On Friday, Mara (who is far more active than I in nonprofits and volunteer works) pointed me towards Astoria Recovers, which was organizing volunteers to go down to the Rockaways and help out down there. I’d tried signing up with other organizations, which hadn’t gotten back to me, so we went with this one. The recovers people are part of a greater, more spread out movement called Occupy Sandy (if you’re not in the Northeast you can donate to them here. There was hardly any FEMA, LIPA or NYC sanitation presence in the Rockaways. While, as I do believe, these companies are doing a modestly okay job with the resources they have, the Occupy people have been far more proactive in getting resources to the people who have been devastated by the storm. I also talked to a very friendly and generous group of Sikhs from a coalition of Queens gurdwaras who practically forced a plate of (very tasty) hot food on us. Churches were also out in full force as well; there were many generous groups offering food and help.
Speaking as someone who has never been in a disaster area before, it’s hard to imagine until you’re actually there. We saw all of these images from Katrina, and perhaps being inundated with images like that from the likes of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay our whole lives, the seriousness of the actual situation perhaps loses saliency when you see those images on the television and online, and not in real life. I think that was the case for me; one hears about the tragedy in New Orleans, or in Haiti a couple of years ago, or in Japan last year, the list goes on, but there’s a lack of subjectivity when you see it on a screen; images of disasters that look familiar, as we’ve seen similar in movies.
Right before the bridge (which, to my great disbelief was still charging a toll, which is pretty disgusting) there was already evidence of the damage; boats sat astride fences, most of the buildings had been abandoned.
Right before the bridge there was a big sign spray painted: “FEMA HELP US.”
As with any disaster, the people most devastated were the poor; the more well off either were not there, or had started the long, torturous process of dragging out the destroyed parts of their homes onto the curb. The island was absolutely covered in sand, sludge and sewage. The boardwalk had been ripped off of its roots altogether and littered the streets.
We mostly stuck to sorting and helping people with clothing and blanket donations. The island right now is cold, much colder than the rest of the city due to its proximity to the beach. The people have no power, and no way to get fuel for generators due to the shortage. By the time we left we had WAY too much clothing donations, and never enough blankets. On the one hand it was good, because not only were our fellow New Yorkers generous, the people here who had lost everything had a decent choice. It was bad because we had no idea how we were going to move what was left; most of it would likely go to waste, especially with little or no way to communicate with other Occupiers in other parts of the city where the donation stream wasn’t so generous.
That said, I did sift through some donations that were… fascinating. Some red fishnet stockings, a matching set of leopard print thongs (used, of course), and these bright red circus pants with black sequence down the side that defy description. Also this:
But hey, it was a sweatshirt, so, useful!
That said, I’d never worked with Occupiers before. They were all quite generous, positive and energetic people. The city, state and federal government, while present, were nothing in comparison to the level of dedication, supplies and manpower that the Occupiers supplied. The national guard was there, as were military personel volunteering on their own time. As a result some of the people on the island, while very grateful and appreciative to us, were pretty livid with FEMA and the city government.
Several people I talked to still seemed a bit dazed, and admitted to me that they never in their lives imagined that they’d find themselves in this position, having lost most or all of their possessions and now forced to pick through a donation pile to stay warm.
One other thing I didn’t know about the Rockaways; it’s home to many retirement homes and centers for the mentally ill. Many of these facilities were not evacuated. I’d read one article that insisted that the city had told the people in these facilities to stay put, despite being in an evacuation zone. One man who came for hot food and coffee was very insistent to me that this wasn’t true; the company that owned these homes didn’t want to pay for buses to get these hundreds of people, many of them special needs, off the island, he said. He said that he saw first hand the fire department show up and offer to help the home that he was staying in to help evacuate people. I’m not sure which side is lying, but this guy was mad enough that he was going to try to bring it to the governor, and sue the company that, he believes, refused to evacuate people due to expense.
At one point later in the day when Mara and I decided that we were more in the way than helping (there were way too many volunteers for that one spot) we decided that since the island was very long, we might be put to better use elsewhere. We headed down towards a firehouse that we read was in need of help- on the way the view got even worse.
The main drag a few blocks from the Bay Bridge- a bar I’d once had a pint of Guinness in the one time before I’d been to Rockaway Beach- most of it had burned to the ground. This is not the now-infamous Breezy Point where a hundred homes burned- this was almost a mile away from it. Outside of those burned buildings were lines and lines of people; a mishmash of volunteers, displaced residents, cleanup crew and police.
As night falls the situation keeps getting worse. Looting is far worse in places like the Rockaways and Staten Island than in other affected regions. Police presence is relatively minor. The Long Island Power Authority (which powers the Rockaways, ConEd does NOT supply power there) has barely set foot there. Volunteers are nice, food is nice, but what the people really need now is infrastructure. Occupiers can help people clean up their lives and feed them, but they can’t provide them with power, heat and hot water, which is what these people need more than anything. They need that base hierarchy of needs: security and protection from the elements. Right now they have neither.
If anything is to be done, it’s pressuring the Long Island Power Authority and NYC sanitation to get down to the Rockaways immediately. It’s all very sad that the wealthy folks on the North Shore are without power, but I’m with Bloomberg on this one; LIPA should prioritize the Rockaways. As for civillians, the most useful people would be those with trucks, able-bodied people who can help people haul out the damage and destruction (there is very much, and it is very big). Most of the roads are impassible. The boardwalk is broken up and litters the streets, parts of the road have broken off and washed away, and sand covers everything (it was downright dangerous to drive down there in my little smart car). But I recognize that the fuel shortage is becoming a bigger problem. I only had enough fuel for one trip down there. Now I’m almost out, and there’s none to find in Queens.
If there is nothing you are willing to do, then the least you can do is not make glib shitty remarks about it. Seriously, I’ve seen so much insensitive shit said about the situation in NYC right now, both from within the city and from without. Regardless of comparable situations or peoples elsewhere in the world, people are suffering right now, many have lost an unimaginable amount, and as the temperature keeps falling it only gets worse. I remind you; many of these people in Rockaway Beach are elderly or have special needs. Pressure the city to get power and infrastructure back to Rockaway, Staten Island and Red Hook, give to Occupy, or give blood at the Red Cross if you can- the Northeast is going through a blood shortage right now.
Thanks for reading, please reblog or spread the word, and know that the people in these areas both need and appreciate your help.