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 They seemed outdated, out of tune.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:
There aren’t many volunteer groups that will actually stick around after everyone forgets Hurricane Sandy happened. That’s the nature of disaster relief. But the process of rebuilding a community takes months and years. So it’s great to see local businesses transform into relief centers and local residents turn into community organizers.
Lava Girl Surf and the Rockaway Beach Surf Club have been running of the best organized relief hubs in the Rockaways. Their stated mission “is to keep the Rockaway community intact and get our displaced residents back as soon as possible.”
Since Lava Girl Surf will be at the beach for lots of summers to come, they’re also strengthening ties between year-round residents and day-trippers, wealthier and poorer parts of the community, between so-called gentrifiers and the so-called gentrified.
If you want to support them or volunteer with them, head to the Surf Club at Beach 87th Street. They’re open daily from 10-5. More info here.
Tonight at 7:30pm, Anthology Film Archives is hosting NY Surf Stories, an evening of locally produced movies about New York’s surfing community.
All proceeds will go to Waves for Water, a non-profit where 100% of the fund go to those effected by Hurricane Sandy. Raffle prizes include a free stay at Casa de Olas in Nicaragua, camera equipment, and surfing gear.
The event will be co-hosted by local professional surfer Mikey DeTemple and Waves for Water’s Jon Rose. More info can be found here.
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue New York, NY 10003
Saturday November 24, 2012
1. Get on your bike! (via Time’s Up)
If you’ve been to the Rockaways, you know that the fastest way to get around the traffic jams of cars, volunteers, relief trucks, aid stations, and clean up crews is on a bike. So if you have the bicycle and the legs, join the Time’s Up Fossil Fuel Disaster relief riders this Sunday. The details:
Extraordinary story from the NYTimes about how inmates pitched in to help after the hurricane. Many of the prisoners and the guards have ties to the Rockaways, and their efforts were really amazing.
"Inmates did 6,600 pounds of laundry for people in emergency shelters. The jail supplied generators and gas to fuel them to neighborhoods in the dark, and donated long underwear usually given to inmates. And officers with medical training provided emergency care to victims.
Ms. Schriro, a Staten Island native who lives on City Island in the Bronx, and her deputies started strategizing how they would tap Rikers’s enormous resources even as the storm was still raging. Ms. Schriro had already reminded the Bloomberg administration of all that Rikers had to offer should the storm prove to be as catastrophic as predicted.
"But Ms. Schriro felt a greater sense of urgency after seeing firsthand what the storm had done to the Rockaways, a place that is home to some of the jail’s inmates as well as to some of the guards who watch over them. She mobilized a group of correction officers to deliver truckloads of canned and dried goods from the island’s food supply and to use emergency relief supplies from the jail’s warehouses, including bottled water and blankets. The agency also delivered clothing to relief centers in the city, including jackets kept for inmates.
"Officers took generators and backup lights from various jails to Breezy Point, Queens, and other locations. Correction Department buses and vans transported evacuees on Staten Island and shuttled recovery workers in Brooklyn."
Anthony Weiner checked out the Rockaways in the days after the storm, and he was back just this past week surveying storm damaged homes and talking about just how effed the place is, especially for the poorest residents.
O man! You know what the Rockaways could use? Maybe a strong advocate who wasn’t afraid to talk about poverty… maybe an influential local politician who would fight for people who are often forgotten… maybe a public servant who prided himself on not caving to the limousine liberal part of the liberal machine that tends to not actually do much fighting for people who get royally screwed on a regular basis in places like the Rockaways housing projects.
And one who didn’t fritter all his political currency away on the Twitters. Dammit Anthony.
First he asked, “The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in?” Then he said, “We believe ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.”
Then Bill Clinton showed up.
Bubba. Big strong arms. Awesome smile. Heart that’s been worked over by many a surgeon. He brought it all to the Rockaways Sunday, working with none other than Team Rubicon and New York Cares. Says a friend who worked with them: “We went to a house and did the standard gutting of the downstairs. They gave a lot of hugs.”
Hot food and hugs. The key to this recovery.