After Sandy, a great and complex city reveals traumas new and old
Most shocking, perhaps, beyond the actual violence of the storm, is the degree to which the people both suffering the worst of these effects and answering these demands are often the ones with the fewest resources and the smallest possible footprint. While I have no doubt there are plenty of city agency employees hard at work to make things right, almost without fail, what is being done in the neighborhoods I visited is being done by local community organizers or organizations like the increasingly impressive Occupy Sandy group, who have taken it upon themselves to muster some sort of makeshift relief effort and were doing the best they could to see that the resources they accumulated were delivered to the people most in need.
Those people, meanwhile, appear to be left to rely completely on their own resources and the generosity (and as importantly) the organization of others.
At the end of nearly two weeks, the majority of which was spent traveling to the most devastated areas of Brooklyn and Queens, I could not tell you, nor could very many people I met, what government agencies a person could expect to arrive to help them in this disaster because I saw so few on the ground who might know.
Said one volunteer to me the day after the election: "This is such proof that there is no big government to take over."
I'M NOT SURE THAT BEFORE THIS, I HAD A VERY well organized hierarchy of who deserved my help in a widespread emergency, but if I think about it it was probably similar to most people's: friends first, then neighborhood, then whoever (organizationally speaking) is most in need among those that come to my attention one way or another. In connection with the latter, I quickly learned to stick with organizations that were organized; going door to door sounds both heroic and helpful, but was rarely either. Anyone who involved him- or herself in a relief effort for the glamor of it would be quickly disappointed, and then useless.
I spent the first few days immediately after Sandy in Red Hook helping a close friend and her husband bail out their townhouse after severe flooding. At the height of the storm the water had reached the first floor and when I arrived there were still puddles of it on the newly installed floorboards. The basement, meanwhile, was a sea of scattered possessions. Literally. A few days later, once the water had been pumped, we plucked displaced wine and liquor bottles from the rafters.
Red Hook may be a newly popular destination for young Brooklyn-bound homebuyers (or at least it was; the effects of Sandy on real estate prices may take some time to become apparent), but it is still an outlier neighborhood, mostly due to its lack of easy access to a subway line and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway overpass, which cuts it off from the adjacent neighborhoods of Gowanus and Carroll Gardens.
Despite all the Styles-section talk of artisanal coffee beans and free-range city chickens, there is still a pioneer spirit to be found here, and it was glaringly apparent those first days when I witnessed neighbors checking in on each other and sharing resources, and generators (and even gas!). That was that first level of organization at work: Help your friends; help your neighbors. One person relayed to me a story of stopping by the local bar, Bait and Tackle, in the evening two nights after the storm, and encountering a packed room singing ‘My Girl’ in unison.
The local coffee shop happened to be on the block that got power back early and a few doors down an art gallery set up an temporary office where locals could get information and help and (importantly) an internet signal (local neighbors had removed passwords from wireless signals to help with the connectivity strain).
This was the first time I experienced the strange shifting of currency that takes place in an emergency. Every conversation started with "do you have gas? do you have electricity?" and people quickly came to be described in terms of the power and gas resources they had, rather than the usual—their address or their jobs in the real life that presumably would still exist on the other side of Sandy.
Even this early, only a day or two after the storm and before the gas lines around the borough began to resemble blocks-long alternate side of the street parking, people were already dropping their voices and whispering their gas reserves.
The Red Hook Initiative, a 10-year-old community organization, kicked into gear almost immediately, calling for specific donations (the specificity, I would later learn, is absolutely key) and volunteers.
The neighborhood was quickly getting a lesson in the folkways of disaster relief that are so well known to more disaster-prone parts of the country. It turns out one can only apply for FEMA financial assistance online or on the phone, which meant finding a working land line or internet connection.
The questions on the surprisingly simple and streamlined application told their own story about the places of the country most affected by disaster. Under the space where the applicant is asked to enter their social security number is a note that gives special directions for applicants who are American citizens but either don’t know or don't have a social security number, a strange but fitting counterpart to the controversial voter ID laws that have plagued this election season.
While I was in the gallery helping a friend fill out her FEMA application online, a man from down the street came through the door. Clearly shell-shocked, he said out loud to no one in particular that he had lost both his delivery business and his house; and that the neighborhood he primarily delivered to was Coney Island.
"I never in a million years imagined this could happen," he said, mostly to himself.
It's always hard to read the stories of people who have had their lives devastated, seemingly at random, not by any set of choices they might have made themselves but simply because they allowed themselves to believe that it was impossible to lose everything for no reason, and not be made whole by ... someone. But to stand next to them and watch as their shoulders hunch over, to almost be able to feel the silent waves of despair that are pulsing through them as the realization hits them, is something else altogether, and hard to put into words that do it justice.
These sorts of stories would be legion by the end of the week, but perhaps what was most jarring about the situation in Red Hook was how, even as Sandy's destruction continued to reverberate throughout these neighborhoods, just four blocks north life was continuing apace in Carroll Gardens. It seemed impossible that just blocks away from the mountains of refuse being disgorged from the guts of houses along the block, the regular chatter of restaurant patrons and bar hoppers, the hum of street life, and soon the comforting rumble of the subway, would return, for some.
THE DIVIDE THIS STORM CREATED IN MANHATTAN has been well documented.
Those who lived here during Sept. 11th will perhaps be less surprised at how this city is able to keep thriving as usual even as parts of it are in deep trauma. That said, biking down from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn at night on Halloween, it had the power to surprise anew.
On the Upper West Side where I began my route, buildings with elevators and doormen were whisking trick-or-treating children up and down, and Central Park South was packed with tourists toting shopping bags and gawking at the dangling crane; moving further south below the line, darkness and emptiness, as though the entire bottom of the island had decamped to the afterlife, an urban undead. From there across the bridge to thriving Brooklyn Heights, where I live, and which basically just suffered a bad thunderstorm. It was one of the strangest bike rides I have ever taken.
But it pales now in comparison to the neighborhood divides I would see on trips to the Rockaways and Coney Island.