Category Archives: Natural Disasters

My Trip to Philly

It had been a while since I was in Philadelphia. I’ll start by saying that I’ve been many times before — but, never just for me. I was excited about this trip — it was a trip speckled with memories here and there, but focused on excitement about my future, which could potentially begin in yet another East Coast city.

Entering a dark NYC, 2nd Avenue. NYC, post-Sandy.

With a trip scheduled three days after Hurricane Sandy’s foray across the tristate region, I thought I’d be ok. I had found cheap Amtrak tickets from Boston South Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station leaving Thursday afternoon and returning late Saturday night. The weather looked nice, and my schedule was wide-open. But, as many travels with Tavel go, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Taxi in the dark. Midtown Manhattan.

As most of you know, there was still no electricity in downtown Manhattan and most tunnels were flooded. Penn Station was closed, all Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains were shut down, and buses were not able to pass through the darkened city. It was the day before my trip, so I knew I’d have to scramble up some plan Bs. I was absolutely determined to make it down to Philadelphia, and I was not about to let a little biggest-storm-to-hit-NYC-in-100-years stop me. I had come way too far to get to this opportunity, and I’d be damned if anything got in my way now! (In my experience, it is this attitude that will get you places…)

Amtrak at 30th Street station in Philadelphia, PA. Delays, and late arrivals… Mine was the 5:19 train.

I called Amtrak on Wednesday morning with a glimmer of hope in my heart, and anticipation of complications in my gut. They told me all trains leaving Boston were not operating except for two — one of which was MINE. I asked them to double and triple check the information, and they were equally confused and excited for me when they confirmed that mine was one of two trains still scheduled to depart on time.

Bus in the dark. Manhattan.

I felt pretty awesome, but decided to check back in the afternoon because something didn’t feel right. They confirmed that my train was still scheduled to depart on time from Boston to Philly… I still didn’t believe them. I called again, Wednesday night, at which point they told me the train was now going to be leaving Boston with a final destination of New Haven, CT. This made more sense, unfortunately. NJ Transit was not running, and trains couldn’t get past Connecticut, so my problem had not been solved: it was time to explore other options.

Street view. Philadelphia, PA.

I looked up flights, which were either booked or in the $300-$450 dollar range (and apparently the closest I could get was Newark, not Philadelphia). That was way too much money, and still didn’t solve the problem of how to get to Philadelphia. I quickly checked out bus schedules — and all buses were labeled as “Canceled.” By now, it was around 4pm. Finally, I got an email (and a series of phone calls) from Amtrak telling me that my train had been officially cancelled. I had an appointment in Philadelphia at noon on Friday — that was my goal. I began to get tunnel vision (har har, no pun intended) for success… My heart started racing a little and I think I accidentally skipped dinner as I frantically began calling bus companies and looking up mass-transit news stories for the area. It became very clear that any train or bus service going through NYC (which is what I needed) was completely shut-off the day before I had to leave, and I wouldn’t know if anything was running until the next morning.

Philadelphia, PA.

I bought back-up bus tickets for Thursday, which were being sold with the promise that if the buses didn’t run I would get a full refund. At this point, the earliest bus ticket I could find was a 2:30pm bus out of South Station, arriving in NYC at 6:15pm. There was a 7:15pm bus from 34th Street (NYC) to Philadelphia, but I worried that would be too risky, so I booked the 8:15pm bus from NYC to Philly in hopes that this would help me avoid any missing-of-the-bus stress. I HATE missing-a-transfer stress. Mind you, this bus was supposed to arrive at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, in the heart of the power outage zone… But BoltBus confirmed in the morning that all buses were running (and on time!), so I had no choice but to trust them and see what happens…

In these situations, you have to think positive travel thoughts. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten on buses or airplanes knowing that my destination might be completely out of my control. I’ve learned that sometimes you’ve just got to trust the travel fairies that you are going to make it wherever you are trying to go — and trust your gut.

Philadelphia, PA.

I actually got to South Station 45 min early and managed to get off of standby for the 2pm bus. With an extra 30 minutes of wiggle room, I felt some good travel-mojo. I began to relax a little. The bus ride was perfectly smooth, with surprisingly few delays. It only got weird when we slowly crossed a bridge into NYC, and I could see — for the first time — the darkened skyline from the bus window. As we drove past the cops, who were checking to make sure there were at least 3 people in every vehicle entering the city, the whole bus took on a hushed tone. Suddenly, we were in the city — but it was a ghost city. As the bus drove down Second Avenue, I couldn’t believe what I saw (or, what I couldn’t see). It was pitch black. The only lights were the occasional cop car, street sign or taxi cab. I looked up at black buildings, and down at quiet restaurants. Every now and then, we’d pass a series of lit up blocks. When we entered midtown, it was one of the weirdest NYC moments I have ever had: The city that never sleeps was being forced to take a nap. And like a cranky child, NYC does not do nap-time well.

Finally, the bus pulled into 34th Street at 6:35pm. I was determined to get on standby for the 7:15 bus, and sprinted off Bus #1 to get in a huge line of people on standby. I pushed to the front and asked if this was the bus to Philadelphia. It was. They were boarding, and obviously there was a little tension in the air, so the guy was pushy and said “Yeah yeah, just get on, hurry, come on…” And within 1 minute I was on another bus (total time on the ground in NYC: 5 minutes). So much for my plan to grab dinner!

Philly Street. Philadelphia. PA.

When the bus began pulling away at 6:40pm, I was a little confused (the buses to Philly left hourly at 6:15, 7:15, 8:15…). Concerned that I had taken a wrong turn, I asked the girl next to me “Is this the 7:15 bus to Philly?!” She said “No…” (Me: GULP.) Her: “…It’s the 6:15.” Ahhh! A smile spread across my face when I realized, finally, that not only was I going to get to Philadelphia after all this chaos — but I was going to get there even earlier than I had planned! It was one of the most satisfying travel moments that I’ve had in a while. I was anticipating the opposite kind of moment, so it felt that much sweeter. As the bus journeyed through the darkness, I settled in, blasting happy music, and six hours after leaving Boston, I had arrived in Philly.

City Hall. Philadelphia. PA.

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve always really liked Philly, despite bittersweet memories of many heartfelt hellos and goodbyes out of that 30th Street train station (the lasting imprint of a long distance relationship). The city has always given me a good vibe. It comes across as a mixture of New York and New Orleans, with a smaller dose of lights and energy than Manhattan (in a good way), coupled with the bruised and impoverished outskirts of the city that seem completely disconnected yet immediately accessible from the Philadelphia most people imagine (like New Orleans). I love that it is a foodie city, even if it doesn’t come off that way at first. Because it’s definitely a little more rough around the edges than Boston, I might actually feel more at home in Philly than in New England. I was excited to be there, and to really look at it with the eyes of someone who might call it home.

Philly homes. Philadelphia, PA.

Everything I did during my quick trip, I would do again. On Saturday night, a small group of us kicked things off with unbelievably delicious cocktails at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a speakeasy-style lounge in the Rittenhouse Square area that I would have never noticed if my friend A hadn’t picked it. With a seven-page cocktail menu ranging from what I’d call a category 1 storm (listed as “Easy Going” drinks, such as the Apocalypstick — Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Maurin Quina, Cynar, fresh lemon juice, house blackberry) to a category 5 storm (listed as “I Asked for Water, She Brought Me Gasoline” drinks, which includes the Art School Timeline — Lairds Bonded Apple Brandy, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, New York Madeira Wine, Rothman Winter Apricot Liquer, cane syrup, hopped grapefruit and mole bitters served on a rock). I could have spent many, many hours exploring the cocktail menu (and many, many dollars), but we had dinner to attend to afterwards, so my ginger-infused play on a Dark and Stormy (recommended to me by the waiter when I couldn’t decide) would have to do. Oh, and it DID.

Clothing Pin. Philadelphia, PA.

With a strong cocktail in our systems, we headed to First Friday — where we could stroll the streets of Philadelphia at night, going from art gallery to art gallery, and enjoying the quirky and sometimes odd street performers/artists along the sidewalks. After working up an appetite, we found ourselves devouring melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with a couple bottles of our own wine (apparently PA has strange liquor laws and wine/beer-serving restaurants are hard to come by) at Giorgio’s. Giorgio himself was there, and from the moment a bowl of roasted garlic soaked in olive oil arrived at the table, I knew that if I do in fact end up in Philadelphia — Giorgio and I will meet again.

Sidewalk, homes. Philadelphia, PA.

It would be a quick trip. After a majorly satisfying and exhausting Saturday (I had a 4.5 hour interview with no lunch… oy), I was able to enjoy a light brunch and visit the perfectly relevant-to-my-trip Mutter Museum (this had been on my Philly to-do list for YEARS). This museum is a must for anyone who likes anatomical oddities or random small but packed museums. It is a pre-Doctor of Physical Therapy student’s perfect museum, and since I am currently taking Anatomy and Physiology, my visit couldn’t have been more appropriately timed, nor more appreciated. The brisk walk back to my home base through Rittenhouse Square’s cheery farmer’s market to the slightly quieter South Philadelphia ‘hood made it very easy for me to see myself living there.

Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia, PA.

I got back to Boston at 1am last night. Luckily, my return train was fully functional, although 1.5 hours late (making it a 7.5 hour journey… oooof). I’m back now, after passing from a potential future home (Philadelphia), through my real home (NYC), to my current home, in Boston. I have a happy tummy and a happy, hopeful heart. I’ll have to be patient as I figure out where I might be able to live next year (it’s not totally up to me).

For now, I can confidently say that if it is Philadelphia, I’d be absolutely thrilled. Sometimes it’s all about where we’ve been. But right now — for me — life’s much more about where I’m going.

On my way home, the lights were back on in NYC. Amtrak view of NYC skyline.

As always, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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Filed under Life Stuff, Massachusetts, Natural Disasters, New York City, Philadelphia, School, Travel, Travel Disasters, Uncategorized

Storm Stories

Congratulations! Most of you have the day off… Now what?

Let’s face it: most of us on the East Coast are at home listening to the rain, watching the wind rattle the trees, joking about the hurricane (hopefully, the joke won’t be on us…eek), and attending to our multiple newsfeeds to figure out just how nasty this storm Sandy is gonna get. Our recent Hurricane spectrum is pretty simple: it goes from Irene (wimpy) to Katrina (disastrous), and most of us expect Sandy to land somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to imagine what a “Perfect Storm” means until you see it, but let’s hope the East Coast can handle this one.

My cousin observing some of the flooding caused by Hurricane Irene at our house upstate. Dutchess County, NY.

So, what are you gonna do today? Are you bundled up at home, nervous about that big tree next to your house? Or are you on the 30th floor of a high-rise looking the storm clouds in the eyes, waiting for it to wrap around your world and shake it up just a little? I’m used to living in an apartment building, where power doesn’t really go out [Exception: the BLACKOUT! Remember that one? Whew, we’ll talk more about it in a second…], and “evacuating” isn’t usually necessary… A post-Katrina world has made these storm threats more real, but it’s hard to imagine NYC becoming so vulnerable. That said, I have seen my share of storms, and only time will tell where Sandy decides to land in the storybook. I hear her right now, hissing and howling outside my window, but the worst of her wrath his expected to hit tonight.

Post-Irene Rainbow. Dutchess County, NY.

Ya know, New York acts all tough, and it’s sure as hell been through a lot… But I can count the number of times the entire city has been shut down/turned “off” on one hand… and it doesn’t take up many fingers. My family is there, nestled in an apartment that is under renovation (no kitchen) on the Upper West Side, right next to the Hudson River which is supposed to swell with water and might flood the surrounding areas. I’m not a worrier with this sort of thing (my mom is out taking a walk right now… eek!), but I also am not one to ignore a severe weather threat. I’m cautiously hopeful that everything will be ok… but I respect a stiff breeze, and I’ve seen what bad weather can do.

Frog in the lawn. Hurricane Irene. Dutchess County, NY.

Here in Massachusetts — I don’t know, maybe I should be more worried than I am. Really, I’m more concerned for my family and my city than myself right now. Apparently this the first storm to directly hit NYC in 118 years — and it aint no joke. So, to distract myself and all you other people holed up at home with not much to do, I have decided to revisit the storms (or storm-like events) of TwT past. I present to you a list of Tavel’s Favorite Storm(ish) Stories:

1. The Blackout: OH yeah — you remember. Everyone remembers it. This was my favorite storm-like event (despite it having nothing to do with weather, shush) because it was just so freakin’ bizarre. It was like taking NYC and everything NYC is known for –lights, energy, colors, movement, noise — and flipping it completely inside out into a dark, cautious silence for a day. Not to mention, we were hosting a wedding at my parents’ house in Upstate NY the following weekend, which kept things tense and exciting! (This seems to be a trend — we’ll get to Irene in a second…) I was walking out of Central Park with my friend J when the power went out. We approached a traffic light, and it wasn’t working. “That’s weird…” I told him. “I’ve never seen a traffic light go out.” Then, we walked from Central Park West down Columbus Avenue. A lady was yelling out her window to a guy downstairs “I think the whole building has lost power!” A few buildings later, we heard someone saying “I think it’s the whole block…” The word terrorism flew out of a few people’s mouths as we looked up and around to try and understand what the heck was going on. Another block later, we heard someone say, “I hear it’s the whole Upper West Side!” People started pouring out of the subway stops. Car radios blasted the news with people crowded around listening. Eventually a calm descended upon the nervous city when terrorism was ruled out. My dad was flying into Newark Airport within an hour of the Blackout. Luckily, he landed safely at a confused airport. As the sun went down, the stoops filled with neighbors sharing wine and laughs… One of the brightest cities in the world went from electric to candle-lit. Long story short, despite initial concern and lots of glances at airplanes overhead, it turned out to be one of the coolest NYC nights of my life. What could have been a terrible night turned into a beautiful, romantic evening spent walking up and down Broadway amongst happy, wide-eyed New Yorkers. There were candles everywhere as free ice cream and bagels were generously distributed at every turn. I’ll never forget it.

2. Hurricane Irene: OK, so some of you don’t think this was a big deal. Well, try hosting a wedding at your own 150+ year house for 140 people the day it hit… Yeah. we did that. Despite how potentially disastrous it may sound (and could have been), everything turned out to be PERFECT. Trust me when I say that a hurricane is much more fun when you’re dressed up, there are two brides, and you’re dancing to a live band under a tent filled with family and friends. The power stayed on for the wedding itself, but the party continued for the next couple of days without electricity, and with 17 people (including family from Argentina and the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten) spending the night under one roof. Luckily, we had musical instruments, leftover catering, tons of wine and hundreds of candles to ride out the storm . In retrospect, I can’t think of a better way to spend a wedding weekend.

3. Hurricane Bob: What, you don’t remember Bob? That’s probably because it was before the snarky hype-machines of the Internet days, circa 1991… But did you know it was one of the costliest hurricanes to ever hit New England?! I watched Bob make landfall from the top of a rickety wooden staircase overlooking the beach at a house we used to rent in Greenport, Long Island (one of my favorite places in the world, FYI). My brothers and sisters and I ran outside with my parents and neighbors to feel the storm for ourselves. I was eight-years-old, and I remember the waves crashing about 50 feet in front of me, feeling raindrops hit my face like tiny shards of glass. I remember jumping up, and landing somewhere different. Our house rattled and lost electricity, trees came down and the giant boulders along the beach that we knew so well were totally rearranged into foreign clusters the next morning… I think this was my first most memorable encounter with Mother Nature, and I’ve had some respect for her ever since.

No electricity? No problem! This is how Tavels deal with a power outtage. Dinner for 17! Tavel Home, Dutchess County, NY.

So there ya have it. Storms can be scary, and I by no means want to undermine the potential devastation of this one. I wish for everyone to get through it safely, and for there to be minimal damage to people’s homes and businesses. But I also see storms as an opportunity for people to bond over candlelight and wine. It is a reminder that sometimes, we don’t have much control over that world out there… but we are all in this thing together.

If you have a moment, please share a storm story of your own! How will you be spending this Hurricane Monday? I want to hear from you, but above all, stay SAFE!!

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Filed under Boston, Life Stuff, Massachusetts, Natural Disasters

And Nothing Happened…

I don’t know much about avalanches, but today’s TwT contributor, Tom H., came very close to learning a bit too much about them. As one of the last  (if not the last) guest contributors for February Contributor Month, let’s see if we can dodge a few avalanches with him.

By the way, I took the month of February off to see what a month might bring in terms of my future plans. During this month, more than I expected has come together. You’ll have to wait for the next post, written by ME, to finally learn more about that…

And Nothing Happened

By Tom Hazel.

On Sunday January 30th, 2011, I sat in a conference room at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The avalanche awareness course I was taking was almost over. The last thing we did was watch a short documentary called, “A Dozen More Turns” (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which describes an avalanche that struck five experienced skiers on a hut trip in Montana. The avalanche danger was High, but the skiers stayed in the trees on a low angle slope, hoping to mitigate their risk. As Doug Chabot, says in the film, “they were doing a lot of things right,” but the risk was High, they still went skiing, and someone didn’t come home. In that moment I decided that I wouldn’t go skiing when the avalanche risk was Considerable or High. Easy decision.

Tom H. (red jacket, white goggles) and friends. Photo by John Davies.

Four weeks later I found myself on a similar trip in Eastern Oregon with an eclectic mix of friends hailing from New England, Texas, San Francisco and  the Pacific Northwest. We knew going in that the avalanche danger was Considerable-High because of an unstable snow layer about three feet below the surface. Here I was on my first trip after the avalanche awareness course, and already I was being tempted by great snow to break my own safety rules.

Just like the guys in “A Dozen More Turns,” we started out by playing it safe. On day one we decided to stick to some low angle terrain covered in trees. Both the angle and the trees make avalanches less likely.This was my first backcountry trip and I was nervous in the first place. The more experienced members of the group seemed cautious, but not worried. The only experience I had with this area was reading the avalanche forecasts before the trip. These guys knew what they were doing; they wouldn’t be putting themselves at risk, right?

Snow-covered mountain. Oregon. Photo by Tom H.

We picked out the lowest angle route up to the top of the ridge. Low angle was the theme for the day. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35-45 degrees. Slopes under 30 degrees are considered pretty safe. The downside in our situation was that there was too much snow to ski on slopes much less than 30 degrees. With 20 inches of new snow, a 25 degree slope isn’t really steep enough to ski on; it ends up being more of a hike downhill. Any slope above 30 was potentially unsafe, anything below 30 was almost unskiable. We had a clinometer (a tool for determining slope), and the route up was just about 30 degrees.

On the way up we heard a loud WOOMPF. A “woompf” is a scary thing in the backcountry. Imagine you’re minding your business, hiking up a nice 30 degree slope, when all of a sudden you hear a loud sound from under you. Your skis drop an inch and all the snow on the surrounding trees falls off. We immediately looked for signs of an avalanche.

Tom's friends Sam and John examining layers in a snow pit. Oregon. Photo by Brian R.

In this case, nothing moved.  The sound is caused by a layer of snow collapsing somewhere beneath you. A woompf gives a skier two important pieces of information: First, there is indeed a weak snow layer somewhere beneath you; and second, your weight is enough to collapse that layer. Neither of these pieces of information bode well for a safe trip. A bit shaken, we pressed on being sure to stay away from open areas.

Another WOOMPF. Shit. Should we really be up here? I knew that we were on a slope angle that was supposed to be safe, but I sure didn’t feel safe. I tried to keep my heart rate down and not freak out. I was sweating, but not from the hiking. It was that nervous kind of sweat that you get when speaking in public or waking up from a bad dream. We backed down the slope a bit and changed course, hopefully in a safer direction.

Before too long, we made it to the top of the ridge. Our ideal route would have taken us down the steeper northwestern side of the ridge. We dug some snowpits on that side of the ridge to test stability. As it turns out, the northwest side of the ridge was not very stable, so we went back to the lower angle side. We skied each pitch one at a time, in case anything happened. I was pumped to start heading downhill and it was great to make a few turns. The snow was amazing, but the low angle meant slower skiing. Despite my apprehension at every turn, we all ended up at the bottom, safe and sound. We were happy and wanted more. We took a couple more laps along the same route, accompanied by the sound of a a few more WOOMPFS, but nothing else.

Slope in Oregon. Photo by John Davies.

I was worried. The “woompfing” really freaked me out. I wasn’t sure if it made sense to ski another day. The group made the choice to ski a bit steeper terrain the next day. Being cautious and remembering the documentary, I decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed back at camp. In the afternoon people started trickling back in. They spoke of an amazing day of skiing. Once again, everyone came back safe. Maybe I was being too cautious.

With a 10 am departure from camp, only the early risers had time to ski on the third day. Four of us woke up early that morning to try to get a last few turns in. We got our gear on and left around 6:30 am. We hiked up a southwestern slope right behind the camp — the steepest we’d skied all trip — but it was nearby and there hadn’t been any problems so far, so we thought there wouldn’t be too much more risk. I heard a couple big “woompfs” and a couple small ones on the way up. The trees were tightly packed, but we were hiking up right next to a more dangerous open area.

Trees are a mixed blessing in avalanche terrain. A group of tightly packed trees can make a slope more stable. The cumulative effect of many trees adds stability to the snowpack. However, trees by themselves can cause problems. Snow tends to be thinner and less cohesive around the base of trees. Especially conifers with their wide bases. When the snowpack is less cohesive, it is easier to break off and cause an avalanche. Areas that are completely devoid of trees make for some of the best skiing, but since there are no anchors to hold the snow in place, they are riskier.

We decided not to hike up to the top because we would’ve passed through an open area. We got ourselves ready to head down through a tight cluster of trees. I was the second to go and followed the first set of tracks pretty closely. There was an easy pitch at first, and I made some nice turns before rounding a corner into another slope. It was much steeper, just the sort of thing we were supposed to avoid. I can remember my brain splitting into two parts: One part of me knew it was some of the best skiing I’d ever experience, the other half was petrified about starting a slide. I made my first few turns and then…

Nothing happened. There was no slide. The snowpack felt solid below my skis. We were all fine.

Freeland (Tom and my friend) hauling a sled full of gear out from the huts on the last day. Photo by Tom H.

On the five mile hike back to the car I was swimming in thoughts about the experience. Was I a better skier now because I had experienced more difficult conditions? Or had I lost some of my fear and respect for what I was doing? Was I more likely to make bad choices because nothing happened? Did we just get lucky?

I guess there’s no way to know until the next time I head into the backcountry.

Tom Hazel is a software engineer by day who splits his time between Boston and Austin. He spent a year shoring up his skiing chops in Salt Lake City, but has since settled down on the ski hills of New England. Tom shares some Barcelona routes with the Tavel herself, but most of his recent travels have been centered around finding good snow. You can follow him @TheRealTHazel.

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Filed under Contributor, Natural Disasters, Travel, Uncategorized, USA, Winter

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

Not all travel is glamorous. Not every trip seeks adventures and “the exotic.” Some trips are more rough around the edges — not because one stays at a hostel or camps in the woods. Not because we buy fancy outdoor gear for “roughing it” and take a guidebook along with us into the controlled unknown. Some places ruffle our feathers just enough to make one feel uncomfortable; it’s a welcome feeling, one that those eager to learn about the world actually seek out.

Today’s guest blogger shares her experience on an alternative spring break trip to Texas, post-Hurricane Ike, and explains what it feels like to go from an excited college kid ready to help, to a volunteer scraping mold and decay off of the walls of what was once someone’s home, sweet home.

A Foggy Day in Galveston, Texas

By Katie Woods.

It was a foggy day in Galveston, Texas, but the other student volunteers and I were smiling and laughing.  We were clad in hazmat suits, which made us feel like clunky spacemen on a mission.  But we weren’t headed to space.  We were about to gut a small house that had stewed untouched since Hurricane Ike hit Galveston about seven months prior.  Flood waters had ravaged the neighborhood we stood in, leaving it full of empty houses and overflowing dumpsters.  But my friends and I were taking photos of ourselves and goofing around.  For the time being, we felt good.

Overturned house in Galveston, Texas. Photo provided by Katie W.

We were in Galveston for Emerson College’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB). Rather than go on our own vacations, we decided to apply to build houses, feed the hungry, or clean beaches.  In 2008, a freshman, I went on my first ASB trip to Waveland, Mississippi, to work on Hurricane Katrina relief.  And then I was hooked.

Since then, I have journeyed to Galveston and Cedar Rapids, Iowa for flood relief.  This year, after months of working on the trip-planning, fundraising leadership team, I’m headed to Pensacola, Florida to work on wetland restoration, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  Each trip is a unique, perspective-altering journey that is incredible to experience but difficult to describe. But I’ll try.

House in Galveston, Texas. Photo by Katie W.

Let’s go back to that house in Galveston.  Before Hurricane Ike, it was inhabited by an elderly woman.  We volunteers didn’t know much about her, but on that monochromatic day, we took her personal belonging from her home and set them on the curb, turning this woman’s life – her photos, her fish tank, her little statuettes – into a pile of water-rotted garbage.  We’d all gutted houses before, but only when they had already been stripped.  Then it was fun – tearing into drywall, hammering toilets to pieces.  But this house had a personality. Soon into the job, we stopped goofing around.  We needed the hazmat suits to protect us from the extreme mold in the house.  Two students squeezed a soggy, stinking mattress through front door. Bugs scurried across the walls when we removed pictures from their nails.  The refrigerator – unopened for months – sloshed dangerously as we carefully lugged it outside.  Even through our masks, we could smell the decay.  We were utterly silent.  On the front lawn, I approached one of my friends who was standing totally still, looking stricken.  She pointed to the grass, where the body of a cat lay flattened and gray.   No one joked.

Debris in Galveston. Photo by Katie W.

I describe this day not because it was sad – which it was – but because it will never leave my memory.  I frequently imagine who this woman was, where she ended up living, what has become of her house now.  These are things I’ll probably never know.  This woman, or whoever lives on the property now, will never know me.   But we’re connected somehow.  And the other volunteers and I, while laughing about the frustration of a particular patch of drywall or while holding back tears to avoid steaming our goggles, all formed a bond of our own.  We grew closer to members of our college community while serving a community miles and miles away.  We experience a side of life and a type of work that was utterly different than what we – aspiring filmmakers, writers, and actors – did in our normal school-week.

Gutted house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo by Katie W.

There is no way to quantify the impact that service trips have.  Sure, this many houses are built, this many pieces of trash are cleared.  But the links formed between people cannot be measured.  When my Waveland group went out to dinner in a local restaurant one night, a middle-aged couple approached our table.  Teary eyed, the woman thanked us for being there, for not forgetting them, for helping though we didn’t know them.  Alternative Spring Break teaches people to care and reminds others that they are cared for.  It puts life into perspective.  And that’s something wonderful.

Photo of Katie Woods during ASB trip.

Katie Woods is a senior at Emerson College, earning her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing.  She is the Student Coordinator for Alternative Spring Break through the Office of Service Learning and Community Action.  Her favorite place to travel is the redwood forests of Northern California. You can help her and the other volunteers go on this year’s trip by donating here.

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Filed under Contributor, Life Stuff, Natural Disasters, Uncategorized, USA