At this time last year, students stocked up on Grab ‘n’ Go and retreated to their dorms for a two-day break from classes. While D.C. dealt with little more than strong wind and rain, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the hometowns of many Georgetown students.
The severity of the Category 1 storm’s damage to New York and New Jersey was not immediately clear, even to Georgetown students whose families were in the thick of it.
“We had a party in our apartment,” Ben Weiss (COL ’15) said of his Sandy preparations. “And then the next day, my hometown is the picture on the news.”
Weiss, who is from Long Beach, N.Y., was one of many for whom the disconnect between the Georgetown reaction to Sandy, which hit D.C. on Oct. 29, 2012, and the experiences of family at home was stark.
“I felt so horrible that I was treating it like a joke until I found out that our garage was destroyed, and our cars were destroyed, and my best friend’s house was flooded up to the second floor,” said Weiss, who could not contact his parents for four days after the storm hit. “Everything was just broken.”
The lack of communication hovered in the background of everyday life long after classes resumed on the Hilltop.
“For the next month, it was just keeping my phone on as loud as possible and running out of class when necessary to talk to my parents,” Weiss said. “I felt just distracted for months. … It was both a blessing and a curse to not be there.”
For some, being away from home was like living in a separate world.
“I felt guilty being at Georgetown … being in this little oasis,” Jessie Sarkis (SFS ’16), also from Long Beach, said. Sarkis’ mother could not return to her home until December, at which point only the second floor of her house was habitable.
Sarkis returned to her hometown the Friday after the storm hit to stay with her mother, who lived alone, in the aftermath of Sandy. The Long Beach boardwalk, an iconic feature for almost a century, was completely demolished, and Sarkis faced the reality that the town she last saw when she left for her freshman year two months earlier was no longer the same.
“It was like I was home, but I wasn’t home,” she said. “This whole pace had just been changed dramatically.”
In the weeks after the storm, life resumed as normal on campus. But for those whose families were still without power or homes, continuing as usual was not easy.
When preparing for her first round of college finals in December, Sarkis went to her dean’s walk-in hours and cried. She remembers thinking, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to pretend to care. I don’t care if I get an A anymore. Two months ago I would have cared, but now …”
“It was really hard to pay attention to what was going on here when I wasn’t entirely sure how intact my home was going to be,” Weiss said.
On campus, those worst hit by Sandy often found the devastation difficult to talk about. For freshmen like Sarkis, relying on friends they had known for less than two months was even tougher.
Organized opportunities for reflection, like ESCAPE, provided relief for some, like Stephen Cacace (MSB ’16), who said he was able to work through his emotions only when he went on the ESCAPE retreat the weekend after the storm. Cacace’s home in Seaford, N.Y., was flooded with 13 inches of water.
“The people there were the people I really opened up to,” Cacace said.
Even now, students bear the emotional burdens of the past year. The disconnect between their lives at home and on campus has changed and, in some cases, even shaped how they now experience Georgetown and interact with other students.
“My whole Georgetown experience has been this weird feeling of moving around to different places, of leaving my home and seeing it all wash away,” Sarkis said.
When asked, Sarkis often brushes past the fact that in the past year, she and her mother have gone through three contractors and months of rebuilding that have left them with a mountain of financial costs and without basic amenities like a kitchen — a mechanism Sarkis justified with attitudes she has encountered on campus.
“Because you know that they just don’t get it anyway,” she said, adding, “People just don’t know what to say, so they sometimes feel like it’s better to say nothing. And once the media stopped coming, once the lights went out in Long Beach, once it wasn’t a headline, it was like it had already happened.”
Weiss agreed that the campus response did not capture the full scale of the damage.
“We too quickly dismissed how real this sort of natural disaster is, and I think that’s too bad,” Weiss said.
But Sarkis understands why Sandy is not on the minds of her fellow students.
“As a normal person, I’m not thinking about Oklahoma,” Sarkis said, referring to the tornadoes that destroyed hundreds of homes a few months ago. “It’s not like I think, ‘Wow, I have to go home and think about Katrina.’”
But some on campus whose homes were not affected by the storm still consider Sandy a significant experience, like those who attended Georgetown University Hurricane Emergency Relief Efforts’ Alternative Spring Break to the Rockaways, a peninsula along the coast of Queens, N.Y.
After Sandy, GU HERE changed the trip’s destination from New Orleans to New York, partnering with New York Cares, a local organization that encourages New Yorkers to volunteer within their communities.
The 18 student volunteers arrived on the day of the Rockaways’ annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which the community used as an opportunity to thank those who had helped residents recover from the storm.
“It was really cool to see tons and tons of people come out when … four of blocks away there were houses just lying in shambles on the beach,” ASB participant Jamie Schlarbaum (NHS ’15) said.
Over the next week, the volunteers removed mold from houses and gutted those that suffered more severe damage so that the homes could be rebuilt afterward while some families continued daily life just upstairs. As Schlarbaum took down tiles of one bathroom, the family sat in the living room watching television.
“It’s just hard to put yourself in that position,” Schlarbaum said. “I can’t imagine someone telling me that I was going to have to move or redo everything again.”
Group reflections, a cornerstone of ASB, proved helpful for volunteers trying to reconcile the overwhelming devastation around them with their seemingly small-scale efforts.
“It was a very cathartic experience,” Schlarbaum said. “There were really tense moments when we were working and emotionally charged discussions about homelessness and other things related to the hurricane. It was a really good way to think about the actions we’re doing … and how things can improve over a longer period of time.”
Next Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s the longest and yet the shortest year of my life,” Sarkis said.
This Sunday, Long Island Rising, a volunteer group created in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, will hold its second annual Souls Unite On the Shoreline event in which residents affected stand hand in hand along the shorelines of New York and New Jersey as a symbol of solidarity and hope.
Though Sarkis cannot attend, she understands the power of the group’s message.
“Even if it’s not tangible, people still need something to hold on to,” she said. “It’s a source of hope for a lot of people.”