Recently, I spent a day wading through sewage. It wasn’t my sewage, not even a friend’s sewage. …It felt better than it sounds.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t mean much to me. Some news reports, a trip to the hardware and grocery store, then some wind, a cool photo of the flooding, and that was it. We never lost power. No blown out windows. The flood surge came within a hundred feet, but never reached us. Yeah, we lost the internet for a while. Lots of our friends lost power in lower manhattan, so they went to visit their parents, or came to to our neighborhood and couch surfed.
Sure, I had to wait a full day before my favorite coffee shop reopened. But that was about the extent of Sandy’s impact on my life. So I edited a video, watched movies, went out to eat a couple times (even though the shelves were stocked with emergency food). We had no gas, but when everything you need is within two blocks and open for business, gas isn’t that important.
It was surprisingly hard to find out what the hurricane did to people less lucky than myself. The news obsessed about fuel and lower manhattan. Lower manhattan was just fine, eerily dark and silent at night, but just fine. The halloween parade was cancelled. We went anyway. And marched the streets with a brass band and costumes. We were illuminated only by police lights. Dozens of squad cars and 20 officers on foot encircled us and kept a wary eye on our merrymaking. Lower manhattan was very safe.
A few news sites reported on the makeshift parade. The news failed to mention what else was happening nearby. I almost slept this entire hurricane away. But was nagged by a couple desperate Facebook posts, from volunteer relief workers along the shore. No photos, no video clips, no slick soundtrack, just friends posting lists of things badly needed, like blankets and batteries, and pumps to drain houses.
So I enlisted Veronica, my roommate Tessa, and to two friends Flambeau and Abbey. We packed my tiny hatchback with the generators, pumps and fuel and tools and blankets and rubber boots, and the five of us and headed to the Rockaways, a narrow spit of land in the ocean below Brooklyn.
I arrived almost a week after the hurricane. I am embarrassed that it took me so long, and shocked that I was still one of the first people there.
We drove to the end, on streets covered in sand, through intersections with dead traffic lights, past car crushed by trees, past wet mountains of ruined possessions–couches and televisions and mattresses and baby clothes piled high on the curbs. We drove to the poorer neighborhood and stopped finally at the parking lot of a boarded up laundry mat. There were 60, perhaps 100 people there, standing, waiting.
As we rolled up they swarmed our car, surrounding us on all sides. It was an apocalyptic moment, spiked with the fear that they might overwhelm us and take everything. Of course they didn’t. They were just hungry and cold and had been waiting for hours for a relief truck to arrive.
We called out taking addresses of homes still full of water, and we went to work with our pumps.
Hurricane new reports occasionally suggest donating to the Red Cross. But the Red Cross wasn’t there yet. Neither was FEMA. This far out, there were NO official organizations instigating relief work. City workers were plowing roads clear of debris, but if residents needed food or blankets, they were entirely dependent on DIY volunteers.
The Far Rockaways only relief had come in the form of regular people who had taken over churches and parking lots, individuals who had written their name in marker on a piece of duct tape and slapped it on their chest, kids without gasoline who had biked over the bridges with camping burners and soup, arts collectives like House of Yes pulling up in a painted bus loaded with roast chickens.
It was a disorganized mess, a lot of kind hearts without training. As a firefighter, trained in emergency response, I was both touched and dismayed. There was no infrastructure. No communication network. No one in charge. But for six days that disorganized mess provided the only relief the Rockaways had seen. They were doing their best.
We worked till dark then had to leave. It is not safe at night. There are no lights. Its dark there, very very dark, and there are looters. And in some places robbers accosting the kind hearts. There are things to be afraid of in the dark. Its a mess.
As we were leaving we saw the first FEMA convoy rolling in. It takes a massive organization like FEMA time to assess, coordinate and take action. They have millions of people to tend to.
I am sorry I didn’t get there sooner. I’ll do better next time.
I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos in the bad parts. It didn’t feel right. But we stopped at a couple places that were doing pretty well, despite the wreckage. It looked like this…
The piles of sand aren’t a beach, or didn’t used to be, that’s the road. One street had been invaded by the ocean front boardwalk, which ripped off its columns and rammed down an entire block dropping onto the cars parked there. Somehow, it stayed intact including benches and hand rails, and was still providing a safe area for kids to play.