Emily Harnarain Alternative Spring Break 2019

The site we worked on today was a project long in the making and not far from completion. I worked with a small group to install floorboards- a mild test of my upper body strength. We specifically used “tongue & groove” flooring, which Americorps members explained to us was an economical option that allows for the St. Bernard Project to keep costs low and therefore low for the homeowner. Once we got the hang of setting floorboards in and knew which details to pay extra attention to, we got working faster and more efficiently. I tried to make as big of an effort as I could to not make any irregularities in the length pattern or in the actual installation of the flooring because I knew this was going to be the floor of someone’s home, and that they would have to look at whatever small mistake there could be everyday- I’d hate to have some small imperfection tease me in my own home forever. I intentionally volunteered for flooring because I expected it to be as hands on as it sounds and wanted to challenge myself to learn a new skill- and get good at it (or at least proficient).

Outside of our volunteer time, a part of our trip is bonding with the students we’re volunteering with. Each of us is from a different place, which has shaped each of us to think, feel, and see the world differently. Our bonding time has not only allowed us to share new experiences together, but to exchange ideas and interpretations of the world around us and more specifically the recovering towns we’ve worked in.

I’ve lived in Queens, NY my whole life and have seen firsthand the devastation that Superstorm Sandy created in Far Rockaway. Queens is most famous for its diversity- both ethnically and economically- I’ve always bragged that you can travel the whole world without ever leaving Queens. Imagining the kind of devastation there was in Seaside, NJ where the house we worked on compared to the devastation I witnessed in Far Rockaway made me feel both grateful for my circumstances and insignificant in the sense that my home and memories are just as easy to wash away.

The owner of the house my team worked on today was an elderly person who’d owned the house for 50 years and almost couldn’t evacuate because he was disconnecting the gas from his house to prevent an explosion in the event his house was destroyed. The Saint Bernard project helps other people whose homes had been destroyed by natural disasters and can’t afford to repair or rebuild their homes.

In the neighborhood we were renovating in, there was a clear line where the wealth of the buildings changed- the houses on one side appeared to be clean, cookie-cutter houses where the wealth was apparent. On the other, there were blocks of motels which weren’t in the best condition or necessarily up-to-date up alongside the beach until the boardwalk. I also noticed that many of the affluent-looking houses donned “vacation rental” lawn signs- most of these houses were for the wealthy to vacation in. The houses that weren’t for rent were lived in by individuals who decided not to leave the homes and towns they’d lived in- mostly older people, reasonably unwilling to restart a new life and more importantly financially unable to. The disparity between the classes of people who were displaced by Superstorm Sandy and stayed in the same potentially dangerous situation because they had no other option and those who either received aid quickly or could afford to renovate their homes to the point where they can profit from these homes really opened my eyes to both the inhumanity of aid organizations like FEMA and the widening wealth gap in America.

In the likely event that someone couldn’t afford to renovate their home or find a new place to live after a hurricane or other natural disaster, the next natural step would be to request aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What we learned as a group during our discussion is that receiving Federal recovery aid also systematically works against minorities and lower-income groups. The disprivileged circumstances a minority person is born into can eventually prevent them from things like being able to afford to buy a home, leaving them to rent or lease instead- an option where they hold no rights to property and little rights to enough Federal aid to actually assist living situations. This doesn’t happen directly because these individuals are minorities; it happens because the socioeconomic backgrounds that individuals are systemically born into and grow up with eventually make them a “risky” allocation of taxpayer money or . This of course doesn’t include minorities who’ve moved up the socioeconomic ladder, but the race of those individuals can’t be erased.