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Volunteers help Sandy victims start over

By Jonathan Hughes, Special to CNN
November 21, 2012 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
AmeriCares volunteers help clean out flood-damaged homes in Queens, New York, during
AmeriCares volunteers help clean out flood-damaged homes in Queens, New York, during "Operation Muck-Out."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • AmeriCares volunteer works with Sandy victims trying to rebuild their homes and lives
  • Volunteers spent most of the day dismantling the kitchen, first floor of a home
  • The homeowner told volunteers he was channeling his energy into cleanup and rebuilding

Editor's note: Jonathan Hughes is an AmeriCares relief worker assisting in the organization's response to Superstorm Sandy. He is just one of many people trying to help victims of the storm start over.

(CNN) -- The entire first floor had a rust-colored ring 3 feet high where Sandy had left its mark. The damaged furniture had already been tossed, and all that was left was a concrete floor and bare walls. Our AmeriCares "Operation Muck-Out" team immediately got to work, ripping out the interior walls and removing the insulation until only wooden beams were standing. As the drywall crumbled in our hands, we shoveled it into trash bags in a cloud of white dust, and hauled it off to the curb.

I spent most of the day dismantling the kitchen, ripping out cabinets and countertops with a crowbar. Everything was almost new -- installed only six years ago -- but had to go, because it had been soaked by Sandy. The homeowner's 84-year-old father helped me carry out the heavier appliances. Nearly two weeks after the storm, the gas stove was still dripping wet as we lugged it to the curb. By the time we finished, the entire contents of the first floor were sitting in the street waiting to be hauled away by the heavy equipment making its way through the Rockaways section of Queens, New York.

AmeriCares volunteers helped gut the first floor of a storm-damaged home for a homeowner who lost everything.
AmeriCares volunteers helped gut the first floor of a storm-damaged home for a homeowner who lost everything.

Through it all, the owner, Nick, stayed remarkably composed as complete strangers took apart his home. When we asked how he was able to able to hold it together under such trying circumstances, he shrugged off the question. The worst was over, he said; everything he owned had already been discarded. He was channeling all of the energy he had left into the cleanup and rebuilding.

Jersey Shore community gives thanks even after Sandy

Just a few blocks away, Stan -- who had never had so much as a drop of water in his basement in 40 years, until Sandy -- had just finished cleaning up flood damage with the help of another team of volunteers. He showed us how the water had risen almost to the top of the basement stairs, about 9 feet high.

This Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to Nick, Stan and the thousands of other storm victims in New York and New Jersey who are homeless this holiday season.

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Many are living with family members or in shelters and, if they are lucky, will be able to move back after New Year's. They remind me how thankful I am to be part of an organization that's making a difference for East Coast residents still dealing with power outages and putting their homes back together.

The cleanup we joined in the Rockaways is just one of dozens of AmeriCares Hurricane Sandy relief projects. Every day since the storm, our relief workers have been out in the field offering help to first responders, health care providers and shelter officials. AmeriCares also has a mobile clinic traveling the streets of New York City, providing portable exam rooms for health clinics unable to treat patients due to damaged facilities.

Staying afloat after Sandy

In Staten Island, where some residents have been without power for weeks, our relief workers are going door to door delivering sleeping bags to families without heat. And in Long Island, where thousands of people have been temporarily displaced, we delivered medical aid to a shelter housing hundreds of families. When our relief workers arrived, shelter officials were grappling with how to care for a large population with chronic illness. About one-third of the shelter dwellers are diabetics and the shelter had no way to safely store insulin, so we bought them a refrigerator. We also delivered wheelchairs, medical cots and 1,400 pounds of medical aid -- everything from cough and cold medicines to first aid supplies.

AmeriCares has been responding to disasters all over the world for 30 years, and helping people in crisis is what we do best. But this disaster is personal for many of us because it happened in our own backyard. We are committed to see the storm victims through the recovery, just as we did in New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Not everyone can be a relief worker on the front lines of an emergency, but we can all make a difference by supporting organizations like AmeriCares that assist the survivors.

For more on how you can help the victims of Superstorm Sandy go to CNN.com/impact.

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