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

On Sunday morning, the day after Ben sent out a call for donations, I biked over to Ditmas Park to help with the effort. On the way I sped by what looked like a mountain of downed tree trunks, which had been collected into piles in Prospect Park. I then turned up along Coney Island Avenue, where I passed blocks and blocks of double-parked cars I casually assumed had been moved for cleaning before I finally realized they were in one epic long line for gas. I stopped at a rolled-down car window and the woman inside told me she’d been in line for hours and was hoping to fill her tank so her family could siphon it off.

On the way home that night I spotted car-service cars on side streets allowing families with red gallon tanks to do just that. By Tuesday all these sights would seem completely familiar.

By the time I showed up on at the drop-off location for what has now been designated @DPRelief (Ben worries it’s in bad taste to tie the relief effort to his bar’s Twitter handle) on Stratford and Cortelyou roads in Ditmas Park, the piles of donated goods were being organized on the sidewalk outside. In a few days the process would get smoother and New Yorkers would get savvier about how to give. Garbage bags clearly labeled. Batteries and disinfectants at a premium.

One half of the caravan (roughly, two school buses and three cars) would be going to Staten Island, the other half to the Rockaways.

Ben was running a tight ship, drawing on his experience working for nonprofits, and had decreed that on this first trip only people he knows—some of whom are fellow business owners in the neighborhood who will in the coming days supply not just manpower but hot food—will be going out; we will all have buddies, travel with an iPhone and car chargers, and there would rendezvous points along the way where we would regroup before heading in.

Each bus was loaded up with a variety of supplies. As the days went on Ben would begin to organize the donations in the bus according to the locations they were destined for rather than what kind of supplies they were; this made them easier, and more politically sound, to unload and dispatch when we arrived.

This routine would continue in a similar vein, with the number of hands on deck decreasing slightly when people had to get back to their jobs, in the following days. Generally, Ben would get a call directing him to a specific location and listing specific needs; Ben would coordinate volunteers who would load the buses and cars with the supplies based on that information and send out a sortie.

On my way with the caravan headed for the Rockaways I sat crammed into the front seat of a mini-schoolbus listening to a top-10 hip-hop countdown of songs I've never heard before. Flatbush Avenue, normally clamorous with racing and weaving cars, was nearly empty. At every gas station there was a line-up of people toting red gasoline canisters. Our driver told me he spent all of the Sunday and Monday before the storm made landfall driving full-sized school buses around the Rockaways to help evacuate residents, but that no one would come: "They were all worried about their homes getting looted."

Ahead of our buses drove our escort, a local who happened to be a Secret Service agent but was volunteering his help on his days off. He guided us through the increasingly empty streets. Later, while we were waiting in line for a drop-off, he described to me the 'go bag' he keeps in the trunk of his car, which among other things contains M.R.E.s (Meals, Ready to Eat), a "smaller" bullet-proof vest, a puncture wound kit. The chocolate bar and hand-crank flashlight I kept by my door during the storm suddenly seemed terribly naïve.

Our first stop was the office of City Councilman James Sanders. It is the only relief effort I saw the entire time I had been out there til then that had been organized by a local politician, though it’s important to reiterate that things changed so significantly on a daily basis, it’s not fair to use my experience as emblematic of anything but exactly that.

When we arrived, locals were already lined up outside with shopping carts. We soon formed a chain to move the goods out of the bus and into the facility. Inside it was dark; the neighborhood was still without power. Sanders' office had organized it so that people arrived with a list of what they needed, and a runner would then go and retrieve it for them from the supply inside the facility. This was by far the most organized effort I had yet seen on the ground, and it wasn't until we made a few more stops that I began to understand that the hardest part of a relief effort isn't assembling the supplies—Americans are arguably among the most generous people on the planet—but the ability to receive and distribute them in a way that is fair, organized, and effective.

After a few phone calls Ben determined our next stop would be Sea Gate, a private community at the very end of Coney Island. Our route there took us through Brighton Beach, where numerous storefronts appeared to be open for business, and then onto the mostly shuttered Coney Island boardwalk past the aquarium and a dark Nathan's. Here, there were piles of sand washed up on the roads. As we passed by the still powerless low-income high rises that line the waterfront we saw people picking at piles of clothes that had been left on the corners.

And then, arriving in Sea Gate provided yet another contrast. The community, which has its own police force, has been devastated by the storm; Sandy itself did not discriminate. Houses half blown away; streets filled with piles of debris. However, unlike so many other neighborhoods we'd passed through, there was some intake infrastructure assembled there for us to fit into when we arrived.

Just beyond the entrance to the neighborhood, a hot food line had been set up. Beside it a young man was chopping wood to keep a garbage-can fire going. Inside everything was being organized on tables and piles of clothing were being sorted. Outside by the door was a box where found photos were being collected and organized. One of the women we talked to, a Sea Gate resident who was heading up the volunteer effort, asked that we check back in in a few days to see what they may need down the line. Then, she advised us not to stop after dark on the long stretch of Neptune Avenue we had driven through to get to her. "I would feel terrible if something happened to you," she said.

On Monday the same thing started all over again. Our numbers were smaller, people were returning to work, and we'd lost our escorts, but our group now included an Army captain who had just returned from Afghanistan. By noon we'd been dispatched to a church parking lot on Beach 67th Street in Rockaway Beach.

The parking lot was empty when we arrived except for one National Grid truck; National Grid is the contract operator that works with the Long Island Power Authority, whose power lines run onto the Rockaway Peninsula. Rockaway is the one part of New York City not served by Con Edison. The National Grid truck had set up a table where people could charge their phones.