Hurricane Sandy, What You and I Can Do, and the “Invisible” America

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Update (11/5) — The following address is preferable for Councilman Sanders: 234-26 Merrick Blvd., Laurelton, NY 11422.  Another option is to send supplies using a wedding registry (!) set up by the resourceful folks at Occupy Sandy. Much like the local station set up by Councilman Sanders, this off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be out-performing FEMA and the Red Cross at this time.

When I returned to Milwaukee from New York City on Thursday evening, it was clear that the devastation left behind by hurricane Sandy was tremendous. But it is only in the past two days that I have gotten a glimpse of the extent of the continuing crisis, as news reports about the hardest-hit parts of the city start getting out (e.g., here and here). In addition, I received several eyewitness reports on Facebook from friends who decided to take action and do whatever they can to offer practical help. Before I get to those, I want to proactively address a question a situation like this often raises: “What can I do to help those who are in a crisis situation as effectively as possible?” Here’s what my friends recommend:

Order basic supplies on amazon, drugstore.com, or a similar online store, and have them delivered to the following address (if possible using the fastest delivery option): Councilman James Sanders, Jr., c/o Rockaway Revival Center, 1526 Central Ave., Far Rockaway, NY 11691 (718-614-8866).

Here’s what the hurricane victims need most:

  • Blankets
  • Non-perishable, processed food (something like this)
  • Bottled water
  • Warm clothes, socks, underwear
  • Diapers, formula (preferably of a type that doesn’t require water) and other baby needs
  • Wipes

David Bernard, who went out to Far Rockaway yesterday, wrote the following about Councilman Sanders: “His shelter not only disburses the goods to these people, but he also has contacts in the local neighborhoods. We were able to help these people directly.”  

To be clear: I don’t want to dissuade anybody from donating money to other organizations involved in the recovery efforts, such as the Red Cross and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. They are doing great work and will prove critical in the ongoing recovery efforts. But from first-hand witness accounts, it sounds like local leaders at this point are more efficient in getting food and supplies to people who are in desperate need of them.

Now, let me share some reports from folks who were “on the ground.” Without exception, my friends who ventured out to help (all tough New Yorkers) were shaken to the core. Samantha Carrera, who volunteered to bring supplies to housing projects, wrote: “I was shocked. I feel really sad today. We checked in on elderly people on the upper levels of housing projects today and brought them food and supplies. They wouldn’t be able to make it down 13 flights of stairs. There is also no cell service or power. If they fell or got sick, who would know? I am so disturbed.”

Roy Niederhoffer, who led the earlier-mentioned effort to fill up vans with supplies and go out to Far Rockaway, posted the following message on Facebook shortly after he returned:

I just returned from the scene of an absolute catastrophe. The very populous peninsula of Rockaway, just a mile south of JFK, was utterly devastated by a 12 foot storm surge that has completely destroyed thousands of peoples’ homes, infrastructure, utilities, and property, and taken the lives of a large number of people who died terrified, in the dark and helpless as the cold ocean water rose and drowned them. . . . I want to sound the alarm that people are still, just like Katrina, stuck in their cold, dark homes five days after the storm, and they have nowhere to go.

In a later post, he added: “There are people holed up in the projects who are afraid to leave their dark apartments in the cold and pitch black projects and are lowering their garbage out on ropes. There are people—families with children—holed up in low lying ground floor houses that are structurally unstable who have eaten nothing but a jar peanut butter for days.”

And here’s a report from Joe Buchana, who had gone out to Far Rockaway a day earlier:

Houses destroyed, cars piled up, twisted up, the boardwalk from Rockaway Beach somehow floated down their road then crushed cars and parts of houses as it went. A man named Lou who told us of how the water sucked him out of his house and almost swept him away if it weren’t for his grown son saving his life. An EMS worker who, after his shift in NYC, came out to help in any way he could. A woman named Sharon who told us a great many things about how people have no power, no internet, no gas (or cars destroyed), no food, no shelter, no blankets, but yet they are afraid to leave their shattered worlds because there is a gang war going on not too far East. We met a few men who had set up a fire in a very safe pit, were cooking some food, had set up supplies for their block. One of them told us how there were 13 gun fights the night before, they were counting. They could hear the shots and the cries. Terrifying. There are children living on that block. That block is cut off from the world.

They all asked us, each person we met: “Does anyone know what is happening here? Why hasn’t anyone come to help us yet?”

This last sentence is heartbreaking and one that rings through in all of the accounts. The reports about the most vulnerable populations of New York City have only started trickling in after the reporting on the power outage in downtown Manhattan and the decision on whether to proceed with the Marathon subsided (and this is in no way intended to downplay the suffering of those who had to do without electricity, heat, and running water for several days; nor do I want to make light of the runners who prepared several months for this race and in many cases spent lots of money). As with Katrina, this hurricane has hit those who already had insufficient resources the hardest. Also reminiscent of Katrina is the way in which Sandy appears to uncover conditions of poverty that should not exist in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and exposes the fragility of those who are one step above the poverty line. As my friend Samantha Carrera wrote: “Lower-income people are already on the brink anyway (even during normal times), and this has pushed them over the edge. And no one seems to care. At least ‘officially.’”

I hope the worst-hit victims of Hurricane Sandy receive the help they need to get through the next few days and weeks. I also hope they start feeling that many people do care about what’s happening to them. And I really hope—but somehow I am more pessimistic about this one—that the care and concern do not end when the immediate crisis passes and normal life resumes.

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