You Loot We Shoot...
You Loot We Shoot…

This weekend I volunteered for the disaster recovery of Sandy, and I’ll be brutally honest (when am I not): I did it because I felt survivor’s guilt, I wanted to see what devastation looked like other than on TV and yes, I wanted to help as much as I could.  The bottom line is: why you volunteer is irrelevant as long as you do.

Spending a waaaay long time in various buses to and from the Far Rockaway’s I had two very interesting conversations about disasters, giving and cultural differences.

We were a group of four, one Swiss, one German and a couple from India. On the way out I was talking to Ulli and we discussed how Germans and Swiss just don’t get the concept of giving and supporting causes and volunteering the way Americans do.

We came to the conclusion that in both nations there is a very well-functioning social structure run by the state and funded by tax payers money that takes care of everybody in need.  Both countries have armies (neither of them standing, but always a portion on active duty) that are not, or only marginally involved in wars.  This allows for the army to go out and participate in disaster recovery.  Of course neither country is in a tropical storm area, Switzerland is landlocked, and neither has a propensity for major earthquakes, nor volcanoes, and no exposure to tsunamis (maybe Germany if things REALLY heat up).  We do however have Alps with avalanche (both snow and mud) and flooding disaster potential.  Also, both countries are way smaller than the United States and thus more manageable.

I also remember raising money for my favorite charity (The Making Headway Foundation) by running the marathon. My American friends gave, and gave very generously and my Swiss friends and family didn’t understand the concept of supporting a non-profit they didn’t have any relationship with by supporting me running a race.  They were rather embarrassed by the idea that I would ask them for money. 

A more recent point in case:  the crowd-funding website Kickstarterwhich is a huge success here in America has a Swiss sibling and they are not by any stretch of the imagination as successful as any of the US crowd-funding platforms.  Again, there is no culture and understanding for crowd- funding and that if all of us give a little it will make a lot eventually.

On the way back from the Far Rockaway’s I sat next to Shyam and he asked me a very interesting question as we were at a dead stop in total gridlock traffic trying to get off the island.  “How would this disaster recovery have been handled differently in Switzerland and how would it have been handled in India”?

My take was that Switzerland has a very good infrastructure both geographically and politically.  Our communities are politically very well organized and each community has members that can be called into active military duty and there is a civilian part of the military that can help.  Switzerland is tiny compared to the US, our head count equals New York City’s alone and Switzerland is a wealthy country with plenty of resources. On the flip side of the coin – as much as people might help in small ways there would never be an influx of masses of fellow Swiss to help a stricken area to recover.  One would automatically assume that the communities, military and relieve organizations would take care of that and that most citizens have a decent social network, i.e. other places to go.  A fundraising campaign however would raise a lot of cash for immediate help.

On the contrary Shyam mentioned that in India the biggest challenge would be the infrastructure and the density of the population – then again the sheer numbers of people in India also is where its strength lies. If there were a disaster to an area, a 100 people per family would show up to help immediately – needed or not.  A side note here was that that mentality also resulted in lots of unwanted visits throughout good times by relatives and friends.

I’m glad I had an opportunity to help a bit, to see how even the most unorganized bunch of people can make a big difference (and unorganized we were), experience firsthand how a friendly chat and a bit of listening can go very far in making a person who has lost everything a bit more hopeful and to meet so many interesting new people and hang with the folks who live in my building and went along on the trip with me. But there is still SO MUCH help needed and we all will continue to support – each as they can.

Far Rockaway, NY – B124th Street
Far Rockaway, NY – end of day where the Boardwalk used to be
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