Flooded homes, ruined cars, condemned houses, piles of belongings on the curb… This is the kind of thing you see “somewhere else,” not in New York or New Jersey. And yet here we are, one week after Hurricane Sandy caused a tremendous amount of devastation across the area.

I thought of it like any other storm. My parents lived in the same house in Oceanside for 33 years, and my grandmother has lived in either Brooklyn or Long Island her whole life. But she told me, “81 years, and I have never seen anything like it here.”

Yesterday, I took my first trip out to visit my parents since the storm, really with the intention of going to vote. I entered Oceanside expecting to see some debris and downed trees; I was awestruck at the damage and devastation that swept across this vibrant south shore neighborhood. Living rooms and bedrooms sprawled out across lawns, everything ruined.

Everything Ruined: A Return to Oceanside

A boat rests on a lawn in Long Island after the storm.

In the three hours I was in Oceanside, I witnessed a boat leaning on a house, and the dock on the lawn, the next door neighbor’s house condemned after being lifted off of the foundation in a storm-related gas explosion. I saw a friend of my mother’s in tears because her Long Beach home was completely destroyed; she and her son pulled her husband from sudden rushing waters as he tried to save items from their garage. She kept repeating, “He’s alive, he’s alive, that’s all that matters.” In a very crowded diner, a woman sat with her two kids and began to sob. My mother reached over to her and began to speak with her to offer some comfort. She told us that as an East Rockaway resident, she lost her family business, The Lawson Deli, to flooding, and her home is completely ruined. They are living in a hotel, and her kids were reassigned to a school in the neighboring town of Baldwin.

The stories are endless, but reliable information seems to be scarce. Facebook groups have popped up to keep people informed, but it is difficult to say what is fact and what is rumor. Some say power may not be restored until Thanksgiving, others are warning about “scam” contractors, and while some have started the cleaning and clearing process, many have left their homes because right now, it is just too cold.

Everything Ruined: A Return to Oceanside

Oceanside residents turn out to vote despite severe damage to their homes and neighborhoods.

The most heartwarming part of the day, was showing up at the polling place to cast my ballot. Some of the polling places were closed due to power loss and flooding and were consolidated to a single location. There, people from the neighborhood met and hugged, and were comforted knowing that their friends were safe. The gymnasium of Oceanside School #6 was lit only with hanging utility lights, and both lights and voting machines were being powered by a generator supplied by the fire department. It took until 11am before the machines were delivered and up and running, and though it was crowded, there were no lines. It seemed very patriotic, amidst so much pain, that so many people showed up to have their voice heard.

While so many people, groups, and congregations have been asking what they can collect and where it should be sent, it’s important that we not hinder the relief efforts with our good will. Too much of anything can be just as bad – or even worse – than not enough of the right supplies, and the URJ is working with relief groups on the ground to coordinate the purchase and delivery of the most needed items. To that end, the most valuable things right now are still money, volunteers, and donations of blood. If you would like to volunteer, the URJ has partnered with NECHAMA, a Jewish disaster relief organization, and has plenty of opportunities available. Register to volunteer now at www.urj.org/sandy.