Sandy relief: a diary of my weekend volunteering in the Rockaways

Note: this is the download I wrote in prep for a series of posts I’m going to do for Forbes; a chronology of what we experienced. First post for Forbes is here, on the critical importance of last-mile organizing.

It’s hard to know where to begin when trying to tell the story of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy around New York City. The difficulty lies squarely in the confusion the the storm wrought, affecting each person, neighborhood and region in profoundly different ways. And with a climate that hasn’t been traditionally part of the hurricane cycle, the consequences of a storm of this size and fierceness has made the unimaginable come true. There have been the blockbuster media stories: the loss of power in Lower Manhattan, the utter destruction by flood and fire of Breezy Point, the millions without power trying to get by. But only in the last few days have we started to see the everyday destruction, the remarkable makeshift relief efforts, and the glaring holes in other efforts.

I want to tell several stories: bear witness to the worst of what I saw when I volunteered this weekend; share communities’ efforts to bring relief and brainstorm how they can be improved; look at what role technology can—or often, can’t—play in making relief a reality. 

The first thing that has to be shared: It’s so much worse than what you’ve seen in the media, or online via social networks. Where I live in Brooklyn, we made out well (save the harrowing incident nearly losing my roof): no flooding, a few trees down, and no loss of power or other utilities. This was true for many parts of the five boroughs, but became a somewhat insulating and misleading tale, especially once lower Manhattan (the center of the universe, of course) got its power back. Here’s a NASA map from August of what the city and surrounding areas normally looks like, power-wise:

Now here’s a map from the night of Wednesday, November 1st:

I don’t want to in any way minimize the suffering of Manhattanites that lost power, especially in the poorer sections of the East Village and Lower East Side (demographically, some of the poorest parts of the island). Instead, I want to add the large swaths of city neighborhoods that also went dark, and continue to be. Not to mention Long Island, New Jersey and upstate New York—that satellite photo stunned me when I saw just how widespread the power outages were. Even living next door to those communities, I didn’t have the depth of understanding.

Curiously, it was the epic saga of the NYC Marathon that started to deeply clue us into what was really happening on the ground. When the mayor said on Wednesday that the marathon would continue, many of us sitting in comfort figured that they must have been assessing just how bad things were, and figured out that the marathon could still happen. I found it frustrating, but wanted to continue to support my friends who were running—including a friend since grade school coming to stay with me, running to support a charity close to her heart.

On Thursday, some details started to build about why the marathon was a pretty bad idea, especially for places like Staten Island. By Friday, the outrage was full-on— in part, at least partially, due to the fact that people with power and facilities were able to start sharing just how bad things were in the worst areas. It’s one thing to watch on the news and witness destruction; it’s another to have your friends on social networks sharing first hand what they’re seeing close to them. That’s the empathetic power of social networks: when we share our stories, we create the emotional connection for change to happen. By that night, the marathon had been cancelled. 

As word started to spread about the deep destruction, volunteer opportunities started to grow exponentially. There were opportunities with city shelters, of course, and the tradition of giving blood with the Red Cross. But the Occupy movement had also kicked into high gear with its OccupySandy operation at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn: taking in and distributing donations, cooking and distributing food, and more.

I showed up at St. Jacobi with my marathon-running friend (who had the opportunity to bail once the race was cancelled, but decided to come and volunteer anyway) on Saturday morning, ready to dive it. I was overwhelmed and inspired with what I saw:

Hundreds of people, tons of donations. It was a little difficult to figure out what to do after we went through a brief orientation, but soon we found jobs helping to bring in donations to be sorted. After several hours, we agreed that we wanted to go on-site and get our hands dirty with relief. The line for rides to affected areas was long, and getting longer due to the gas shortage that was really setting in by then. We accidentally skipped the line when we stumbled on a woman looking for 2 volunteers to head out to the Rockaways in Queens, right on the ocean. We got in the car with 3 strangers, cases of water, lights and batteries, and loads of clothing.

We tried to find another Occupy supplies location first, but had been given the wrong address (note to volunteers: “Street,” versus “Avenue,” makes a big difference). MoveOn had just sent out an email to its membership letting them know about New York Communities for Change (NYCC) collecting supplies and distributing them. We loaded up our new friends’ car, and headed out.

As soon as we crossed the bridge into the Rockaways, my stomach dropped out. I had followed the story of the destruction of Breezy Point, but I was grossly underprepared for the immense loss of property that we saw up and down the peninsula. This was a common sight.

In the public housing and community developments, where we went to drop off our supplies, we started to understand how deeply the power outages were affecting residents. This isn’t the inconvenience of no internet; this was the terror being trapped in homes with no way of knowing what was happening, where the relief was and what was going to happen next.

When Doctors Without Borders shows up, you know your town is in trouble. 

To make matters worse, the FEMA sites were relatively far away from where these folks were, and the Occupy and a few community relief efforts were scattered and disorganized. It turns out that much of what we’d packed our car with wasn’t needed, especially the clothing. We were sent to another site across the street, where these things were being accepted—except, they weren’t. Clothing was just not needed there. A lot of donations that were being accepted were going into the two community centers, and church groups were serving hot food outside. But it was hard to see how the supplies were getting to the residents. We were told that they were being packaged and delivered, but after sundown, that became a dangerous prospect. 

We decided to go to other locations that might need the rest of the supplies we had, and across the peninsula, the destruction was endless in scope. As we went from east to west, there was a noticeable change in the type of housing, from the public housing complexes to working- and middle-class neighborhoods, and finally to a more affluent part of the peninsula. A hurricane clearly knows no class boundaries. While we drove, we stopped people we saw on the street and asked them if they needed what we had. An older woman with a utility cart (I was told years ago by a Bronx native that these are called “kitchen Cadillacs”) hugged us for giving her a camping lantern. The next women we found loved the batteries and water, and a family working on emptying the first floor of their flooded home took our cleaning supplies. No one had use for the clothing or blankets there. 

Along the way, we spotted two Red Cross trucks, and another smaller FEMA setup. What was overwhelming as we approach the peninsula’s formerly bustling downtown area were the number of community organizations on the street, cooking and serving food, and distributing supplies. There were churches, workers from the flooded library branch, members of a Sikh temple, and more, operating on nearly every street corner in makeshift relief operations.

The YANA (You Are Never Alone) community center in the central-eastern part of the Rockaways, an Occupy satellite, was bustling with activity. A large solar-powered generator was outside, and groups of young volunteers stood around outside, looking as though they weren’t sure what to do. We moved on, feeling we weren’t needed if that many people were just hanging out there. We also wanted to head out before sunset. 

That night, on Twitter, I mentioned that I had some questions/concerns about how the Occupy operation was happening. “Not a hard dark criticism, but brainstorming for a stronger last mile.” This was met in a few cases with defensiveness: the Occupy operation that people experienced in other parts of the city went beautifully, and this was more about “empowerment” than just “service.” I find it more than challenge when a call for improvement is met with defensiveness and speak. Thankfully, one other Occupy person sent me private messages on FB confirming that organizers recognized weak points that I was sharing and were working on ways to solve those problems.

The next morning, I came across an email from 569 Acres and UnLocal, two groups not based in the Rockaways, but who were working with groups on the ground. They stressed the need to bring appropriate supplies, mostly cleaning-related products—echoing what many of the residents in Rockaway Park and Rockaway Beach shared with us. We decided to skip the Occupy center at St Jacobi, and head via subway to Lowe’s to buy supplies. We hauled everything over to NYCC, who was once again coordinating rides to the Rockaways. 

It seemed some lessons from the day before had already been learned. They were loading cars with supplies and volunteers, but they were also having people go and knock on doors to assess what the needs were for each area, and report them back at the end of the day. We loaded our supplies into our new driver’s car, along with more water, and headed out. The couple we rode with were from Queens and knew the area, so they were able to fill us in on the social and economic history of the Rockaways, particularly Robert Moses’ influence on its development in the last century, particularly noting the class and racial divides.

We found that where we were door-knocking in a neighborhood in Far Rockaway, towards the western end of the peninsula, that hadn’t been flooded. Three of us went in a group to each door; the residents shared a lot of their week’s experiences with us. They were without power, obviously, but most had gas to cook with. They had either run out of batteries or were getting low. They needed light. They were cold at night, and the blankets they did have were getting dirtier. Some needed food, formula, and medicine. Several wanted to know about their polling place on Tuesday. It was the opposite set of needs as what we experienced in the eastern part of the peninsula, just a couple miles away, which had flooded and burned.

The worst was finding out that most of the residents didn’t know that there was a distribution center within walking distance of their homes at a supermarket plaza on Mott Avenue. We didn’t even know until we talked to some folks carrying groceries and blankets back to their house. No one wanted to be on the street after dark; even the buses stopped running, and people couldn’t home from their jobs if they went (if they still had one; many businesses were lost in the storm). Everyone wanted to know if we’d heard when the power was coming back. We hadn’t.

We realized that we needed to flyer the houses with what information we did have; we downloaded what we learned later at the NYCC office. We also realized that every single neighborhood was affected by a different, and changing, set of circumstances that was difficult to report back to the donation centers. Many didn’t have phones anymore; those who did have a way to charge cellphones still hadn’t heard about where they could get their needs met. FEMA was too far away, and we never saw the Red Cross.

We still had the cleaning supplies for the eastern part of the peninsula, so we headed back to YANA at Beach 113th Street. The drop-off center seemed busier and while still confusing, there was a lot less standing around from what we’d seen on Saturday. A young woman with Occupy showed us where to put everything, and when she saw the boxes of 20 masks we’d scored at Lowe’s (the last boxes on the shelf), she said, “Oh God, these are gold right now.” We asked if there was a way for her to relay information back to St Jacobi on what they needed. She said, “It changes all the time, depending on what we get in, and plus, cellphones just don’t work well out here. It’s hard.” We took a list with us: Brooms and shovels; blankets, work gloves, latex gloves; diapers, adult diapers, baby food; medical supplies.

I’m still struck by how people shared their stories with us. Every time we talked to someone, they talked about how lucky they were. I lost my job, but I’m lucky, I didn’t flood. My house flooded, but it was only the 1st floor, and at least it’s still standing. I’m still alive, ya know?

We drove back out Sunday night in a massive exodus of lucky people, those of us with cars, gas, rides, and someplace warm to go.