season.

I had also gone to Breezy Point in January.

The destruction is hard to put into words without seeing it first-hand. I did my best when describing it to people who wanted to know what the scene looked like — the image was comparable to a bombed city during war.

This time around, instead of ripping up floorboards and demolishing walls as we did in January, we were rebuilding the internal structure of homes, installing Sheetrock.

Although the type of work we were asked to do had changed, the reality of the situation has not improved over time — there is still plenty of work to be done.

The two trips left me with distinctly different feelings.

In January, I left thinking this community would never truly recover; that Hurricane Sandy and Breezy Point would be interlocked in history as the storm that ended a town’s existence with one fateful blow.

I came away from Saturday’s trip with a much different outlook about the community’s survival.

What was once  a “ghost town,” Breezy Point now radiated with tangible energy throughout the day.

People could be seen biking and running, conversing and laughing, planning and returning.

The residents’ perseverance was best summarized in a collection of seashells that were aligned to spell “HOPE.”

This tribute was definitively American because it encompassed everything this country represents.

Although we can’t help replace the hundreds of vehicles that were totaled in the storm and we can’t forget the memories forged in the houses that were flooded, there is still a lot we can do.

Chiefly, we must continue to lend a hand to those in need, and not just those in Breezy Point. We have an obligation to help our neighbors — our fellow Americans — in Oklahoma, in Colorado, in Arizona, where natural disasters have impacted hundreds of thousands lives.

Our great nation has suffered recently and it’s our responsibility to never waver in our hope for and our commitment to each other.

That is the American way and as long as we preserve it, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will always be attainable.

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