For the past few days, I was feeling deeply troubled by the images and videos all over the Internet that show the tremendous damage that Hurricane Sandy wrought in the New York area. While I was supposed to be at a tech conference starting Thursday, I made the decision to stay here in New York to help out in any way that I could.
About midweek, my old friend Ray Alba contacted me to let me know he, too, had been troubled by the great losses that many our city's residents had sustained. There was a great amount of talk about a “Tale of Two Cities”, with pictures of one half of Manhattan brightly lit at night, and the other one, completely benighted.
None of the images I saw on the Internet this week could have prepared me for what I was going to see and hear, as well as how I would feel about this human tragedy unfolding before us.
Ray and I got together and purchased supplies up at Fairway on 125th. They, too, were hard hit by the storm. A BIG thank you to their floor manager Mike O'Donnell, who extended a deep discount on the fruits, drinks, and other food supplies that we purchased there. We did this with another fellow, Paul Trowbridge, with our own money. Ray had also been coordinating with a few dozen other people who were acting similarly throughout Manhattan – purchasing supplies, batteries, etc, for the purpose of distribution to those in need.
We drove down to Madison Street on the Lower East Side. Ray coordinated with a state Assemblyman for us to use 200 Madison as a relief station. We got there and essentially we were the only ones there with food supplies. There was a truck there with Sheldon Silver posters stuck to it that was allowing neighbors there to charge their mobile phones, but NO Food. No Water. Nothing else.
Ray, Paul and I checked in with a local policeman to ask if it was all right to set up there, which he assented to. We quickly went to work handing out foods to people, paying special attention to people with small children. One older woman said “Oh, thank you for the water, I haven't had any in two days.” I couldn't believe it. In Manhattan. It seemed almost implausible. She seemed honest and nice. We'll never know.
People down there seemed stressed, definitely looked a bit drawn and hungry, but no one seemed desperate. They seemed to have that quiet, exasperated look that we New Yorkers get when we just have to wait patiently for the powers that be to get things done. After an hour, we dropped off more stuff at the Community Center at 200 Madison and prepared to leave for our next destination.
Before leaving, we saw some cops that looked pretty wiped out, so we shared some drinks, fruit, and granola bars with them. The Lieutenant with them suggested we bring food bag to someone in need inside one of the buildings. Ray went up in a completely dark building while we waited at the car. Ray said that a few young men stopped him and assertively asked him who he was and where he was going. While he was nervous about being accosted by these youths, he told me he had the sense that they were actually patrolling the building to make sure that no one was there under false pretenses, with the intent to burglarize, which has been reported to have happened downtown this week a couple of times.
At that point, Ray suggested we purchase more supplies and head onto the Rockaways to do some real relief work. I have to admit, we had bumped into a couple of other 'rogue' relief workers who said that people needed help at 46 Hester Street, which sounded better to me than going into the belly of the beast. One of my NYPD buddies told me it was pretty rough out in the Rockaways and not necessarily a good idea to go out there.
Ray mentioned that he had people out there he needed to help. I've known Ray a long time, I wasn't going to leave him to do the work solo. So I assented to going. With that, we hopped in the car and went over the Williamsburg Bridge, which took no time at all with virtually no traffic.
We proceeded to refill Ray's vehicle with more food and drink supplies. Then, we drove to the Rockaways. Our first stop was in the 100's off Cross Bay Blvd. The houses were badly flooded there and many of people's life valuables were out on the curb in huge piles. The community seemed to be buzzing with work – there were contractors there helping out and general handy man. In short, while people seemed utterly burnt out, they seemed to have things covered pretty well.
We went from block to block asking people if they needed anything. Some people took. Others declined and told us to give it to others in greater need. One person suggested we go further down “where things are REALLY bad.” Driving down Cross Bay Blvd some more, handing out more supplies to people we saw straggling along that road, we stopped in what looked like a makeshift staging area, replete with a FEMA truck, some fire trucks, an a PBA truck feeding some of the policemen in what looked like a town square.
There were hundreds of people – Asians, Latinos, Whites, African Americans, Russians – seemingly encamped there, obviously stressed, some looking like they were in dire straights. The area looked like a war zone. All we saw again was just a docking station for people to charge their mobile phones. Where was the food? The water? Blankets? Coats? Ray, Paul and I were horrified.
In the small park/'town square' there was a small fold-up table with two guys there and meager supplies – they mentioned they were from a local church and that they had also been going from place to place doing what they possibly could. That was it.
I ran over to what looked like the Captain within a group of policemen and asked if we could start passing out food and drinks in that spot. He assented. I ran back to the car and we opened up the trunk.
Within seconds, people saw what we were doing and it was a mob scene. Hands reaching in panicked to get something. After a bit, we explained to everyone that we're not from any agency, we just want to hand out whatever we had in as fair a manner as possible. A few people were trying to be very greedy about things, which we handled, but most people were equitable in their approach. Again, we tried to sort out need based on families with little children.
Within a very short time – maybe 20 minutes, almost all of our supplies were gone. We gave a case of water to the policemen, although in hindsight I don't think they needed it since the PBA truck was really well stocked (they had lots of awesome food options on a table in front of it, looked like Craft Services on a movie set). Those guys have their work cut out for them over the next few weeks, so they deserve all the pampering they can get.
We left that square to go to a final destination on 91st street – a place where Ray's friend lives. We got to that road and were horrified at the tragedy that happened there. 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?”
The roads are destroyed where they live, their power lines and homes decimated. I'm no construction expert but with a good 20+ years of project management experience, it looked to me like months and months of rebuilding. The winter is coming.
Why hasn't anyone come to help these people yet?
The day grew older. Sharon showed us a shard of what she called the “last piece of the Rockaway Whale”, a well known sculpture that was washed away by the ocean surges. She repeated what we heard elsewhere: “Tell people what is happening here. Before it is too late.”
What can you do? So many people are asking me. I'm just a regular guy who took a day off from work and spent some money to bring supplies to people. It was a meager amount of supplies, although we reached a good 200-300 people.
You could obviously donate to Red Cross. Or sign up for NY Cares, which I did a few days ago. That will take a few weeks before I get certified to volunteer for them through their orientation. You can give money, or drop off at shelters, etc. However, my abiding fear is the things people need RIGHT NOW will not get there in time. Certainly the cold is here now. And the Nor'Easter is around the corner.
Baby supplies (Diapers, etc)
Anything else you could think of if you were in this situation.
I can't recommend to you to drop off at relief shelters because a) I don't have any experience with whether they are generally well organized or effective. The few we saw today were not. And the relief effort has to be door-to-door, because people are afraid to leave their homes. We saw one man lowering garbage out of his house from a rope. These people are afraid.
As dusk began to fall, I grew concerned that we had outstayed our visit there. One of the people told us that after 5pm things started to get rough, and by 6pm, “bad things are going to start happening here again.” The couple of men at the fire on 91st seemed to have that steely, confident reserve as block elders that whatever came, they were going to deal with it. They seemed to be the rocks of that particular community. Imagine that kind of thing going on all over Staten Island, the Rockaways, and beyond? There is hope in the strength of a community.
Ray had purchased a few pounds of ham and bread for his friend, who actually wasn't home – he was out doing relief work himself, despite the fact that his own home was destroyed with a large piece of boardwalk slicing it right through. We decided we'd bring our last bit of food and drink supplies back to that park we were at earlier.
One of us noticed a woman hunched over with a baby in the park. People were overlooking her existence, as everyone seemed to be concerned with the coming of night and saving their own skins. I bent over and asked her if she needed anything. She said “I have four other children in the car. We don't have a house anymore.” She had the smiling, reassuring face of a mom that was trying to make her little child feel things would be ok. Her eyes showed terror.
I gave her the two pounds of ham and the bread, along with water, and I said to her “we are with you m'am.” I thought of my own children, and spoke to her girl, maybe a 2 year old, with fear and hurt in her eyes, definitely she was afraid of a stranger, I said “little girl, its going to be all right. I'm sorry this happened, but you're going to be ok.”
I don't know that is true for a fact. But I want it to be.
I hope to get out and do more relief work over the weekend. For any of you that read this, if you can find a way to go wherever you think there may be a family in need throughout this region, do it. Skip the family dinner or whatever you would spend that $100 on, buy some supplies, and head out to help. Go with a full tank of gas. Help people.
Nothing that any of us planned to do this weekend matters more than this. I promise you.
As I walked away from that young mother and her child, I began to cry. That doesn't happen too often.
We need to somehow make this all right for these people. I implore you all to find a way to do that, in your own ways...
Posted at 09:31 pm by Joseph Bachana