When chef George Kyrtatas got the call requesting he bring hot food to the areas of Staten Island hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, he quickly said yes. While he cooked, he purposely tried not to focus on what he might see when he arrived. Turns out that was a good idea, because nothing could have prepared him for the day ahead.

“It was destroyed. I saw foundations of houses with just steps left,” says Kyrtatas, whose family owns Hathaway’s Restaurant and the recently opened SweetWater Bar and Grill in Cinnaminson. “There were roofs sitting in the middle of these grassy marshes, and those roofs were from houses about a half a mile away. They were just washed aside.

Kyrtatas saw homes ripped apart while taking a walk on Staten Island following the storm

Kyrtatas saw homes ripped apart while taking a walk on Staten Island following the storm

“Then I spoke with a woman. We had set up in front of her house. She told me that during the storm her husband had gone into the basement to turn off the fuse panel. While he was down there, the water rose 15 feet in just a few minutes. It pushed and closed the door leading back into the house. She was on one side, and he was on the other trying to open the door. He drowned in his basement. She called 911, and when divers arrived, they still weren’t able to open the door. They had to wait for the tide to recede to recover his body.

“Everywhere you turned, you found people who lost everything – every possession they ever had. People were going in their houses and coming out with one small box of salvageable items. On the street, you would see photos of families and children scattered about with dirt on them. When the storm came, the water went in one side of the house and out the other, and washed everything out.”

Kyrtatas, 33, spent six hours serving food to about 400 people – homeowners, rescue workers, volunteers – anyone who came to his outdoor make-shift kitchen. He brought with him pots, pans, serving ware and plastic ware, but he looked for items to stage a grill once he arrived. He brought with him 15 bags of charcoal.

“There was a large area with things people had donated – cases of bleach, shovels, rakes – everything was outside in the open, because there is no building to store anything in. We found a metal, shallow table, so we put the charcoal in there. Someone else had donated what looked like the top of a grill. We put the two together. They didn’t fit and it was awkward, but it worked.”

Kyrtatas served chicken orzo soup, grilled chicken filets, rolls, steak sandwiches, and cases of chips and side dishes. (He also took medical supplies, baby food, sanitizing lotion, hats, gloves and jackets.)

Chef George Kyrtatas of SweetWater Bar and Grill in Cinnaminson serves food in Staten Island after the storm 

Chef George Kyrtatas of SweetWater Bar and Grill in Cinnaminson serves food in Staten Island after the storm

“Some people told us they hadn’t eaten hot food in days. Some were too proud to take free food, so others would come and ask to make a plate for their neighbor. There were police officers on just about every corner. There was one near us, and I kept telling him to have some soup because I knew he was freezing. But he wouldn’t take any. He said others needed it more.

“And something else I wasn’t expecting. That police officer was listening for a fire truck siren to go off. When it went off, it meant a body had been discovered and needed to be retrieved.”

Kyrtatas says one of the reasons he was surprised by how often that siren went off was because he hadn’t seen such devastation portrayed in the media. “When the tsunami happened, that’s all you saw on the news, but it wasn’t like that here. You didn’t see much coverage once the hurricane ended. You didn’t see what happened afterward. When I drove into that bay area and saw what I saw – no one had shown this. No one said, ‘Hey this is going on in our country, our state, our backyard, and we need to help.’ You just didn’t see that.”

The young chef says everyone he met that day had a story to tell. Some people were looking for their pets. One man had little damage to his house except for his roof, which had parts missing. He was spending all his time on the roof trying to repair it, somehow, so things inside could be protected from the weather.

“Agents from the different insurance companies were there, walking through the rubble with homeowners. I heard one say, ‘Okay, what was here? What was there?’ And the owner said, ‘Right now, you’re standing in my living room.’ The agent said, ‘I’m standing…what?’ And the guy answered, ‘I don’t know what you want me to say. My house is no longer here. All of my possessions are no longer here. My car is 150 feet down the road submerged in water. I’ve got no clothes, no food. I’ve got no car. I’ve got no home. I’ve got nothing left. What do you want me to tell you?’”

Naturally, the experience made a significant impression on Kyrtatas, who lives in Medford with his wife and two daughters. “Further inland, I saw kids. They were trying to help their parents rummage through the debris to find something salvageable.” He pauses when he speaks. “It was really shocking. You see these kids. How are they supposed to go on? How do they go to school? They have no clothes. They’re not eating. They don’t have a place to sleep. It was tough.

“The experience made me appreciate what we have. You know, we’re all in the mode where we work hard, do what we can, we pay our bills. But you need to find the time to step back and appreciate the little things as well. We need to appreciate what we have. I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was able to help out, as little as it was.

“I just wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. I was kind of in shock when I got there. There was this disbelief that this actually happened, and not just that – you couldn’t believe it happened here. We have this mentality that things like this happen in other parts of the world, because those places don’t have the guidelines to build things the way we do. They don’t have evacuation plans like we do. We have this, and we have that. But no, it happened here.”

Kyrtatas says the area is still in need of volunteers and donations. “On the weekend before we were there, almost 1,000 people had volunteered to help, but they had to go back to work and on Monday, there were 150 people. There are all kinds of organizations that are trying to help, and they need supplies. That need is going to be there for a long time.”

December 2012
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