When Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast with devastating force at the end of October, most people around the country simply sat stunned in front of their televisions or newspapers, wondering how the victims could ever recover.
A few, however, jumped up to help.
On Oct. 30, 48 members of the Washington Conservation Corps took a three-and-a-half day road trip across country to volunteer with relief crews in New York City after the storm ravaged a wide swath of the New England coast on Oct. 29.
A crew of six from the Yakima area was part of that effort, returning home Nov. 29 after a month of long hours and little rest, but corps members say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“When we got in the field, people were so grateful that we were there. All the stress that we had from lack of sleep and just working long hours just went away when we saw their faces and they started crying,” said Jordan Turner, the oldest member of the Yakima crew at 25. “It kind of just makes everything worth it, to see people’s faces light up like that.”
The Washington Conservation Corps was established by the state in 1983 to provide job experience for young people without work. It accepts people ages 18 to 25 and provides on-the-job training in a variety of areas; in the Yakima region, the crew does a lot of logging and clearing of trees.
The corps partners with the national organization Americorps, and gives its employees a living stipend during their one-year commitment as well as a scholarship at the end of the year to either go to school or pay off existing student loans. Participants can do the corps for a maximum of two years.
Corps members are regularly invited to help with disaster relief sites. Turner, who also did the corps the year after high school when he was 18, and Yakima supervisor Mike Stowall both went to Florida to help with the aftermath of the Groundhog’s Day tornadoes in 2007.
Washington has 56 crews of six people each throughout the state; eight of those crews caravaned over to New York for Sandy. The Yakima Valley crew included Turner, Aaron Lasha, Sierra Mazie and Kayla Peralta.
Stowall’s crew was based in Staten Island, helping at a shelter for families and then in the hard-hit neighborhood of the Rockaways, tearing out sheetrock and flooring and mucking out flooded homes to help prevent the spread of mold. Though they sometimes felt out of their element, they did well, he said.
“It was really great to see the crew come together,” he said. “You always wonder how people are going to react in different situations, but to see them pull together and come through that and be able to come out smiling and everything was really neat.”
Stowall has been with the corps for four years, and this is Turner’s second year of experience, but for younger members of the crew, the cross-country trip was a whole new experience.
Mazie, 18, just graduated from Selah High School in June and had never been out of the Pacific Northwest, and though she felt overwhelmed at times, she said the trip was positive.
“I loved it. It was great getting to help people ... and (the crew) helped me feel more prepared when I needed it.”
Members say the tight-knit crew functions as a family, with some brother-sister dynamics and everyone looking out for everyone else.
“I’m the little baby in the family,” Mazie said. “If I ever have a question, they instantly stop and help me and explain it to me ... If I make a mistake, they help me put it right and show me what I need to do next time.”
The crew had plenty of time to solidify those bonds during the trip. They worked for 30 days with only one day off, frequently pulling 12-hour shifts.
For the first two weeks, they worked mainly in the Staten Island shelter where they were staying, helping stock supplies and make sure the families were comfortable.
A particularly strenuous time, Stowall remembers, was when they had just come off a 12-hour day shift at the shelter and helping with the warehouse system for donations, when they were called to cover the 12-hour night shift of a crew that bailed.
“We went and worked another 12-hour night shift, then got off and went to the 12-hour day shift we were scheduled for,” he said. “Three 12-hour shifts. And we did that twice,” in the month they were there.
But they never felt discouraged, at least not for long.
“It went by so fast and we were doing such good work, we didn’t even need to have that one day off,” Turner said. “It wasn’t bad.
The last half of the trip was more in their realm of experience, working in flood-wrecked houses in the Rockaways. The crew spent a lot of time listening to homeowners talk about their experiences, including one family that had passed the house down through the generations for 200 years.
Mazie said some of the stories of what people went through made her want to cry.
“It kind of just opened my eyes,” she said. “If something like that happens (to me), I’d want to be like that and be strong like they were.”