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

Ditmas Park bar owner Ben Heemskerk instructs volunteers. (Glynnis MacNicol)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

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.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

"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.

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.

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.

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.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT