After Sandy, a great and complex city reveals traumas new and old

Ditmas Park bar owner Ben Heemskerk instructs volunteers. (Glynnis MacNicol)
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ON THE EVENING OF SEPT. 3, 2008, I SAT IN THE EXCEL ENERGY CENTER in St. Paul, Minn. and listened as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani mocked the Democrats' presidential nominee Barack Obama for his work as a community organizer:

On the other hand, you have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked—I said—I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume.

That line, which I didn’t give much thought to at the time, and which in light of Barack Obama's election this week to a second term feels like ancient political history, has been back on my mind this week after spending many days delivering goods to various parts of Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Sea Gate hit hard by superstorm Sandy, mostly with volunteers who simply showed up.

The storm is over, but it's not. The narrative taking shape in the rest of the city, of a gradual return to normalcy, is not universal. For many neighborhoods Sandy’s effects are like outward rippling waves of despair. The storm brought its destruction and claimed its lives and moved along. Now it's the aftermath—businesses without power, days without work, cars without fuel, homes without heat or light, shops without food, sick without medical care, communities without sturdy or meaningful support systems for their most vulnerable members—that is taking its toll, and making new, often shocking, demands on the city and its citizens.

Like Ben Heemskerk, owner of the Ditmas Park bar The Castello Plan.

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"It just doesn't stop," he was telling me. "I tried to make it stop, but it doesn’t."

It was Thursday, nine days after superstorm Sandy had put New York City behind her. Ben was holding up his iPhone to show me the most recent email from a group in the Rockaways: They needed someone to bring diapers and other supplies. Earlier that day, Ben had received a message from a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking if he could help organize a response to needs in a number of the most devastated neighborhoods on the Rockaway peninsula and Coney Island.

Ben, 31, is a friend of mine and engaged to one of my best friends, and before opening The Castello Plan in 2010 spent six years in nonprofits where he worked with homeless youth throughout the city and on international disaster-relief projects, among other things. Right now, though, he's simply a bar owner in Ditmas Park. He has no affiliation with or role in relief organizations that exist year round precisely to respond to devastating events like Hurricane Sandy. He doesn't have more ties to local government than any local business owner and responsible neighborhood citizen would. Sandy turned him, as it has many others, into a community organizer, an N.G.O. chief, a disaster-response professional, and something much bigger and harder to define.

That morning Ben and a group of volunteers from around the neighborhood had driven out to Gerritsen Beach in response to an email he got with the subject line "Gerritsen Beach childred [sic] freezing in the dark."

Gerritsen Beach sits on a peninsula it shares with part of Marine Park, 530 acres of grassland, salt marsh, and amenities run by the city Parks Department, and isolated from neighboring Sheepshead Bay by the Plum Beach Channel, an inlet of Jamaica Bay. The neighborhood, along with many of the places along the southern shores of Brooklyn and Queens most devastated by Sandy, remains without power and heat. The email concluded: “There is no one down here coordinating a recovery effort. Can anyone put me in contact with concrete help— a politician that will deliver, a benefactor that will take charge?”

Ben was marveling at the fact that Gerristen Beach is just five miles due south of The Castello Plan, where we were sitting when a local retired veterinarian arrived to volunteer his services. He had heard through some neighbors that veterinarians were needed. Ben promised to put him in touch with the point person in Coney Island.

Just six days earlier, Ben had sent an email to bar patrons signed up to his mailing list asking them to help the relief effort:

We need volunteers with cars and trucks to help deliver to donation depots in Staten Island tomorrow, Sunday, November 4th at 10am

I think this can be easy, no receipts, no tax deductions, no cameras, no politicians, no news.

We can get this done in a day.

Within 24 hours he had amassed four mini-school buses (donated), six cars, and two (off-duty) police escorts that spent Sunday delivering supplies to the locations in the Rockaways, Coney Island, and Staten Island that Ben had selected based on conversations with local officials in the neighborhoods. It was intended to be a one-time delivery, just as much as was needed before things got back to normal. But it soon became clear that the need would exist far longer and be far greater than he'd anticipated, that normal was still far off. More importantly, it became clear to him that there was no one around to hand the responsibility off to after a day of his bar patrons' and friends' contributions had been delivered and consumed. There still isn't.

I think it's important to be clear: I have very little comprehensive knowledge of what services this city is supposed to provide in a disaster; just a regular citizen's default belief that it can't be possible that tax-paying city dwellers should be allowed to remain without power and heat for extended periods of time without some government aid; that citizens of New York City who, in these reduced circumstances, find themselves in the cross-hairs of a nor'easter promising massive snowfall, high winds and bone-snapping cold temperatures should, without applying a tremendous amount of their own resourcefulness to the problem, find themselves safe, in the fundamental things, in the expert hands of their government and its agencies.

Having spent so much of the storm's aftermath in the blackout areas without power or phone reception, moreover, I have little sense beyond what I saw with my own eyes of the extent to which that is indeed what happened, ultimately, in the places I visited or elsewhere. Or who is being blamed, and for what, in the aftermath of the storm, when it hasn't.

Even what I saw when I went to Coney Island, the Rockaways, Sea Gate and other hard-hit areas of southern Brooklyn and Queens changed wildly, from day to day but perhaps more tellingly from block to block and varied from what others who were working with us in different neighborhoods experienced.