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Cleaning Up Rockaway, Bucket By Bucket

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I've covered hurricanes, earthquakes and even tsunami cleanup, but I've never had a disaster hit home.

My fiancee's family is from one of the areas suffering the most after Superstorm Sandy — Rockaway Park in New York City. You don't just live in Rockaway, it's a place that you're from. Sarah's mom grew up in Rockaway. It's where her parents bought their first home and where her grandmother has lived for more than 40 years.

When Sarah's brother and sister decided to ride out the hurricane, we got a late-night phone call. Her sister said, "The basement and first floor are flooding. We're fine right now, and we'll call you if we're not."

The next morning we saw the horrifying pictures. Six square blocks in the Breezy Point part of Rockaway burned to the ground.

We got a text message that her family was OK, but we knew the community was not.

So when it stopped raining, we all went to Rockaway. We drove up with a week's worth of food, bleach, generators and the thing that made us most nervous — red cans of gasoline.

The first day of cleanup was the worst. Sarah's uncle leaned hard against the fence outside his basement apartment as we went through his life's worth of stuff, now covered in sewage and dirt. A diary from 1985, the handmade hutch that was a wedding present, and a $6,000 air conditioner he just put in last week.

Eventually, the trash heap towered over Sarah's 6-foot-9-inch brother, matching the small mountains outside of nearly every house in the neighborhood.

It's been almost two weeks since the storm, and the streets still are deeply covered in sand and moldy trash.

It's hard to imagine how much force that water had to have to bust open windows and carry 2 feet of sand into a basement. But we got all the sand out — an army of cousins, neighbors and some people we didn't even know — one shovel and one bucket at a time.

We emptied and scrubbed her parents' house until the bleach smell finally overpowered the smell of sewage. My future father-in-law pulled a dining table out of his trash heap and tried to hose it off. He said it was his first table when he got married and had wanted it to be ours, too.

But it's not really about the stuff, or about the houses with flooded basements. What stayed with me is the sense that an entire community is now broken. It's about the elderly neighbor limping over to ask where the shelters are and who was going to pump her basement. It's about the houses that didn't have mountains of trash out front — because their basements are still full of water and sewage.

It's about the snow that came, and the power that isn't expected to be back for at least six more weeks.

It's the people whose families can't bring them gas and food, and who have nowhere to evacuate to. And it's about that community slogging away day after day, feeling that it has been forgotten.

I've learned that people from Rockaway have a special breed of grit and resilience. It's a community of cops, firefighters and nurses who stepped up for New York City on Sept. 11 and every day after. They will rebuild, and by next summer, the basements will be dry and we'll all go back for long days roasting on the beach. But the rest of us could have done better.

Amita Parashar is a producer at NPR's Tell Me More.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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