Lessons Learned on the AEO Sandy Recovery Crew

I can’t believe the AEO Sandy Recovery Crew has already finished our week of conservation work at Floyd Bennet Field in Gateway National Recreation Area. It was one of those weeks that was so swift and busy that it felt like only a day – but also like we couldn’t have possibly done that much work in less than a month.

One of the things that I’ve come to accept about leading groups is that the unexpected always happens. If there is a 50% chance of rain, you’re likely to see the only thunder cloud dump buckets directly on top of your crew. If you finish a project early and ask what other projects need to be done, the park rangers will probably ask you to pick up the hundreds of buckets randomly left in a field. If you come upon a beach full of glass bottles and old leather shoes, you might find out that it’s a “historic landfill” and have to leave it all there while walking by with your trash bags. (All of these examples, by the way, actually happened to us.) What made our AEO Sandy Recovery Crew particularly stellar, then, was how well they fielded every unexpected event, and continued to look forward to the next challenge.

On the second morning the crew went back to work on the debris clean-up project — and by 11am they had completely filled our massive dumpster. Had filled it so high, in fact, that we had to abandon our ramps and instead have crew members climb to the top of the pile and pull up full tarps while other members pushed those tarps from below. By the end we had seven or eight people hauling each tarp up the mountain, slipping and falling on top of one another, laughing, and working together all the while.

This was great! This was stellar! But we had planned on the project taking at least another half day of work. Fortunately, the next morning when I took half the crew to put finishing touches on the project, they were excited about the idea of cleaning trash off the public beach by the site, despite the fact that it wasn’t in the original plan.

Our members showed this enthusiasm over and over again as we did many different tasks for the park. Some of the projects were obviously Sandy-related, while others were much-needed routine work for a park that was behind after the hurricane. One day the crew split into pairs and walked down paths to the beach, lopping off overgrown branches. On another day, half the crew improvised to build a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk in a garden so that all public school kids from New York could enjoy it, while the other half of the crew surveyed trails the parks hadn’t had time to look at since the storm. The crew took each project in stride.

For me, the last day was most memorable. We were trying to finish the boardwalk project. We had only one old handsaw in the morning, and a bunch of mismatched boards, some nails, some screws, and one electric screwdriver. We spent much of the morning creating an elaborate angled section to keep the boardwalk on the path we had created a few days earlier, only to realize in the afternoon that what we really needed to do was re-route the path and keep the boardwalk straight. So, settling into yet another change of plans, the group split, half working on building long, straight sections that we would add later and half working on demolishing part of our work from the morning and re-patching the spots. Rather than being discouraged by the backwards step, the crew got more and more excited as they saw how the new plan created a better, more finished product. I was able to step aside and let the members talk among themselves, figuring out how to solve the next problem, gathering momentum all the while. They decided unanimously to push on past the usual end of the day in order to finish the project, and to make sure the small aesthetic details were in place as well as the functional ones. When they were done, they had a product they could truly be proud of.

While we did a lot of good work over the week, the boardwalk project was the one where I really got to see what our group had learned. They had learned, in only a week, when to lead and when to follow each other to help a project get done. They had learned to respect each other’s ideas. They had learned to take pride in their work, and to carry it through to the end. They had learned how to have fun while working hard. Once the project was complete, everyone snazzed up their work gear (goggles, helmets, a rolled pant leg, a saucily tied bandanna) and sashayed down our fancy new boardwalk in a fashion show to celebrate our finished product: https://vine.co/v/huXqLKzwJOd.