Today, Thursday was my second day of volunteering for relief efforts in Red Hook. Overall it was a successful day of intaking donations, coordinating volunteers, and moving supplies out to the community through the Red Hook Initiative. Our organization was better today than yesterday, but the need was also greater. People in the community are still learning about the work we are doing so more are turning up as the hours and days go by. We continue to be a lifeline to a huge number of residents in public housing who lack power and water. The larger infrastructural pieces are coming together and will hopefully be in place to sustain this work through the weekend and into next week as residents continue to wait for power and water to be restored to their buildings and businesses to open their doors. The following is my personal account of the work that I did today and saw others do. Please bear in mind that a lot of things are happening that I don’t see, so this is by no means a complete account.
This morning I debated whether to drive or bike down to Red Hook, and in the end chose my warm comfortable car. I regretted that decision when I saw the dense traffic on the highway and decided to take side streets south to Red Hook. I doubly regretted it when I later learned that there is no gas to be had in NYC for love or money (luckily I had a full tank thanks to my saintly husband who wanted on line for 2 hours last night). All the gas stations are cordoned off – the rumor was that only taxis and government vehicles can get it, though it’s totally possible even they lack access. In the absence of public transport, people are relying heavily on cars. Starting today the rule is you must have three people in a car in order to cross any of the bridges over the east river (necessary to deal with massive traffic). As the fuel runs out (go here for a great review of the fuel situation: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/02/us-storm-sandy-newyork-fuel-idUSBRE8A01EW20121102), people will be totally cut off from their jobs in the city and key services like grocery stores.
Upon arrival at about 10:30am I took on the role of volunteer intake, information gatherer, and team lead coordinator, meaning I spent my morning circling around Red Hook Initiative checking in with everyone to see what they needed and attempting to give it to them while gathering information to share with others. The scene was fairly chaotic though we all managed to get our jobs done in the midst of dozens of incoming volunteers, a constant stream of donations bags, many people from the community moving about the facility through tight hallways and narrow spaces between work tables and walls, and all while managing communication with the staff of the Red Hook Initiative (who have been Amazing and deserve massive credit for opening their doors to this operation. RHI is absolutely a worthy recipient of any donations you care to give).
Several very talented and hard working folks were managing operations today, processing a huge amount of donations, volunteers, and questions from the community and preparing hot meals at 12pm and 6pm. Our leads included Rachel in the supplies intake zone, where she, assisted by 7-10 volunteers at a time, received bags, unpacked them, and sorted them into piles for repackaging and sending out to the community; Paulie Anne in the kitchen, who coordinated the preparation of two large hot meals today, including dinner for several hundred people (with a line stretching around the corner for over an hour); Lisa overseeing kitchen and supplies infrastructure and distribution; another Rachel in the batteries and lights room (closely guarded as these are the most prized supplies); Kirby up front overseeing volunteer groups going out into the community doing needs assessment and fulfillment for individuals and businesses; an incredible nurse from NYU who oversaw distribution of basic medical supplies as well as walk in care and on site care in peoples’ homes where necessary; a lovely woman who stepped up to process the needs assessment forms into a huge spreadsheet; Zoltan providing admin and organizational support as well as helping to lead the needs assessment and fulfillment volunteer groups; and several more key people who worked tirelessly to organize the efforts of the dozens of volunteers from outside and inside the community and to ensure that the dinner line moved smoothly, the batteries got bagged up and sent to where they needed to be, information and forms were properly handed out to people with questions, and much more. The talented staff of RHI were on hand working hard to move out the supplies and helping to coordinate work and facilitate our interface with the community.
I’d like to say a bit more about the needs assessment and fulfillment as it was a really impressive piece of work. Starting at 10am, volunteers fanned out to all the public housing buildings without power (and water!) with forms for people to fill out with their names and addresses and specific needs. Notes were made about home-bound people who could not come down to get supplies from us. Volunteers brought back those forms, which were catalogued and organized. Bags of supplies were prepared in the distribution room, carried to the front desk, and sent back out with volunteers who delivered them to people who had made requests. Hot food was also delivered. I think that we sent out at least 200 bags today, and have specific information on more needs that need to be filled in the coming days (we will continue to deliver to the home-bound each day). Additional supply bags were made to be handed out with the hot meal at 6pm.
At around 4:30pm, I walked with a staff member from the city council member for Park Slope (who has been trying to assist Red Hook even though it’s not his district) to a nearby park, where we had heard that FEMA and the national guard would be distributing at least 1000 meals to people at 1pm. When we arrived, we found a line of several hundred people waiting in the cold (for over three hours) for a truck that was reportedly still struck in gridlock. We spoke to the one FEMA person on hand, who said he had nothing to do with food distribution and was only passing out flyers with information for people about reporting damage to their homes and cars. The man in charge turned out to be a 7 foot tall major from the Salvation Army, who was extremely pleasant but short on information about the delivery as he had no direct line to the truck, which was being brought by the national guard. When we left there was still no sign of the truck, though we later heard that it did arrive and successfully distribute a ton of MRE’s (meals ready to eat), which are military food packets that have to be mixed together in a certain way to prepare the food. My understanding is that the MREs are complicated for those unfamiliar with them and not that tasty. Certainly better than no food, but still problematic. RHI continues to be the effective lifeline for this community providing hot food and supplies in a friendly personalized and humane manner. As a side note, I have not heard of any Red Cross sightings in the city yet. They may be present or about to be present, but they are invisible to us on the ground.
On our way back to RHI after the Salvation Army field trip, we passed by some guys from NYCHA (housing authority) manning pumps that are still getting water out of the building basements, which is a predicate to restoring power. The guy said that they would be on site around the clock until the water was gone. He said he had three pumps going and would like to have a fourth but did not have enough fuel for the generator to make that happen.
Late in the day, we learned that the great people from Trinity Church had coordinated with NYCHA to open the Miccio community center down the block to receive, process and distribute donations starting tomorrow. Miccio has a lot more capacity than RHI and will be a great step up for our infrastructure. There will be a large pallet of supplies coming from the Trinity truck that will augment the stream of donations that we have coming in. RHI will continue to coordinate and process volunteers and hot food distribution.
Now that you have a sense of what we were doing, I want to emphasize how crucial the Occupy network has been in providing organizational backbone to this operation. All of the team leads as far as I know came through the occupy network, as well as many of the volunteers. The Interoccupy site (http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/) has been updating information about service points throughout the city and resource needs on their main website, and has been responding to our tweets regarding specific needs at our site. We were able to send car loads of donations that we didn’t need to the occupy distribution hub which could then send them on to the Rockaways and other hard hit areas not receiving the same resources as we are. Throughout the day I was able to push out messages via twitter and email requesting specific supplies such as flashlights, batteries and water, and those messages reached people who brought us those things. I was also able to learn what was going on at other sites and share that information where I was. As one person put it on twitter, Occupy was born last year but has come of age during this crisis. It is incredibly heartening to see this network spring to life and be put to work.
A few more thoughts before I close. I have seen many commenters online saying that residents of Red Hook housing have only themselves to blame for their woes, as they were told to evacuate. However, people were justifiably wary of the shelters. I heard one report that the shelters available in Manhattan for example had no food and no blankets and felt unsafe, so people who went there just came back to their apartments because a dark home was preferable to an underresourced, scary shelter. Furthermore, I do not think that thousands of residents should be expected to pick up and move in the face of a storm that no one thought was going to cause this type of damage.
Second, the residents who we served today were, all things considered (days without power and water, where people are living on the 14th floor of a building that has pitch black stairwells), incredibly good tempered and thankful for our efforts. Notwithstanding changed distribution times (we cancelled a noon distribution and moved another from 4 to 6pm), everyone was very patient with us. They can see that we are working as hard and as fast as we can to do what we can do for them. I did hear a lot of frustration voiced at various city agencies and utilities, who do not have a relationship of trust with this community.
Friday will be my last day on the site as I am going upstate to take a break from the intensity of this storm aftermath. Next week I may be back on site. The situation is constantly evolving and we don’t know yet what type of non-immediate infrastructure we are prepared to help coordinate and implement. The coming days are going to test our limits. If you have not yet volunteered or donated and would like to figure out how to do it, please visit interoccupy.net/occupysandy.