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After Sandy, Poet Describes ‘What It Means to Stand in the Rubble of Your Life’

November 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jennifer Fitzgerald's family and friends have been greatly impacted by superstorm Sandy, and though she immediately got involved in relief efforts in her Staten Island community, she felt that her poetry would be another way to reach a much larger audience and explain the physical and emotional impact Sandy had on New York.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: As residents in New Jersey and New York continue to recover from superstorm Sandy, we look at the physical and emotional damage through the voice of fifth-generation Staten Islander and poet Jennifer Fitzgerald.

JENNIFER FITZGERALD, poet: I had been out on the streets helping the people, dropping off donations directly to sites, because our evacuation centers were full, but people still needed supplies.

So my friends and I dropped donations directly off into the neighborhoods. And I had started compiling images, and the images resonated with me.

About three days after the storm, a woman went on television, and she was crying, and she said, “Somebody, please come here and help us. We need help.”

That was the first time that I had heard a clear and honest voice come from Staten Island.

I cannot show you the streets under the rubble. The sun teased through the clouds. I watched it land on the debris, illuminating soaked Sheetrock, support beams, a child’s stuffed panda. You can’t discern what came from the ocean, what the ocean tore out. Say it, storm surge. Alliteration masks the weight of 20-foot waves pulling themselves down on top of you.

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Dear reader, I cannot bring you to the quaint towns dotting the shoreline, standing their ground against development. Instead, I will show you what it means to stand in the rubble of your life and wait, wait for FEMA, wait for city, wait for anyone to unblink their eyes and glance your way.

I mean, the fact that a marathon was still going to be held on this borough when we were still finding bodies in the marshes surrounding the area where the marathon would begin? It solidified everything that Staten Island felt about being part of the city.

The Red Cross wasn’t there. Salvation Army wasn’t there. I mean, not even sanitation had gotten to the streets yet. It was nothing.

Maybe they could see us, not mistake our drowning for greeting. Until then, street-side tables proffer wares manned by residents of devastation, a familiar face to assure it’s OK to take what you need. I cannot show you the piers we fished from and the paths we used to navigate the coast. I can show you the barefoot woman to whom I offered shoes. She stared stoically ahead, bundled in a fraying coat: “No, give them to someone who needs them.”

Could you tell a proud soul that, this time around, she’s the one, the homeless woman with a mortgage? How many lives had she lived since the full moon dragged her tide over land? The barefoot woman asked me if they had found all the bodies yet, all the missing, as though we were working toward a number.

She heard our death toll click over as a clock, adding two at a time. Digits are easier to swallow than images of bodies drowned in their own homes, shoved into the backyard by waves. We seek erasure, not closure, a time when memory will be kind.

These neighborhoods are going to be brought closer together, whatever is left of them, when people leave, because some people are going to leave. But the ones that stay are going to understand community a lot more than they did before. It will absolutely take time.

I don’t know if the landscape of this area will every look the same. Maybe it will look better. Maybe things will — you know, the homes will be repaired and the beaches will be restored and we will get the seawalls and the berms that we need to protect this part of the island from the next storm that comes.

Until then, we clear a space for ourselves, line it with diapers, bottles of water, garbage bags to be filled and emptied. With each bag they take away, we decide what it means to salvage, what parts of ourselves we can save, and what pieces will forever belong to the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Find two more of Jennifer Fitzgerald’s poems about the storm on our Art Beat page.