Lincolnwood man lends a hand in NYC after Sandy hits
Mitchell Collens, 24, of Lincolnwood helped distribute food and supplies last week to residents affected by severe weather in lower Manhattan. This is what his hands looked like after unloading trucks. | contributed photo
Updated: January 7, 2013 1:44AM
LINCOLNWOOD — A Lincolnwood resident’s recent jaunt to New York City to visit family and friends evolved into an opportunity to help strangers stranded by the wrath of weather.
After spending four days touring the Big Apple, Mitchell Collens, 24, was scheduled to fly back to Chicago the morning of Oct. 29.
Superstorm Sandy had other plans. He hunkered down in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room when the storm hit the East Coast.
The tropical storm system left an imprint on 24 U.S. states. Power outages, flooding and, in some areas, rampant fire caused New Jersey and New York to issue states of emergency.
Despite a beating from strong winds New York City’s largest central business district was virtually intact. But south of 42nd street, where the power went out, was a different story, Collens reported.
Police were stationed at nearly every intersection directing worse-than-usual traffic.
Underground subways were flooded and buses overflowed with passengers. Taxi drivers slept in cabs while waiting up to nine hours to fill gas tanks, Collens said.
“After the storm it was like two different cities out there,” he said.
With the streets dark people followed the city’s lights north.
“The hotel situation out there was crazy,” said Collens, whose sister, Jackie, works in the luxury hotel industry.
“Everyone wanted a room,” he said.
Collens had the option to skip town two days after the storm hit — but there was something he wanted to do first.
“I thought, I’m not going to sit up here and dilly-dally around when there’s something I could do to help,” he said. “I had my walking shoes and I was ready to go.”
Collens pound the pavement to see how he could help the city get back on its feet. On the street he asked police officers for advice of where to go and was pointed in the direction of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
For two and half miles he walked, passing shuttered restaurants and businesses along the way. Every now and then he encountered spontaneous charging stations, where people rebooted cell phones and laptops from 30 power cords plugged into a generator.
Collens eventually reached an area where the electrical and water utilities weren’t operating. For drinkable water residents turned to filling buckets with water collected from an open hydrant up multiple flights of stairs, he said.
Collens spotted a semi-trailer truck with “Operation Blessing” painted on its side and asked what he could do.
“Start grabbing some stuff,” was the reply.
For six hours he and a fellow Samaritan from Amsterdam unloaded boxes of water and food. Dozens of others pitched in too, and distributed the supplies from a nearby playground.
“Everybody was so thankful and just happy people were there to help,” Collens said. “Overall it felt good.”
Collens flew home Nov. 3. And while Collens is modest about his personal contribution to the relief efforts — he noted he was just lending a hand — he saidit’s volunteer work he would do again if the situation arose.
“But hopefully it (would be) nowhere close to home,” he said.