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The Rev. Howard Clark Smith of Waltham Presbyterian Church is shown here in protective coveralls and mask while assisting with storm cleanup in the Rockaways area of New York City, one of the areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Smith and Utica business owner Lisle Elsbury returned recently from a volunteer effort to assist homeowners will cleaning their homes of seawater and mold.
The basements had filled with 10 or more feet of seawater and the festering smell of mold sometimes could be overpowering. But none of that kept the Rev. Howard Smith of Waltham Presbyterian Church and Lisle Elsbury of Utica from rolling up their sleeves and helping New Yorkers recover from Superstorm Sandy. Smith and Elsbury returned last week from an eight-day volunteer trip to Brooklyn and the Rockaway peninsula in the borough of Queens, working through the World Cares Organization out of New Jersey and with Pelham Community Relief. The boroughs located east of Manhattan sit on the Atlantic Coast and residents there were battered in October by Sandy. Smith said he remembered seeing a wood fence showing a water line at the height of a man’s neck. “It really was just amazing to see that,” Smith said. “We think of a flood as a few inches of water. They actually had a river running through their streets. It was just unbelievable.” Elsbury and Smith departed Utica shortly after the New Year’s and spent eight days on the road, driving 1,850 miles and lugging with them five pallets, 100 boxes and about a ton of clothing, blankets, food, and cleaning products. The productions were locally donated and transport was provided cost-free by Con-way Freight. Donors included Sheridan Methodist Church and Stevenson Transfer. And the help was sorely needed. “Outside areas still show signs of damage,” Elsbury said, “but what you don’t see is the inside of thousands of homes which had 18 inches to 10 feet of seawater damage. “In many cases the owners or tenants are finding the insurance is claiming no coverage for flood damage. The rebuilding will go on for years.” The project was spearheaded by Elsbury, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, who enlisted Waltham Presbyterian Church, which in turn partnered with The New York City Presbytery and the Rev. Thia Reggio to deliver the items to Coney Island in Brooklyn. Elsbury said the cleanup was not altogether unfamiliar for people in Utica who’d survived the 2004 tornado. Nevertheless, the salt water damage left behind mold spores and foul odors that could make one swoon. The volume and intensity of mold made it necessary for Smith and Elsbury to don protective coveralls (Smith joked they looked like the “Ghostbusters”) and wear masks to avoid directly inhaling dangerous spores, most notable when they pulled soggy books from bookshelves. The work was draining, but the men drew appreciative comments from New Yorkers whose homes were heavily damaged, many of them beyond repair. “People were ecstatic to see anybody out there trying to give them a hand,” Elsbury said. “They were very receptive, very happy for the help.” Help they did, though the work was at times grueling and emotional. Smith recalled cleaning out basements with sewer backup, chiseling up molded floor sections and removing rubbish that had once been someone’s valuables. “It was not only draining physically but emotionally,” Smith said. “Every bag you hauled out was somebody’s possessions. This was somebody’s life being hauled to the curb. That was heart-wrenching to watch.” Elsbury said the volunteer effort was well-organized but he noted that there was a limited amount of cleanup activity going on. Local governments still are conducting trash removal, but otherwise he saw little evidence of organized storm cleanup. (To support the cleanup, visit World Cares.org.) “It was gratifying, exhausting and frustrating at times because there are a lot of problems,” Elsbury said. “But it was gratifying because we were glad to be able to give them assistance.”