Cleaning Up Then Getting Married

Leland Kim and his partner Leif Malcomson had planned and dreamed and trained for months – and it was finally happening.

Kim, a science writer, and Malcomson, an engineer, boarded a plane in San Francisco and flew to the opposite side of the country to do two momentous things: run the New York City Marathon and get married.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

They weren’t naïve. Thousands of other runners around the world had watched the trajectory of Superstorm Sandy with trepidation. They waited for the “go” from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg before descending upon the stricken city in droves, many at great personal cost after their initial flights had been canceled. But they made it. They were set to go. And then …

“Literally a minute after we picked up our packets,” says Kim, “we started getting text messages and emails from friends saying, ‘we’re so sorry, we just heard the marathon was canceled.’

“Then we saw people gathered around TV monitors in the expo area and they were tuned to a live press conference. It was the mayor announcing the race was off.”

Crushing disappointment – for about a minute.

After they absorbed the shock, they realized, “Seeing the devastation, the race probably should have been canceled early on. It was the right call.”

By midday the next day they had a clear plan.

“A lot of us decided, you know, we’re here anyway. Let’s go help out.”

So they mobilized. Using Facebook as a modern-day coconut wireless, thousands of runners joined the relief effort, and they wore their marathon jerseys to show solidarity and support.

Kim and the others scavenged stores for supplies: trash bags, flashlights, batteries, baby formula, cat and dog food and more. They got on a bus and made their way to a scene that could have been plucked from an end-of-world disaster film.

“We saw lines, people with gas cans lining up at gas stations,” Kim says. “Many businesses shut down. Many businesses flooded. It was quite devastating to see.

“As we were walking to the hardest-hit areas, with each block it got worse and worse. With each scene we saw it was, wow, this is worse than we had envisioned. It really confirmed that we needed to help them and we were where we needed to be.”

The 10 or 12 runners in their group rolled up their sleeves and got to work: sweeping up plaster, wood and debris; hauling out damaged appliances to the curb. They did what they could to clean up what was left of some-body’s home.

“It was so bad that walls were completely demolished,” Kim says. “The entire basement area that was originally three or four rooms was just one big room. Walls were just completely disintegrated by the flood.”

They didn’t do it for thanks. They didn’t do it for recognition. Kim says most of the time they didn’t even talk.

“It was total strangers helping a family we’ll probably never see. It was automatic. We all got into a rhythm, got into an assembly line – bagging, moving things out. There was no time for conversation. We were just busy working.”

As critical as the work was, there was still the matter of their wedding, and not even a hurricane would keep them from it. Even that proved almost hilariously difficult.

They needed a marriage license and had tried to get it on Friday. But no power meant no license, and they were told to come back Monday. That was cutting it close with the wedding planned for Tuesday.

Monday morning the power was on, but the system crashed. Come back, they were told, before closing time at 3:30. It would be their last chance.

So off they went to Staten Island to help out for a second day.

“On our way back, around 1 or 2, the public transportation wasn’t working. We ended up running from the flooded areas to the train station, about two-and-a-half miles, and taking a train to the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan, taking a cab to the clerk’s office. By the time we got there it was about 3:10. They shut down the line about 3:20. Barely made it in time.”

He laughs.

“So we got some of our run after all.”

It was, Kim says, “a weird juxtaposition of Sunday and Monday helping out people who are devastated, and then Tuesday our wedding. It was just this stark contrast. It was a humbling experience. And it also pointed out the beauty of humanity, that people are inherently good and there is good in the world. When disaster strikes, people come together to help people in need.”