I’d have been suspicious of me.
Here I was, a stranger with no identifying jacket, or armband, or hat, or badge, walking around, alone, knocking on doors asking questions with an iPhone in-hand and logging answers and addresses into my shiny device.
"Good morning, I’m a volunteer with the United Way of New York conducting a survey of residents’ evolving needs after the storm. The information is to be used by State, Federal and Non-profit agencies. Can I take ten minutes of your time and ask you a few questions?"
That’s how I explained my presence on their doorstep. I was assigned a two-block area, Beach 91st and Beach 92nd streets, between Beach Channel Drive and Rockaway Beach Blvd, near the Thai Rock restaurant.
But to my surprise, the vast majority of the residents there opened their doors and answered the intrusive questions. They were friendly, kind, gracious people, eager to respond. Many here are firemen. They’re strong, resilient folks.
”Do you have food?”
"Do you have water?"
"Do you have electricity?"
The blocks are mostly composed of detached single- and multi-family homes. Beach 92nd street was particularly striking because of how clean and ordered it was. No debris was visible on it. I was almost tempted to say that things were fine here.
The survey questions made me feel silly. They seemed outdated, out of tune. But upon a closer inspection, things were not as fine as they seemed - not by a long-shot. While residents here had food, water and electricity, some were still without heat.
A retired fireman told me he’d recently switched to natural gas after the storm. “I have heat but my brother-in-law still doesn’t. I called a contractor. He’s still waiting on Rapid Response,” he said.
After the survey we sat a bit, chatting about how his family weathered the tempest. His bushy mustache framed a determined smile. It was a smile, I thought, chiseled into his face from years of work as a rescuer. I imagined it would have been especially reassuring to see it if I’d been trapped in a burning building.
As the ocean flooded his basement, he recounted, his oil tank had leaked all over. That’s when I finally pinpointed the smell that permeated his home.
In this section of Far Rockaway, things were coming along, but lots of people still didn’t have heat. Those that did, had it because of their own effort and expense.
Those relying on the city were still waiting for heat.
One family - a mom, dad and two-year-old - like many of their neighbors, were using space-heaters for warmth as they waited for “rapid response.” The father was a 41-year-old filmmaker who made a documentary about Far Rockaway’s surfer culture. The family had only recently bought their home.
They weren’t worried about the heat, it was on the way. They were OK, they said. Once again, a block away, amid the grim recovery, there were smiles. But the optimism was tempered by the long legal, financial and emotional journey they now faced.
As I left the home I noticed two guys in a brand-new Mercedes going door-to-door giving away space-heaters.
Recovery on Far Rockaway has been uneven.
Many have it a lot worse than the area I visited on Saturday. One of the volunteers in charge of organizing the collected survey data told me that many of the poorest folks still don’t have access to food, or water, or electricity. “It’s disgusting.”
But regardless of socio-economic status, all residents of Far Rockaway face a daunting bureaucratic nightmare.
They are juggling FEMA applications, insurance claims, and disaster unemployment assistance, just to name a few issues. Landlord/tenant problems are becoming more pervasive as slumlords drag their feet to make repairs to damaged homes, many of which still lack electricity, heat, and hot water. For the poorest, food is still not easily accessible. Even in the middle-class area I was in, the supermarket had only been open for a day or so. Folks that don’t have cars or money to shop or friends to give them rides are still dependent on the food pantries and hot food tables offered by volunteers.
A new phase of volunteering is gaining momentum: legal guidance.
There is free legal help available for residents to navigate the bureaucracy, but I worry that they don’t know about it. So I want to try and get the word out and I’m starting here, by listing a few resources I’ve found:
1) The definitive disaster legal assistance manual from Legal Services NYC (PDF):
2) A calendar of upcoming law clinics, New York Free Disaster Assistance Legal Clinics:
3) For law help including general information about disaster relief - Disaster relief for small businesses and not-for-profit organizations - Disaster unemployment assistance (DUA) and other work problems related to Hurricane Sandy - FEMA disaster assistance - Food stamp replacement - Homeowners: insurance and foreclosures - Immigrants affected by Hurricane Sandy - Tenants affected by Hurricane Sandy:
4) Follow the NY Bar’s blog - City Bar Justice Center news:
5) For lawyers and non-lawyer volunteer opportunities - Hurricane Sandy Legal Relief Efforts:
Crying at work… no. It’s bad. No crying in baseball…
But then Octavio sent over a note about how he found a group of people willing to trek from the Upper Upper West Side (181st Street to be exact) all the way to the Rockaways, via public transportation, to ultimately help clear out the home of a hoarder. It’s such a sad story, and a beautiful one. And I teared up.
"A woman is sitting alone, eating pasta from a Styrofoam plate. She strikes me as stoic and distinguished. I ask if we can join her. She seems happy I did. We all sit and strike up a conversation. She speaks in an Irish brogue. She could be one of my Inwood friend’s grandmothers. She recounts the night of the storm. Her neighbor died trying to rescue the dog from the flooding basement. She said being in her house felt like being in a rough storm at sea, with waves and wind crashing over it. It sounds terrifying. “I was so scared, I thought I was going to die there,” she says. We all sit and ponder that statement.
We’re glad she’s alive, we’re glad we’re alive. The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” plays on the radio and I like it.”
Twitter plays a role. Ray Kelly makes a guest appearance. Something for everyone.
Hm. Even if you don’t get red-eyed, maybe you’ll be moved?
Read all of Octavio’s Far Rockaway Blues.
One thing I hear over and over is… How can I get to the outer outer boroughs without a car?
Well, like a good New Yorker (and a badass), Octavio is taking the subway. The car/gas b.s. is not going to keep him from volunteering; and if you’re on the Upper West Side you can join him for a trek to the Rockaways this Saturday. It’s your very own dare-to-be-great situation. Here’s what he has to say:
I’m planning to troop it out from Uptown Manhattan (Washington Heights) to Far Rock on Saturday and wanted to put the word out to people who might be interested in joining me.
Are you interested?
Meet me Saturday morning at Starbucks on 181st and Ft Washington Ave., between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.
I am planning to use public transportation, so bring stuff you can carry in bags, in a cart or backpack — if you can. There is some (but not too much) walking.
Needed: Any baby stuff you can think of! Diapers! Formula! Also batteries. Blankets. Gently used or new sweaters, (new!) socks, (new!) underwear.
More important: bring your self and your desire to work.
If you can’t make it that early, it’s OK. Last time I went I arrived at 3p and there was plenty of time to do a lot of work.
Here are directions:
- A train to Fulton St (Manhattan)
- Transfer: 5 train to Flatbush
- Transfer: Q35 Bus (Ave H) to Far Rockaway
My plan is to return to St. Francis De Sale Church: 129-16 Beach 129th st.
They had a very grassroots, but effective, process going: Drop off donations in gym, then report to volunteer table on sidewalk for work assignments. It was pretty amazing.
Now, here is a video that shows the devastation immediately following the storm. It’s pretty bad and guess what? It hasn’t gotten much better yet.
LET’S DO THIS!
Now that the election is over, “now what?”
Those who want to celebrate, celebrate. If you need to pout, do that too. But let’s all come back together soon. We have a lot of work to do.
After casting my vote, I spent the day in Far Rockaway NYC where I helped (with friends and strangers) one man begin to rebuild his family’s home which was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. No one was Democrat. No one was Republican. We were simply neighbors who were doing whatever we could to help each other get back on our feet.
I plan to return on Saturday. This recovery (whether from Sandy or from our economic meltdown) is far from over. What better way to truly experience our great nation’s true beauty? Come together (regardless of your political affiliation) after a hard fought, ugly election and lets get our people who are suffering so much right now back onto their feet! Who’s with me?
- Octavio Blanco, CNN/Money
Nov. 6, 2012
For more stories and images from Sandy volunteers, click on the tag “ground game”