When the Hurricane Got Personal.

Via Jordan Mallah
on Nov 2, 2012
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Photo: David Shankbone/Flickr

Living in downtown New York City, I was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.

Not because it’s brute force knocked out my electricity for days, not because Sandy turned my Tribeca neighborhood into a rubbish-strewn, blacked-out, evacuated community and not because, despite my best efforts, it robbed me of my comforts, livelihood and income for awhile.

Hurricane Sandy hit me hard because it forced me to address the sharp and sad reality that we sometimes overlook—or cast aside—those who are less fortunate.

Hurricane Sandy revealed the truth that we too often care about inconsequential things, instead of figuring out what truly matters and then taking action.

Hurricane Sandy hit me hard because it brought me intimately, frighteningly and maddeningly face-to-face with the devastation that occurs when we fail to do our duty and moral obligation to the forgotten and overlooked, who are standing right in front of us—invisible to us.

Meet my neighbor, Derek

Hurricane Sandy brought into my life a foul-smelling and seemingly degenerate street person in his 60’s named Derek, whose home is a park bench across from my apartment building in one of the wealthiest areas of New York City.

While many of the people around me seemed only concerned with themselves, exemplified by the scramble for downtown dwellers to find uptown rooms, so they would not miss electric and internet access, Derek barely survived the hurricane on the streets of downtown Manhattan.

Amazingly, notwithstanding the neglect and actual ire of police and paramedics, having no place for days to relieve himself, except in his own clothes and no place to get a drink of fresh water, Derek survived.

Despite the crippling effects of his fear and sense of shame that prevented him from being able to find a place to weather the storm, Derek made it out alive…but barely.

This story started on Sunday Oct. 28, when I posted this picture to Facebook with the caption, “Walking through City Hall Park, reminded how grateful I am to have a roof over my head with this crazy storm coming. Let’s keep it in perspective.”

On Monday, Derek was still living outside, as the winds were picking up and Sandy was rolling in.

I asked him if he needed help; he said he didn’t even know a serious storm was coming. Gazing into my eyes, he said simply and calmly that if a storm were on the way, “I might die, I guess. I am not very strong. I am a normal guy who just had bad luck and I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

I brought him food and water and then walked him across the street to a Bank of America, where I used my banking card to give him shelter in the ATM lobby.

Later, walking my dog one last time that night before Sandy tore through the city, I saw Derek back on the street; he’d been kicked out of the ATM lobby. I said I’d let him back in but he refused, as he didn’t want to get arrested. I spoke with a cop down the street, who gave me his word that he would call an ambulance and take Derek to a hospital.

It never happened.

Derek spent the entire Monday night, the apex of Hurricane Sandy, outside, right in the thick of the storm. By Tuesday morning, he was barely standing.

But he was in fact, standing—largely because he was unable to sit; he couldn’t bend his knees. I called 911 to get him help. An ambulance came and went; the paramedics said Derek’s case was not an emergency. I tried to put him in a cab to take him a shelter; the driver refused to take him in—Derek had, after all, been relieving himself in his pants for three days straight.

Tuesday night, I set him up again with food and water and (again) called for medical care—the paramedics promised me they would help.

I was incredibly disappointed and saddened to go outside Wednesday morning to see Derek standing in the same spot, in the same position, exactly where he’d been the day before.

That’s when I posted this to Facebook:

“Sick to my stomach. This man is homeless and sick in Tribeca and no one is helping him. Have given him food and water for three days and called ambulance twice to take him to a hospital and they left both times saying it’s not urgent. This is NYC. Can’t believe this!”

At this point, I decided there is no way I was leaving this man there—in fact, I was shocked that anyone would.

The little I could do for Derek was simply ordinary and humane; the help I offered was nothing praiseworthy at all, not even in relation to the complete neglect with which other individuals and our society, as a whole, treated him and others like him.

Derek was sick and needed help urgently. He asked me to help him walk from beside the bench to the street, because had to pee and didn’t want to relieve himself on the sidewalk or in his pants, again, in front of someone’s home. I helped him hobble, arm-in-arm, to the street where he collapsed and passed out. I immediately called 911.

This time, I stayed by Derek’s side, until I saw the ambulance actually take him away. Derek was gone and all that was left were the pigeons eating muffins that someone had given him and the water I had brought him a few days earlier.

My new friend Derek taught me some important lessons that I will carry in my heart forever and reminded me that our duty, our “right path” as individuals—and as a society—is right in front of us, if we choose to open our eyes.

The storm hits home

Sandy also hit home in an even more personal way. I learned Tuesday evening, while trying to make sure that Derek was taken care of, that the home of my great aunt and uncle in Coney Island, had been devastated. My relatives are in their 80’s and although they didn’t evacuate Coney Island when they should have, they at least relocated to their daughter’s nearby eighth-floor apartment.

But the power there had been knocked out, too, and since my great aunt and uncle cannot walk, they were trapped eight flights up with barely any food and water; everything around them in Coney Island had been destroyed by the hurricane and the devastation was everywhere.

So on Wednesday, after seeing Derek taken away in the ambulance, I met up with my parents to bring food and water to my great aunt and uncle and to others.

Over the course of that day, I climbed more than 100 flights of stairs, in various Coney Island apartment buildings, to bring food and water to people in need. Many were elderly, trapped in high-rise buildings, without sustenance and with no way to walk downstairs.

In one instance, I walked food and water up 20 flights of steps to my great aunt’s brother.

When I walked into his apartment, he was completely disconnected from reality; he asked me if I was his guardian angel. I explained that we actually knew each other but had not seen each other in more than 30 years.

He was elated to have food and water.

In a heartbeat, he went from looking sick and hungry, to being totally excited and alive—his smile served as a poignant reminder that very little effort can have a huge impact in someone’s life.

The day was, in fact, far too long and wild to describe, so I will let the photos do the talking.

As with Derek, I realize that what I did was not heroic—it was just the right thing to do, to offer in any way that I could.

If anything, what I did for my family and others in Coney Island, as for Derek, made me realize with incredible clarity that I do an insufficient amount of service, in the routine flow of my days, in the course of a life that is so blessed and that brings me such good fortune.

The profound irony is that even as I study and teach the lessons of taking “right action” from the perspective of ancient yoga philosophy and scripture that guide my life, my daily routine has led me pathetically astray from values that I have held throughout my life, with the remembrance of how I can be of service to others right here, right now.

Taking Responsibility

The weekend before Sandy hit, I had been teaching a Your Life Aligned® intensive centered on the Bhagavad Gita.

Perhaps one of the most recognized scriptures in the world, the Bhagavad Gita speaks in detail to the issue of dharmathe Sanskrit word for one’s personal duty and responsibility in this life. But the reason it’s really so important to understand dharma is because it enables both the social contract between people and the world of nature to resonate with a sense of purpose and order.

The agenda of Gita is to understand the terms of the world and to understand yoga—how to yoke yourself to the world. The Gita encourages us to participate in a process of deeper understanding about the Art and Science of living in the world—and it starts by telling us to tend deeply to our responsibility as human beings on this planet.

Study of the Gita encourages us to contemplate what we consider to be valuable; what we believe is truly worth living for, fighting for and dying for.

Our choices help determine how the world holds firm, how our society functions—or falls apart.

For me, a few days of helping people during a catastrophe is not nearly enough right action to fulfill my dharma. With this post, I renew my commitment to service.

I hope you will join me in your recommitment to help others—we spend hours and years on our yoga mats cultivating virtues that must be put into action not only in times of crisis but every day.

I encourage you to take action to help those most affected by Sandy; here are a few resources to get you started:

NBC News: Hurricane Sandy: How you can help

New York Cares Relief Efforts

Charity Navigator: Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis

Occupy Sandy Relief

Occupy Sandy Relief NYC 

True yoga is action. Roll up your mat (and your sleeves) for a few days and do your practice in the world!


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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Photos courtesy Jordan Mallah


About Jordan Mallah

Jordan Mallah (Jordan Mallah - Your Life Aligned) has taken more than 15 years of intensive training, teaching expertise and multi-disciplinary learning from cultures around the world to create Your Life Aligned. His method is a philosophy, therapy and ever-evolving goal integrating all the elements of physical, spiritual, nutritional and purposeful living. A writer for Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, and author of a Peruvian community cookbook and numerous articles on healthy living, Mallah is yoga mentor to a devoted fan base of beginners and advanced practitioners alike. He aligned his own life through a journey that began with a career as a management consultant and then he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. Now a leading yoga therapist based in New York City, Mallah guides students into an exploration of their deepest essence, leaving them poised to celebrate each day from a place of authenticity. Mallah also leads numerous global service and yoga retreats. For more information, visit www.jordanmallah.com.


20 Responses to “When the Hurricane Got Personal.”

  1. Manoj Mehta says:

    Jordan, wonderful work! A question for you (and this is something that I am asking myself right now): You had the opportunity to bring him into your apartment before the storm struck but you chose to take him to the ATM shelter. Do you think you had it in you to invite him to your apartment at that stage, knowing the sad condition he was in and the fact that he was unaware of the storm coming? He did say he was ready to die. Or was there fear or even a sense of disgust there? I don't know if I would have had it in me to call the guy in. What if he had died in the storm? The deeper question I guess is- how far are we willing to go in our actions? Is a little enough? Is just enough, enough? Or do we go the whole way? And perhaps put ourselves in danger or a situation of great discomfort………..

  2. Heather Snyder says:

    Thank for for writing this Jordan. I hope it inspires many others to dedicate more time to service as well. I'm right there with you.

  3. a. says:

    I'm writing regarding Derek.
    What you did was not heroic as you pointed out, but it was kind.
    Without judgement, I too am wondering why you did not, if you realized the situation to be so horrific, take him into your home. When does concern at a remove becomes an active love not rooted in fear.

  4. I think you are missing the point Manoj. If my car breaks down- does that mean Jordan should give me his car to drive?

    Those of us that live in NY are face to face with homeless people every day. We here in NYC know that many if not most of homeless people have a cluster of problems, very poor health, serious mental illness, substance dependancy. I myself am conflicted every time I give a dollar to a homeless person on the train for I wonder if they will be using it to eat- or to buy alcohol. Once you understand the complexity of homelessness… Its very hard to know exactly how to help. Its not an easy thing to open your 300 foot studio apartment to anyone in this city- and I am sure Jordan sensed that if this individual might have needed more help then he was qualified to provide. Hence the reason he called the ambulance to no avail.

    With no heat, not water, no electricity- and no means to get Derek into his Apt without carrying him up 15 flights of stairs- what do you think Jordan could have done for him?

    I think the point is that we have little or no sense of citizenship in this county anymore. We seem to forget these underlying contracts that we as a society has made to offer support to those less fortunate than us. We have entire television networks dedicated to vilifying programs such as medicade and social security (both founded by Eisenhower to ease poverty among our elderly) and seducing people into believing that all the economic problems we have in this America are people like Derek's fault. And that attitude makes the concept of dharma a hard sell to people here in the business of yoga.

  5. Manoj Mehta says:

    I am not sure if there was a particular point I was trying to make, except to dig a little bit deeper into the situation. I truly appreciate Jordan's actions but isn't there always more to look at, in any situation in life? Remember, Jordan first talked with the guy BEFORE the storm hit, before the power went off. There could have been a chance then to invite Derek up to his apartment. I am more interested in finding out what was going through Jordan's mind at this stage, if the thought actually crossed his mind, and if so, how he dealt with it. I am sure even gut instincts are also an outcome of sorting through different thoughts and feelings, no matter how fast these instincts seems to arise. As I mentioned in my comment- had I been faced with a similar situation, I am not sure what I would have done. My heart would have gone out to the person on the bench but at the same time, I would be conflicted about what action I should take to try and help the other person.

    I live in the 3rd world and am faced with these situations on a daily basis. Yes, I have developed a thick skin, knowing that there's only so much I can do, in my own way, small or big, to alleviate the suffering of others around me. Here, we cannot even rely on the authorities or government; most times, we know that they won't do anything anyway. So, the question then becomes- how far do I go to help those in need? How much courage do I have? How much am I ready to go further? I pointed out that I would perhaps have a sense of fear or disgust in situation such as the one Jordan writes about and in order to handle the situation, I'd probably try and hand off the responsibility of the other person's welfare to someone 'higher' up, after doing what I was ready to do.

    These are questions I am sure many of us ask ourselves regularly. Or, as you pointed out Kay, perhaps NOT ask ourselves. Maybe in order to protect our individual selves and sense of well-being? I don't think this is necessarily an 'American' issue. It's a human issue. A global issue. If anything, most Americans, including Derek, are in a much more privileged situation than the billions in need in the rest of the world. At least Derek DID eventually get tended to. I assure you, that would not have happened where I am.

    I see this discussion as more about deepening the conversation, about more engagement. I really am not here to judge Jordan's actions.

    As for those infernal 'yoga' mats- the sooner people get PERMANENTLY off them and throw the damn things away, and get down to the real business of helping the world, the better, in my not so humble opinion! Real service needs real karma yogis. Arjuna, the guy so many like to mention, was on the battlefield, dealing with questions of dharma and karma, doubt and delusion, cowardice and courage. I doubt very much he owned a nice, thick, cushioned, top-of-the-range yoga mat. I hope you get my point. The millions of asana-practitioners might just be seeking their own enlightenment or beauty, for very 'self'-centred reasons, and the world be damned.

    I know that Jordan does his service work on many other levels, in different parts of the world, not just NYC. I wish many others would follow his example and apply the brakes on the 'yoga' industrial complex in the world. I know, I know, that's a completely different point……but it's somehow related to all this.

  6. Linda Maria says:

    Jordan, thank you, thank you. For simply being a kind person, for caring, for taking action. Poignant reminders of the fragility of life. As I finished reading this, I felt I had no other clarifying questions to ask you. Instead, I am left with this question to ask myself: “What ACTION have I TAKEN today to help support another Being?

  7. greateacher says:

    Thank you fo rall you did and fo rwriting about it to help us all to reach into our hearts and to effect our actions as days pass.

  8. […] It is two days after Hurricane Sandy. […]

  9. heatmort says:

    Many good issues raised. I spend a lot of time in India and face this problem all the time. I used to give freely and had locals yelling at me for giving too much. You see that sets a precedent that others may need to follow. And believe me giving 50 rupees ($1) did not seem like much in comparison to 5 rupees!

    That said, I once befriended a street child. Gave him food, shoes and took him out to various restaurants. But slowly I noticed my efforts were not really making much of a difference. He was back on the street with no shoes…had given them to his mother perhaps to sell (?) and then was always looking at me as though I was a kind of cash register.

    Dealing with or knowing how to deal with the poverty is really complicated. I decided to help in a much more meaningful way by teaching English at a school in Mysore. Giving the children an opportunity to learn English is only a small step but it is one..and it might help them in the future.

  10. Desiree says:

    Tears and definitely renewed commitment to service my brother. Thank you for sharing…

  11. Kris says:

    Jordan lives in a high rise building in Tribeca that was without power. Derek never would have been able to make it up the stairs since he was already weak and needed medical attention, which is the reason Jordan called an ambulance in the first place.

  12. Sincere Question says:

    Did you ask Derek's permission to take his picture and post in on Facebook and in this article?

  13. jordan says:

    Manoj and others,
    Thanks for your great questions. Service learning has been a key component in my life since I was a young boy, and I still don't have a clear answer to these very real and important questions. I simply do the best I can in each situation, and hopefully next time I will do even better. Thanks for advancing the conversation.

  14. Stuart says:

    Thanks for posting this, up here in murray hill experienced many of the same troubles, it does make u think and take perspective of things. I hope things will get better for all of us and maybe a return to all of our humanity.

  15. Thanks so much for sharing your story Jordan and for everyone for asking good questions.. I love a conversation that deals with questions about humanity.. I too, wondered why Jordan didn't invite him home.. I wasn't wondering from a judgemental place, more of a place of inquisitiveness .. I love this article because it talks about asking the questions and seeing the darkness and pain and the responsibility we have and how our actions can help others.. I have been feeling a bit guilty that i haven't been volunteering, and I shared this with her friend staying with us who lost power.. to which she responded. you're helping me.. it is important for me and others to realize and focus on what we can do.. and not always on what we aren't doing.. sending lots of love!

  16. darcy says:

    YES! This question arose for me as well. The awareness of what we all do and do NOT do- how we extend ourselves and keep ourselves safe. I would include myself in that contemplation but I was curious Jorden- about your thoughts about this…

  17. […] blessing in the lives of our President Barack Obama and his family, and our hearts are with the victims of the storm on the east coast of this nation and with the many emergency responders and relief workers who are […]

  18. Stephanie Bifolco says:

    Thank you Jordan for your honesty and for your steadfast commitment to something greater. I truly hope this article inspires others to look to service more as an imperative in the world we live today. I believe the most important thing is that we keep acting in the world, and then reflecting on our actions, and then acting again. There does not exist a right or wrong, there only exist the questions. Thanks for writing this article and starting that conversation!

  19. […] the recent extreme Hurricane Sandy experience on New York’s unique City Island without lights, heat, phones, cell service, […]

  20. […] live in Staten Island and our entire neighborhood was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. My daughter was home and saw our family dog, who has been around since she was born, float away. […]