It looked like another marathon Sunday in New York City. Thousands of runners flooded into the Staten Island Ferry Terminal proudly wearing their NYC Marathon shirts, ready to release energy built up and stored over 18 weeks of training.
But upon closer look you could see it wasn't just another marathon Sunday. The runners were carrying backpacks loaded with much-needed supplies, and the orange shirts worn by many represented a race that would never happen. Late Friday afternoon the New York City Marathon was canceled, leaving tens of thousands of runners across the city without plans for the day. Instead of reacting with anger and frustration, this group of roughly 1,300 runners, New York Runners in Support of Staten Island, decided to put months of training to use to help the hardest-hit residents of Staten Island, the borough that hosts the iconic start of the annual marathon.
We gathered into groups based on the distance we were willing to cover and set off on foot, running awkwardly through the streets with bags weighing up to 15 pounds or more. One runner in our group carried his own backpack along with two bags from another runner. There were no water stations or people cheering, it was a silent and more personal endeavor. People looked in awe as we passed, some honking horns and thanking us. There were a lot of "God bless you's" shared along the way.
As we neared the South side of the island the scene drastically changed. Streets were deep with mud, some still flooded. Trees were down. Power was out and traffic was a mess due to the lack of stoplights and cars lined up for miles waiting for gas. People also stood in line with gas cans, patiently waiting their turns. When we arrived at our destination, 7.2 miles from the ferry, we were met with sights I cannot describe. It's one thing to see images in the news and quite another to be in the midst of it. These people truly lost everything and are desperately trying to pick up the pieces and start over.
We started by clearing several garbage bags full of roofing shingles, drywall and other materials pulled from the damaged homes. Then we walked up and down the streets offering help to anyone who needed. A few of us joined a group working to clear the yard of an elderly resident who evacuated, but wants to ultimately return to her home. There was a marsh across the street so the yard was filled 2-4 feet deep with wet reeds, twigs and mud. We used rakes, shovels and our hands to pull the debris out and cart it across the street in wheelbarrows, laundry baskets or anything that could hold it. Planks had been set up to offer safe passage into the dumping area. I looked down as I crossed and realized it was the door from someone's home.
As we shoveled and raked, little glimmers of the life that once was struck me with sadness. We uncovered bits of a garden, some flowers still clinging to life under the piles of wreckage. There were random household items and broken jars along with a basketball hoop turned upside down and buried. The shed was flipped onto it's side. Then as we lifted an enormous pile into the wheelbarrow I spotted a little green snake that had been buried. I picked him up and was looking for a safe place to leave him when one of the other volunteers decided to take him home. That one little snake brought a lot of smiles as the group paused to take photos.
After a couple hours the yard was completely cleaned out, a task that seemed insurmountable when we arrived.
We spent the next hour or so dropping off the supplies we carried out and delivering food to people working in their houses. Burger King donated huge bags of hamburgers that we happily passed out to hungry, tired workers. I was struck by the humility of these people. Many who were hungry had to be urged to take something because they worried that someone else may need it more. People offered food to us even though they didn't have any to spare. It was incredible that an act as simple as dropping off a hamburger could be so powerful.
As we walked back to the relief area we saw a group of people spreading wet photos out on the lawn to dry. People gathered to see if any of their precious memories were among the survivors. People lost so much more than just physical possessions.
As sunset neared we regrouped for the run back to the ferry with lighter backpacks and heavier hearts. I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to help, even just for a day, but so much more help is needed. It will be months before these people can even begin to start again, and years before their lives feel normal.
Supporters of keeping the marathon as planned said the race and its participants represented the triumph of the human spirit, of what is possible if you put your mind to it. If you want to see triumph of the human spirit, get on the Staten Island ferry and go to the beach neighborhoods on the South side. And while you're there, grab a shovel and lend a hand. It will be the most rewarding thing you've ever done, more rewarding than any marathon could ever be.
Great news coverage of today's effort can be found on Time, NY1, NBC Nightly News, Runner's World, Yahoo!, Bloomberg, Huffington Post and NBC Today, among others. Please support Hurricane Sandy Relief efforts.