This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
It was Sunday in Breezy Point, Far Rockaway, NY. There were hundreds of men (and a few women) in military uniform standing around our parking lot. My partner and I had a huge task ahead of us that day: to continue the backbreaking emptying of our flood surged basement of all of our bruised and broken possessions.
It was a salvage or dispose operation. I looked around for help. The army said they were not “authorized” to help. The Seabees said they were not “authorized” to help. We had a basement full of appliances and possessions that had been super storm Sandy surged into a twisted mess. We needed help.
I spotted the marines gathered around a tent out on the beach, where more men (and this time it was men, you know, the ones in “charge”) were standing. After a brief weep as I surveyed the wreckage and a supportive hug from my partner, who spent most of his summers in this community, I walked purposefully up to the tent and in my best “let them feel powerful voice” asked for help.
It worked; in five minutes I had five marines working for an hour and a half of hard labor. My partner was amazed as the sergeant allowed me to take on his role as we all swung into action pulling out major appliances, shoveling sand and moving wreckage. We got more done in that hour and a half than my partner and a friend had gotten done in a week.
I am an educated, fairly bossy (read, “I get things done!”) professor of acting, from an intellectual and artistic left of center family, who believes government should lend an aggressive helping hand in times of disaster. My partner comes from a more humble working class family who rarely asks for help. Their code: “we are better off than the neighbors down the street, so what gives us the right to ask for help?”
Which brings me to a critical and neglected question that few have asked in the way of this country’s second most devastating hurricane ever: In a disaster, who asks for help?
As I considered this cultural difference between my partner and me, I began to wonder if this intrinsic difference might be something our armed forces consider as they enter disaster and/or war torn zones. Some people will suffer silently and others will take advantage, so how can this “help” be arbitrated to make sure everyone gets reached?
My experience in theatre has taught me that establishing a sense of community and trust is essential in transforming a group of people into a motivated ensemble. A “group” is comprised of individuals who are individually motivated, things will get done individually. An “ensemble” is a group of people interested in collaborating and learning from each other. This interest in each other creates a trust that inevitably elevates the individual members to much greater levels of creativity and output.
I invited the marines, four young men and one young woman, to help my partner and me; we formed a small cooperative community that made things better. I spoke to them of our loss and sadness as we worked and asked them questions about themselves. We had created a rewarding ensemble and got a helluva lot done together—one little dent in the $50 billion of estimated damage Sandy left in her wake.
Armed forces at a disaster site need to be more proactive in addressing these cultural differences in asking for help. This is, as I learned with a bit of research, already part of their mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services: “Even practitioners who are far along in the cultural competency development process may experience unique challenges in culturally and linguistically appropriate service delivery when participating in the context of disaster response.”
Yes, indeed. My partner and I have been out to Breezy Point working on our storm torn house every weekend since Sandy hit. After that first week we rarely saw the military, but this Saturday we arrived to find an army jeep backed up to our lot, engine on, with 4 or 5 soldiers inside the vehicle.
As we set to work hauling cement, from our former basement, to the dumpster we had rented, I was astonished to see one soldier help himself to our deck for better cell phone reception, then return to his vehicle and sit warmly inside with his small unit, as we continued to work. After 40 minutes of this, I walked over to the jeep and asked if they might help us haul cement block to the dumpster for a few minutes. The cell phone interloper, who appeared to be in charge, said they had to leave to bring blankets and aid somewhere else. Interesting moment to decide this!
He offered me a refuse disposal request form and said someone would call us to arrange help with the disposal. My jaw dropped and I could not help but repeat my request for help. At this point one of his colleagues came around the vehicle and said, “where can we help you m’am.”. They helped for fifteen minutes and were gone.
Disaster aid tax dollars were spent on five idle soldiers and a vehicle burning gas for over an hour last Saturday in Breezy Point, NY, proving that sometimes even a theater background and an upbringing that normalized asking for help can’t get you the ensemble you need; there has to be desire and apparently, authorization.