The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International

Habitat World

An Essay

Circle of Friends

A storm, a story and an unexpected connection

You struggle to know just what a storm has brought.

It’s easy to think it’s the water­logged piles of mementos, belongings and debris that start to accumulate outside ruined houses. Or that it’s the grit in the air and the odd sweet smell that lingers during demolition and clean-up. At times, you wonder if somehow you’ve gotten it wrong. Maybe the storm really doesn’t bring anything; it only takes.

Every so often — right as I’m waking up, in the split second before I open my eyes — there are still mornings when I think I’m in my apartment in New Orleans. Not that long ago, I spent more than an hour rummaging through a closet, looking for a family photo I was sure I just couldn’t find before remembering that I don’t have it any more. Katrina does.

After that massive storm hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, everyone in my home state of Louisiana talked a lot about the “new normal.” The truth, of course, was that normal was gone. Katrina had claimed it and left us instead with a strange new now.

In October 2012, families in towns and cities all along the East Coast crossed that same threshold. The winds and water of Superstorm Sandy damaged and destroyed homes and businesses and forever changed communities. Part of what makes these storms so difficult for those in their paths — part of what I felt and definitely part of what I saw when I visited the hard-hit town of Breezy Point, New York, a week after Sandy — is that they don’t only happen to you individually. They also happen to everything and everyone around you.

Habitat helpers begin a day of volunteering in Union Beach, N.J., with a prayer. Scott Umstattd
Habitat helpers begin a day of volunteering in Union Beach, N.J., with a prayer.

There can be solidarity in that fact, but it’s also very easy to feel, when everything familiar is suddenly and constantly so unfamiliar, as though you are just another one of the things tossed about by the wind and rain and water. As though you and yours are adrift and the rest of the world, with its business as usual, is somewhere out there, very far away.

What’s amazing is how people you don’t even know can help mend that connection. After every storm, I always found it a little bit thrilling to see the power trucks from surrounding states heading south to help get the lights back on. Multiply that times infinity when it’s Habitat volunteers and donors, church groups, AmeriCorps members, all coming together to help try to put back this place that you and your family have loved for so long.

Returning home from Breezy Point, I wrote stories for our ongoing Why We Build series and the Habitat World blog. The small shoreline community in the New York City borough of Queens seemed to provide a perfect example of the hope that Habitat volunteers can bring. In my short visit, I met first responders, school teachers and city workers who were struggling to help themselves — and each other. As I saw on the Gulf Coast, as I’ve seen in locations around the world, Habitat’s presence buoyed Breezy Point and gave the people I met faith that their struggles would not be forgotten.

Shortly after our stories published, we received the most wonderful gift of an email. A woman named Susan Ryan had seen the story and realized with shock that the accompanying photo was the rubble of her family home. A lifelong and third-generation resident of Breezy Point, Susan also happens to be a veteran Habitat volunteer. Splitting her time between New York and Orchid, Florida, Susan is part of an active group of fundraisers and builders who support Indian River Habitat. In the past 15 years, the group has completed 20 houses, hosting events, gathering donations and sending a crew of volunteers every Thursday to help out on build sites. Susan and her fellow volunteers have helped raise walls, insulate, paint, install siding and hurricane braces, and celebrate the joyful dedications of new Habitat homes.

Habitat supporter Susan Ryan recognized the ruins of her Breezy Point family home in this photo — and the encircling nature of the work we all do. William Neumann
Habitat supporter Susan Ryan recognized the ruins of her Breezy Point family home in this photo — and the encircling nature of the work we all do.

Calling the photo from Breezy Point an “amazing coincidence,” Susan then went on to describe a second one: “The first people I met after I returned to check out the damage were Habitat people asking if I needed help! So what we really are is a huge circle of friends helping each other.”

In all of Habitat’s disaster response work — in the Gulf, after the tsunami, in Haiti, now along the East Coast of the United States — there’s the obvious need to repair and build houses alongside affected families. But I believe that the sense of strength and support that runs through all of those efforts is a very important part of why Habitat does what we do. We are a circle of friends, ever widening, ever working. And what we bring — to communities affected by disaster, to families living in unacceptable conditions, to neighborhoods struggling to revive — is a presence that helps re-root them, a solid way forward that settles their spirit. Our work tells people like Susan that we will take the next steps with their communities.

One of my favorite quotes, one you’ve seen in the magazine before, is Rabindranath Tagore’s “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” I think hope is a bird of a similar feather, one that starts to sing as soon as the storm has passed. As Habitat’s response to Sandy continues — in places like Breezy Point and Staten Island and coastal New Jersey — it’s a song that only needs a strong circle of friends to carry forward.

With your help, we’ve carried that song to New Orleans and places all along the Gulf Coast. I’ve seen how it’s still there, its chorus strengthening as neighborhoods, communities and families continue to heal. Now, there are others who need to hear it, too, others who have been forever changed — by the storm, but also by what the storm has brought.

The bad came in, but the good is here, too.”

As part of its response to Superstorm Sandy, Habitat for Humanity International launched its first-ever fleet of Mobile Response Units. In late December, 24 vans donated by Chevrolet and specially outfitted with tools and supplies donated by Lowe’s and the Robert Bosch Tool Corporation departed Atlanta to assist in communities in New York and New Jersey.

Upon its arrival, the Habitat fleet was immediately put into service in Staten Island, New York, and Union Beach, New Jersey, where volunteers already were working to help clean up and begin rebuilding.

Ezra Millstein (2)

Homeowners welcomed the caravan’s additional resources — and volunteers. In Union Beach, Habitat helped homeowner TamiLynn Willoughby inspect the damage to her home and begin repairs. “I feel so grateful that you’re here,” she said to the assembled volunteers. “The bad came in, but the good is here, too.”

Some of that good stayed — the Mobile Response Units have been deployed to a dozen Habitat affiliates in the greater New York metropolitan area to help continue extensive clean-up and repair efforts.