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

It was difficult not to conclude based on our surroundings that the neighborhood had not been served at all. Within five minutes of us setting up our goods in the empty lot, and without any real outreach needed, crowds began to appear—batteries, flashlights, disinfectants, diapers and blankets were getting snatched up quickly. It’s at this point the need began to feel overwhelming, and the frightening suspicion that help, official help in the form of city officials or large established disaster-relief organizations, was not going to arrive, started to sneak up on us.

Emptied out, we returned to Ditmas Park, loaded up again, and made another trip out to the same location; by the time we'd returned all the clothes we had delivered are in piles on the ground where they were being sorted through by families.

While I was unpacking a garbage bag full of blankets one woman arrived with her daughter, who appeared to have Down syndrome, and asked if she could take two blankets instead of one. The feeling that I, or any of the volunteers, were somehow believed to be in charge of dictating what rations these families struggling in the cold could get struck me suddenly, and was obscene. I told her to take what she wanted. We left before the sun went down.

The next day Ben told me he returned to the same location to find a army of volunteers had arrived and an impressive organization had been set up. We had simply been the first ones out there—six days after the storm.

On the way home, Ben stopped in Coney Island to deliver medical supplies that had been requested while we were out. Ben (perhaps fairly described as not a dog person) was handed a disheveled Yorkie by a woman and asked to take it to the vet. Not long after getting back into the car, dog in arms, he was confronted by the dog’s other owner, who accused him of “seizing” it. The dog was returned.

The exchange perfectly sums up one of the difficulties of trying to help the Rockaways and Coney Island, which encompass very wealthy and very poor sections all in a matter of 10 blocks: how much of this distress existed pre-Sandy? In some places, where the lack of a neighborhood infrastructure has resulted in a completely chaotic relief effort, the answer is a lot.

On Tuesday, one week after Sandy, some of our group went out in cars, and I and a friend were split onto a larger bus that was carrying a number of different groups. It was the first time I came into contact with volunteers not picked and vetted by Ben. The result was somewhat more chaotic; there was no clear leader and everyone had a different idea where our priorities should lie. To say that organization is the key to any useful relief effort is to say that the sun is key to daytime.

Instead of heading directly out to the Rockways, our intended destination, our bus ended up returning to Park Slope to pick up hot food from Congregation Beth Elohim, which, it should be noted, truly has the most impressively set up response on the collection end that I came in contact with the whole week.

Not for the first time was I struck by the role religious institutions play in communities, even now; and how in moments of crisis we suffer for their regression as an informal layer of organization for communities. In some places, the apparent lack of them, or any replacement institutions that could play a similar role in linking a community together and organizing it so that it can be effectively deployed when the need arises, both in the neighborhoods where relief is collected and in those where it is distributed, was deeply disheartening.

The hot food we'd collected at Beth Elohim was destined for a retirement high rise on the beach in Far Rockaway that remained without power. When we finally arrived the food was turned away: there was some question whether it was kosher, and eventually we were told the volunteers who come to deliver it to the people on the top floors had already left anyway. While we were loading the food back onto the bus a young woman, black, who appeared to be in the third trimester of her pregnancy, approached us in the parking lot. It was Election Day and she was looking for a place to vote. The line in her neighborhood is too long to stand in, in her condition and anyway she didn't want to "go back to Baghdad" to wait in it. We directed her inside.

Eventually we took the food to a nearby high-rise where we were advised to keep it in the bus until the local organizer we were traveling with could assess the situation in the lobby. He was worried if we just started appearing with the food we might be rushed. Once we were given the go-ahead we set the food up in the lobby where locals were huddled under blankets and sleeping bags. The fact that we arrived with serving utensils was greeted with great joy.

From there we met up with Ben in a residential area of Bayswater where a group of Orthodox Jewish locals had congregated. They were especially relieved to see our baby supplies; the women with babies from nearby houses had been grouped in a separate house next door. The woman heading up the effort refused to let Ben leave without taking some soup they had made, for ourselves.

Finally we headed to St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic church in Belle Harbor. Ben went ahead in a different car and there was some frustrated discussion on the bus about whether it wouldn’t be better to hand out what we have door to door. By then it was late afternoon and the sun was close to setting and I worried about people not knowing the neighborhood well enough to be left to their own devices. Thanks to Rockway Taco and similar spots that have sprung up along the boardwalk these past few summers, the Rockaways are more familiar to many New Yorkers from points north than they were a few years before, but it is still a foreign location to many, and a place that’s not easy to get home from even if you do know your way (as I and the friend I was traveling with do).

St. Francis had mobilized a huge operation. Belle Harbor is (or was) a lovely neighborhood, traditionally home to many police and fire-deparment officers, and not far from Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden beach, where I have spent many summer afternoons over the years. Even though it is perhaps economically better equipped to weather the effects of Sandy than many of the places we had been to the devastation was heartbreaking. By the time we arrived the sidewalks around St. Francis were lined with people serving hot food, on the grass there were mountains of clothes in various piles, milling around among the crowds was a heavy presence of National Guard. Inside, the gymnasium was filled with donations; a man with a booming voice directed people arriving with cat food to put it against the far wall. "Don't forget about the animals!" he bellowed. Clothes had been organized and were piled high along the walls; St. Francis had stopped accepting new clothing donations before we arrived, as had most similar places.

Outside the surrounding streets were absolutely gutted. Almost literally. There were huge piles of sand that had washed up onto the streets. Halves of houses were missing everywhere you looked, cars were wrapped around posts. We took a walk on the beach so a photographer who was traveling with us could snap some pictures; entire walls from the houses facing the water had disappeared. Spray-painted on a boiler now lodged on the sidewalk in the typically defiant spirit of the neighborhood were the words "the sun always shines on 136th."

We made our way back to the car as dusk fell. Along the way we passed a group of men who were clearing the end of their driveway of debris by hand, and loading the debris into a bulldozer. The army captain and member of our group who had been working closely with Ben all week, quickly removed his jacket and went to assist them and we picked him up at the corner on our way out and back to Brooklyn.

The ride home felt like an evacuation: traffic was backed up all the way to Jacob Riis park, where the parking lot had been turned to a landfill site for hurricane debris. It took us more than an hour to cover the eight miles back to Ditmas Park.

ON THURSDAY BEN TOLD ME HE WAS ORGANIZING TEAMS OF PEOPLE to go back out to the places we'd been and go door-to-door. Based on what he and his group had seen manpower was needed to help people clean out their houses. A few hours earlier Bloomberg had imposed gas rationing rules, which would begin Friday. As we were in his bar talking over the week someone came in whispering of a secret gas station where the line was only about 25 minutes long. Later, standing outside in the cold Ben fielded a text from Far Rockaway requesting hand sanitizers and baby food. A neighbor pulled up in a shiny new black car. “Did it come with a full tank?” someone asked. And still, little sign of any of it stopping.