Hurricane Sandy hit the New York coast on October 29th, 2012 as a Category 2 hurricane with 85 mile an hour winds and an a 14 foot storm surge. The devastation to the city and its boroughs was immense. Sandy was the second costliest storm in U.S. history, created the largest power outage on record and left 233 people dead in eight countries[i]. Americans are becoming all to familiar with these “super storms” and catastrophic events. The weather, which used to be broadcast locally in evening newscasts, is now a regular part of the national news. Almost every day the destruction and devastation from these weather-related events captures our national attention – hurricanes along the coasts, tornados in the mid-west, wildfires in the drought-stricken west, and floods everywhere.
One of the most enduring images of Hurricane Sandy comes from a news interview taken the day after the storm. Anne Curry of NBC News accompanied Phyllis Puglia as she returned to her home on Staten Island for the first time. We see Phyllis’ shocked disbelief as she see that her home is completely devastated. In the next scene she walks along a board on the beach a mile from her home where she finds some of the items from her house. The beach is now a pile of rubble with boards from houses, clothing, appliances, furniture, papers – everything that would be found in the modern American household, mixed up with reeds from the beach, sand, and other debris. Phyllis stoops down and picks something up from this pile of rubbish. It’s her mother’s wedding picture. The 12 X 15 photograph is soiled, dirty and warped from the water. “See my mother?” She says. She immediately expresses concern for her father. “There has to be more with my father.” Then like a child who is alone and desolate having just lost her parents, she cries out pitifully, “I want to go home. But there’s no home. I can’t go home.”
We are heartbroken for her. Phyllis’ cry of despair touched many lives. Who cannot empathize with the anguish of wanting to go home, but having lost that home forever? Later she tells Anne Curry, “My mother was my best friend.” She said it was so important to find her picture because in all the devastation, to find something meaningful she felt that she had gotten something back.
Like many others, I was deeply moved by Phyllis’ circumstance. I thought, “If only I could have told her how to save her memories, she wouldn’t have lost them all.” As a trained archivist who has worked in university libraries and museums I could have shown her how to preserve her memories so that when the hurricane hit, she wouldn’t have lost it all. While a relatively small portion of the American public is losing everything to these catastrophic weather events, the rest of us sit by watching in horror and wonder if we will be next. There are many reasons for getting your memories in order, losing everything in a super storm is the most compelling and dramatic.
To watch the newsclip of Phyllas Puglia go to http://www.nbcnews.com/video/rock-center/49753888#49753888