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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Century Avenue is cleaner today. A working-class street of mixed nationalities, this area was shattered by last week’s storm. A 12-foot wall of water slammed into this area a week ago yesterday, leaving high water marks over garage doors, trapping families for days on their second floors, and pulling down telephone poles and breaking windows a half mile inland.
There were 22 people who died in Staten Island attributed to Hurricane Sandy, and the wind carried the stink of spoiled food and damp clothing piled by the local residents into the streets far inland.
But Monday was different as two CH-53s from USS Wasp (LHD-1) carried 45 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to one of Staten Island’s hardest-hit areas. Led by Maj. James Zepco, the Marines were a mixed element of combat logistics and combat engineers. Their mission seemed simple: to assist the Department of Sanitation and pick up garbage.
But as one group of nine Marines and a corpsman under Gunnery Sgt. Chris Pilats quickly discovered, it wasn’t quite so simple. The 5- to 6-feet high piles of garbage included furniture, clothing and spoiled food and it choked the streets.
The Marines also discovered how grateful the residents were for their appearance—other than a recently-erected FEMA tent and a police presence that patrolled the main road, Father [Vincent R.] Capodanno Blvd., the only interaction with government had been with the building inspectors who condemned their homes. But walking to Colony Ave., Pilats’ Marines let them know things were different.
As the Marines walked up Midland Avenue from their baseball field landing zone, they stopped to talk with the civilians who had gathered on the street. “Oh my God, it’s the Marines,” said Jamie Moreno. Moreno is a volunteer from St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in neighboring Brooklyn, and she was quick to offer a few of the bottles of water and work gloves they’d come to donate. “No, we’re OK, said Cpl. Michael Sanchez, "keep it for those who need it.”
Two streets farther up, the Marines turned onto Colony Ave., and met up with Bill Motley, a Department of Sanitation employee and local resident. He had two garbage trucks waiting, and as he and Gunnery Sgt. Pilats met and shook hands, Pilats turned to his Marines and told them, “Let’s clear the street.”
The Marines sprang into action. Attacking piles of trash that ranged from sofas to wallboard to refrigerators, the Marines loaded into both trucks simultaneously.
“I’ve been working since early this morning, and these Marines were able to do more in 20 minutes than we did all day,” Motley said.
Onsum Dugan, a Korean-American whose house had been ruined, and her husband had laboriously stuffed their ruined household goods into large trash bags which were neatly stacked on her still-wet small lawn. Seeing the Marines working towards her, she shyly motioned a Marine to her.
“Can you help me lift these? I’m not able to carry them to the truck,” she said.
Overhearing her, Pilats called, “I need two Marines, now.”
Four immediately came to assist. As she watched her household goods being thrown into a trash truck, she suddenly realized she was being assisted by Marines as she smiled.
Two houses away, her neighbor, Manoo Soni and her husband were clearing out their house, but stopped to watch as the Marine contingent methodically worked their way towards them. Watching the young Marines laughing and talking with her neighbors, she teared-up.
“I’ve never seen our military up close before; they’ve come to help. They’re here to help us,” she said.
The Marines and residents seemed to take energy from each other; with the residents helping lift chairs, sofas and sodden clothing into the trucks. Sgt. Steven Yelton grabbed a shovel from one of the trucks and furiously swept wallboard scraps from the streets —and two more Marines joined him.
Although still without power and cold, at least Colony Avenue was clean. As Pilats’ Marines left the street to return to the beach-side landing zone for a flight back to USS Wasp, Dugan had one question for Lance Cpl. Benjamin Turner.
“Are you coming back tomorrow?”