Sunday, a week after Hurricane Sandy started, was sunny and not too cold when I headed out to meet the volunteers I’d be driving to the Rockaways. I stopped in Flushing first to pick up one of the women, then we drove to Astoria. After going to the wrong Greek Cultural Center (apparently Astoria has more than one), driving around and nearly getting into a fight with a guy because he thought I was trying to cut into a line for gas, we found the meeting place. Only 4 or 5 people were there at that point. There was definitely a shortage of drivers, so I was happy I could do that service.
All of them seemed young. They were mostly thin, so it was possible to fit four more people into my car. Vic, a very energetic guy, very kind and friendly, had been down to the Rockaways the day before and had gotten the lay of the land. The way things worked, he said, was that you went to one distribution hub and checked to see if they needed food, supplies or volunteers. If not, you went on up to the next place. He said there would be stuff to do and places where we could help. We stopped at the Matrix Fitness Club in Astoria first, which had offered its building as a drop-off point for donations. It was weird going up and down the stairs with supplies while gym members were coming down the same stairs just to work out.
On the way down to the Rockaways, we passed house after damaged house. A huge boat was sitting crookedly on a median strip. Destroyed cars were on the sides of the road. People were out, busy moving debris and damaged furniture to the curbs. One pile of rubble was accompanied by a big sign, “We love the DSNY!” (Department of Sanitation, NY).
Although all the neighborhoods seem to be gathering together, supporting and helping each other, there had been looters — here and in other badly damaged neighborhoods such as Coney Island in Brooklyn. People the day or two before had told The Daily News they were arming themselves with whatever they had. The newspaper story carried a rather scary looking picture of a guy holding a bow and arrow, ready to shoot trespassers. I spotted a gruesome warning on one house (photo at right), and as traffic was stop-and-go at that point, I was able to snap a picture. I only had my cell phone camera, which isn’t great, but I wanted to capture a few images from the day while not looking too much like a voyeur and/or tourist.
One photo I wanted to take but was unable to because I was driving was the beach grass and other debris stuck in chain link fencing along one of the roads, indicating how high the waters had risen. This was on a street several blocks inland from the beach. It reminded me eerily of all the missing persons notes–and later, tributes–left on fences and walls in downtown Manhattan after 911 .
I shook it off and kept driving. We needed to get to a drop-off place soon because my poor passengers in the back seat had been carrying some of the supplies that didn’t fit into my little trunk on their laps — one of the girls had a case of bottled water and I’m sure she wanted some relief. We went first to St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church on Beach 38th St. and Beach Channel Drive, which had a large recreation hall that they offered as a drop off hub. OccupySandy and AstoriaRecovers volunteers (and others — Catholic Charities among them) were organized into teams and sorting donations as they came in — row upon row, table after table, of donated clothes, tools, batteries, flashlights, work gloves, dust masks, etc., plus a whole kitchen full of food.
They told us they did not need any more supplies or help. Vic was on his cell phone checking in with various other volunteers. At the next church we went to they also had enough help and food. As we drove to a third site, a young woman on a bike (one of the Occupy volunteers, I think) flagged us down and gave us directions to a high rise apartment building that needed setting up an aide station. While we were talking to her, another person came by and told us of a church several blocks in the other direction that also needed help. We checked out both places and Vic finally directed me to drive to the church, as the apartment building seemed to have enough people helping just then.
We went to the smaller church, God’s Pentacostal at 18-36 Cornaga Ave., and the people there were just starting to set up a distribution center for their neighborhood. Our two carloads of volunteers (there were 10 people total) unloaded our supplies and started helping sort what donations they’d gotten. It was pretty obvious at the three places I’d seen that there were way too many clothes and not enough basics. We took a quick assessment and Vic said the two drivers should go back to the big distribution hub and see what food, tools, blankets and other essentials they could spare.
That became my job for the rest of the afternoon. One of the other girls rode with me. We parked, loaded up the trunk, drove back to unload at the small church, then went back again. There were people “in charge” at the big center and one woman said we could take their overflow, but she wanted us to wait for one of their other volunteers to direct us. As things were rather messy there, with people streaming in and out with donations, our little group from the two cars just decided instead of waiting around any longer to just take what we needed. There were a LOT of donations and it was all going to go eventually to someone who needed it. We grabbed bags and boxes of random unknown food from the kitchen. I spotted bags of blankets and grabbed a few of those. It felt kind of anarchistic; I loved it!
Outside the hub building, a couple pulled up with a big box full of soup in cardboard containers, plus sandwiches, and started distributing them to people waiting in line for help (picture above). “It’s chicken noodle soup, Columbian-style,” the man said to us, offering us cups. I was hungry at that point so I took one–delicious. Volunteers gotta eat, too.
On our second trip back to the little church, we saw a guy standing out in the street in front of his apartment building, holding up a hand-lettered sign on cardboard: “WE NEED HELP!” My copilot and I pulled over and asked what they needed. He said, “Everything, but especially baby stuff and food.” I gave him the two bags of blankets. We were going to come back or send help (I took down his address to relay it to Vic, who was the only “authority” I felt I needed to consult). But then my copilot and I decided to just unload ALL the food and supplies we had and go back to the main hub to get more.
We made a few more trips and then I stayed at the smaller church, helping unpack and sort the bags and boxes of food people had donated. Inside the church, a few volunteers were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out. People in the neighborhood lined up and went down the line of tables, taking what they needed. It wasn’t tightly organized but it seemed to be running smoothly.
By the way, there is a structure and leadership to OccupySandy and AstoriaRecovers, but on the first few days after the storm it was just, “Come on down; someone will need help with something.” It’s actually still sort of like that, but there seems to be a tiny bit more order now, at least from reading the updates on the websites.
The work will continue in the Rockaways, Staten Island and Brooklyn. If I can–if I can get more gas in the car–I hope to go back this weekend. It might be messier work this time; assistance with the cleanup. I don’t mind, and I hear it’s going to be warm again (we had a snowstorm last night, believe it or not).