This morning (or technically last morning as I am writing past midnight), I woke up relatively early and headed down to a bus headed towards Owego, a small village about thirty minutes away from Ithaca, where Cornell University is located. About a month and a half ago, the northeast was struck by Hurricane Lee (then downgraded to a Tropical Storm), and while the severity of the storm was considerably less than anticipated, some areas still endured massive flooding. Cornell even closed classes for the morning due to the flooding in the streets, the first time that has ever happened before. The residents of Owego were less fortunate than Ithaca with many areas experiencing major flood damage. Even now, the residents are still working on stripping their homes down and removing all the water-logged furniture and walling in an attempt to pick up the pieces of their washed-out homes and start anew. For the past few weekends, the Cornell Public Service Center has organized buses to bring about 50 students to Owego and help out wherever needed – tearing down walls, moving and sorting materials and other tasks.
This is technically my first experience doing this kind of work in this setting – manual volunteering, and I have to say it felt good. Other than the obvious side-effects of a sense of self-fulfillment, hammering down walls and prying wooden planks had an odd therapeutic value as well. Donning goggles, face masks and gloves didn’t make me feel constricted, in some ways it made me feel much more free in the sense that I now felt like an actual hands-on volunteer, ready to serve the public good. The residents were grateful for any help they could get, one owner even insisted on taking a picture of a group of us and asking where he could donate money for Cornell. While the residents were all in good spirits it was still evident that they were living in tough conditions. The houses were indeed stripped and dust was everywhere. Much of the furniture had been thrown into piles near the roadside and the sounds of hammering echoed down the street. I had visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina two summers ago, and this scene reminded me of the one down in Louisiana. Even now the residents of the Ninth Ward are still picking up the pieces of their homes. It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt to know that your possessions and home were being destroyed by nature’s gift of water – both a giver of life and a destroyer. The largest natural disasters back in Madison are tornadoes, and while I’ve seen the aftermath of fallen trees and torn-down roofs, I had never fully experienced a Tornado close to home. Natural disasters both strike fear and humbleness into our hearts, and it is in these moments that people helping one another truly shines through. A sense of community truly grows but it’s important to remember these victims even when the media packs up their bags. I know, it sounds like some cliche inspirational speech, but being a part of a large group of people cleaning up a room in less than 30 minutes when it would have taken one person a good two hours feels good, it feels powerful, and not in the dark-side way. The Public Service Center offers more weekend trips to Owego and I encourage you if you are a Cornell Student to volunteer at least once.