By Brian Hendrickson
Victoria Donegan thought Staten Island slipped away from Hurricane Sandy’s devastating punch as the worst of the storm blew through on Oct. 29.
The goalkeeper on the College of Staten Island soccer team rode out the storm in the Bay Terrace home in which she’d spent her entire life. It had lost power but suffered no significant damage. And when Donegan and her father dug out a battery-powered radio and listened to the initial news reports, the most horrifying stories kept coming out of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Donegan thought Staten Island had been spared.
Members of the College of Staten Island's swimming and diving team have collected a dozen bags of blankets and warm-weather clothing and donated them a local shelter to help residents whose homes had been lost during Hurricane Sandy.
But just a short drive away, the story was unfolding tragically. Reports of devastation in the New York metropolitan area ran thick in the veins of social and news media throughout the last week. But the reports from Staten Island were particularly heartbreaking, from the story of a woman who had her two sons swept from her arms as waves crashed into her vehicle, to that of an off-duty police officer who drowned after rescuing seven members of his family from their flooded home.
The news took on a personal tone for lifelong Staten Island residents like Donegan. One of the victims she heard about was a man with whom she’d played basketball while growing up on the island. He drowned in his home with his father – two of the island’s 19 victims, nearly half the death toll in the metropolitan area.
“That’s when it hit home,” said Donegan. “People were saying, ‘They’re helping people in Manhattan. They’re helping people in Brooklyn.’ But who is helping Staten Island?”
Volunteers swept in to answer that call – including waves of student-athletes from the island’s two universities, College of Staten Island and Wagner College, who gathered donations, mobilized their teammates into volunteer groups, and helped to clean houses in some of the island’s most devastated neighborhoods.
On Monday, Wagner provided bus transportation for more than 70 athletes to assist with cleanup efforts after members of the football team pleaded for a chance to help.
Meanwhile, Jessica Pifalo and her College of Staten Island swimming teammates collected a dozen bags of blankets, sweatshirts, socks, jackets, gloves and other clothing to help families whose wardrobes had been washed away. They continue to collect donations. Throughout the weekend, Donegan and several of her teammates walked down streets covered in debris and spent days cleaning flooded homes, some with walls that had collapsed.
“I’m very fortunate,” said Pifalo, who knew of two friends who lost their homes during the storm. “So what can I do from here to give back? I couldn’t stay home and do nothing as all this was going on.”
The scenes as Donegan’s group treaded through Midland Beach and neighboring New Dorp Beach looked like images from a third-world disaster. Debris lined roads like snow banks and made the front yards of homes resemble small landfills. Reminders of the damage were on each house – yellow tags designated homes too dangerous to enter; only those spray-painted “FDNY OK” were deemed safe.
Donegan, joined by nearly a dozen of her soccer teammates and CSI alumni, spent her weekend sifting through the remains of those homes. They cleaned mud from flooded basements where the water line at times rose two feet over Donegan’s head. They stripped sheet rock from walls and gathered personal belongings to toss into piles of rubble outside.
“If you find pictures, save pictures,” the families kept telling Donegan’s group. Everything else had to be discarded. All around them were similar stories from families who watched the water encroach, then later had to discard their life’s possessions like useless junk.
At one point, a mother looked to Donegan as her son and husband ripped the sheet rock from their home. She hugged Donegan, then broke down in tears.
“You don’t understand,” the woman said. “This is my life. I don’t know where to begin. I don’t want to throw everything out, but I have to.”
The scale of the destruction was often overwhelming. Ten members of Wagner’s football team decided to use their day off on Sunday to drive to New Dorp Beach and assist with cleanup. But when they saw houses collapsed and debris covering the streets, they decided they weren’t enough.
So the players approached Wagner coach and Director of Athletics Walt Hameline and pleaded for an opportunity to help. Hameline responded on Monday by providing bus transportation to New Dorp Beach for more than 70 members of the football, softball, baseball, basketball and golf teams. So rather than practice and prepare for Saturday’s home game against Holy Cross, the football players and their student-athlete peers worked through five blocks of wreckage, clearing debris out of streets and homes.
As with Donegan’s group, the emotions often ran thick: One couple the student-athletes helped were recently married and moved into their home with their newborn child a month earlier. The storm left it in shambles.
“We were all talking about how serious football is in our life, but at the end of the day, the struggles you face is nothing compared to what these people have gone through,” said senior offensive lineman Steve Ciocci, who was back at work on New Dorp Beach on Tuesday with more than 20 teammates. “We’re really trying to play for the island and the people, and try to cheer them up.”
But Pifalo also saw hope in residents’ eyes, too. As she volunteered at the Petrides Evacuation Center last week, where she dropped off donations, handed out snacks and assisted people looking for help, she was impressed to find that the shelter had to turn away volunteers. She was also moved to see storm victims who were surprisingly upbeat.
Pifalo came to the shelter expecting to find people grieving over the loss of the lives they’d built. Instead, she encountered people who were thankful for what they had left.
“They were just happy that their families were all safe,” Pifalo said. “It really was a positive atmosphere.”
Still, plenty of help is needed. A nor’easter closing on the East Coast led FEMA to close its disaster recovery centers on Tuesday, where residents have found food, filed claims for housing assistance, repairs and temporary shelter. Reports of thieves and looters preying on storm victims made the local newspaper on Tuesday. Calls continue for donations of food and clothing.
But until normal life returns, student-athletes from both schools say they’ll continue to help.
“We’re gonna continue until it’s enough, pretty much,” Pifalo said. “It’s going to take a while to rebuild, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
Many NCAA institutions were impacted by the effects of Hurricane Sandy last month, disrupting practices, housing and event schedules and forcing schools to consider alternative methods to support their student-athletes.
How other schools are helping
To ease the impact, several schools worked with the NCAA to protect student-athlete welfare and assist their local communities.
“When situations arise that place hardships on our student- athletes and member institutions, the national office wants to do all we can to help,” said Kevin Lennon, NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs. “We need to be there for the people who make up the NCAA, and when rules can be set aside or other relief provided, we will do it.”
Some recent efforts include:
- Old Dominion moved its football and field hockey teams to a safe, inland practice site before Hurricane Sandy was expected to make landfall and the school was expected to close campus.
- Towson University provided on-campus lodging at a hotel for approximately 60 student-athletes that live off-campus and were affected by the “state of emergency” issued by Baltimore County.
- Hofstra University will provide a high school football team use of the Pride’s facility at no cost. The high school has been condemned as a result of a natural disaster, and much of the area around Hofstra is still recovering utility services.
- Villanova University provided transportation to a men's basketball recruit, his mother and two younger siblings to make an official recruiting visit. The effects of Hurricane Sandy caused extreme flooding in the recruit’s hometown. As a result, his family did not have access to their own vehicle.
- Lynn University rescheduled a fundraising event to benefit a local hospice to a date that fell outside of the men's golf team's non-championship segment. This guarded the student-athletes’ wellbeing due to the imminent threat of inclement weather.