Grassroots Groups Have Taken Over Sandy Relief

Photo by: Neil deMause
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, volunteer efforts have sometimes been more visible than official government recovery work. From feeding the hungry to treating the sick to doing clean-up work in flooded houses, neighborhood groups and grassroots collectives have coordinated a multifaceted response to the storm.

At left, teachers from central Brooklyn pass out batteries and other supplies to Coney Islanders in the MCU Park parking lot.

From Gerritsen to Coney, trusted local organizations and ad-hoc operations have stepped into a void left by overstretched city departments and low-profile federal agencies.

By: Neil deMause

As with so many roads in the outer boroughs of New York City right now, the drive into Gerritsen Beach, on one of the less fashionable fringes of coastal Brooklyn, abruptly changes once one hits the flood zone. Suddenly, traffic lights are dark; NYPD floodlights rest at every other intersection; debris from wrecked basements and first floors crowd the curbs; the air smells of wet, and hums with the sound of oil-fueled generators.

But unlike many of the other city neighborhoods struggling in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — the Rockaways, Coney Island, Midland Beach, Red Hook — Gerritsen Beach was officially mapped as Zone B, a designation that led many residents to remain in their homes as the storm began to rage on October 29. It did not stop the wall of water, as much as five feet high, that surged into the tightly packed streets in this neighborhood of modest middle-class homes, flooding them with water from nearby Plumb Beach Channel (and the city sewage plant on its far side) and sending families madly scrambling through rising water to escape.

In the days after the deluge, as Gerritsen residents began the process of sifting through their possessions to find what was salvageable, the relief effort got underway. But as has been the case in other stricken communities, the effort was led less by government agencies then by members of the community themselves — in this case, members of "the Vollies," Gerritsen Beach's volunteer fire station, the last volunteer fire department remaining in the borough and a symbol of the proud but increasingly frustrated self-reliance that has come to typify post-Sandy aid efforts.

Twelve days after the storm, the Vollies headquarters in the hard-hit "old section" of Gerritsen nearer the ocean is a hive of donated food and clothes, volunteers from all over, lists of electricians and plumbers hastily scrawled on pages from legal pads and taped to a wall. A food truck, normally resident in Midtown, has been dispatched by the mayor's office to serve free meals. National Guard troops based at nearby Floyd Bennett Field sort through a mountain of clothing. Amid the maelstrom, Assistant Fire Chief Doreen Garson is a nonstop ball of energy, directing volunteers, "Right now," she says, "we're acting as our own little city."

It's an approach that's common in this tight-knit community wedged between Plumb Beach Channel and Gerritsen Inlet, both of which came rushing in during Sandy. Kathy Ene, who safely evacuated but lost her whole first floor to floodwaters, estimates that out of 1,700 homes in the neighborhood, perhaps 1,500 have withstood damage, and most remained without power two weeks after the storm.

Though Gerritsen residents may have felt forgotten by the outside world for the first week after the storm, lately help has begun to arrive in force. Some volunteers came from a cry for help that Ene posted to a Brooklyn listserv for parents of twins; some from word of mouth via relatives or those who emigrated from Gerritsen in years past. One Pittsburgh firefighter with Gerritsen roots says he drove in a week after the storm in a truck loaded with cans of gas, of which he's handed out so much that he's no longer certain he could manage the drive home — not that he's planning to leave anytime soon.

By comparison, there has been less visible support from city and federal agencies. In particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which has already been lambasted in the media for shutting down many of its aid centers for two days "due to weather" when a nor'easter swept through last week, and for being outperformed by a bunch of ragged veterans of Occupy Wall Street — gets little praise from the storm survivors thronging the Vollies hall.

"They give you water and packs of food, that's it," says Guy Patane, an electrician whose house in the old section took on five feet of water. "They're useless. It's a shame. These people go and help other countries and stuff, and what happens when our own people get into a jam like this? This is devastating."

Lois Robb-Kernbach, whose one-story bungalow was flooded to the rafters, points out assorted Kernbach cousins, nephews, and nieces milling about among the Vollies. "FEMA tells me: Go to family," she recalls. "My whole family lives here!" FEMA staffers also offered to pay for a hotel for her, but she says she was unable to find an available room anywhere in the city. "I called Manhattan, everywhere. Nothing available. I'm on a waitlist."

Instead, she and ten other relatives have squeezed into a single non-Gerritsen relative's small apartment on Avenue U, just north of the flood zone. "We were four of us on a couch sitting up sleeping. It looks like a shelter, this apartment."

The biggest immediate crisis in Gerritsen is electricity: Because each of the neighborhood's 1,700 homes has its own electric meter, Con Ed is refusing to turn the main power back on until every house has either had its meter cleared as undamaged or "booted" to take it off the grid, for fear that otherwise they could inadvertantly spark a fire like the one that consumed more than 100 houses in Breezy Point. For that, they need electricians, and lots of them. (State Sen. Marty Golden put out a call for licensed electricians last week, directing them to call the Vollies, and is continuing to press Con Ed for quick repairs.) "Many people are doing it themselves," says Ene. Others, she says, including many elderly, "have done nothing, not even signed up with FEMA."

Some residents unable to stay in their storm-damaged homes have posted signs on their doors, with cell numbers for FEMA workers to call if they find no one home. "If they come and they don't contact you, you go to the bottom of the line," says Secil Cornick, who is helping her brother Verke Kacar demolish his flood-damaged kitchen.

Kacar has flood insurance, and FEMA won't pay out for repairs until homeowners have settled with their insurance. "Maybe it's even better to not have insurance, because I hear that some people without insurance already got paid by FEMA." Then he deals another hammer blow to the remains of his kitchen cabinets.

***

Three miles to the southwest in Coney Island, an even larger relief effort is underway for the hard-hit community, much of which remained without power or heat through the weekend. With the help of Bloomberg's call for a citywide volunteer day on Saturday, plus sunny fall weather and the return of train service to the Coney Island terminal, a growing relief operation has taken up residence at multiple sites across the peninsula.

In the MCU Park parking lot, where last week FEMA had its headquarters, an encampment of schoolteachers from Brooklyn Districts 20 and 21, each bedecked in a dark blue United Federation of Teachers t-shirt, hand out groceries, water, toiletries, and flashlights to an ever-growing line of residents. What are people looking for, the UFT volunteers are asked? "Everything." "Pampers, baby food." "A lot of blankets."

"We got power back last Thursday, but the building next to us, they still don't have power," says a Coney resident named Orlando, who says with no heat and a refrigerator full of spoiled food, he's on line for food and blankets. "They're not giving out heaters!" he says in amazement. "Everybody keeps on complaining that they're cold."

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, wearing a "BROOKLYN" hoodie, pauses a conversation with UFT president Michael Mulgrew to praise those who've turned out to help. "It is incredible the amount of volunteers and businesses both big and small, on their own initiative. It's tremendous. Having said that, there's no excuse of 12 days of still no electricity. Not in the 21st Century. And it's easier said than done, but that's the truth." He calls for "a dramatic federal effort" to provide needs that are as yet unmet: Public showers. Portable washing machines. Federal loans for small businesses with repayment of principal waived for a year or two — "as we do with student loans."

Fifteen blocks away in Coney's West End, power is slowly returning, and with it the barest glimpse of normalcy. Much of Mermaid Avenue now has working traffic lights, and a handful stores — including Yousef Alhamshali's corner deli on 32nd Street — are now selling whatever goods they've managed to salvage from their waterlogged shelves. A nearby Rite Aid, on one of the blocks badly hit by looting the day after the storm, bears a large "WE'RE OPEN" sign, though it turns out to be only a makeshift pharmacy that's in operation.

Many of the high rises that pepper the low-income West End district, though, are still without heat, and many remain dark entirely. There are volunteers in the West End as well, largely under the banner of Occupy Sandy, the ad-hoc group that emerged fully formed from a flurry of tweets and emails among veterans of last year's Occupy Wall Street. At the Coney Island Gospel Assembly on Neptune and 28th Street, a miniature city of relief stations has sprouted, serving hot food and providing a bevy of other services. From within a shipping container marked "Medical Clinic," volunteers, one with a pin proclaiming "Healthcare for the 99%," dispense medications to residents who've gone without since the storm. A woman named Lily wearing a "Volunteer: Ask Me!" sign is asked where the container came from; she shrugs with a smile: "It manifested yesterday."

Freda Darlington, a resident of the private Sea Rise Apartment complex on the creek side of Coney Island, which got power back last week but then lost it again, is happy to be on line at the medical station, but would like to see other services as well. "We would like it if they could send a Tide vehicle to wash some clothes, as well as a Charmin vehicle to send some supplies."

***

At the nearby Coney Island Houses at Surf and 30th, where residents point to 11-foot-high scaffolding that they say the storm surge went over, Eric Moed is setting up a satellite aid facility. Moed is quick to note that he was not one of those who occupied Wall Street last fall; he professes no opinion on those actions. He is, rather, a Staten Island resident and recent graduate of Pratt's architecture school who threw himself into the relief effort.

One week after the storm, he says, he was dispatched by Occupy Sandy's base of operations at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill to the Coney Island Houses, which were then still without power, and where elderly residents were still trapped inside, unable to navigate the stairs. "They have no heat, no water, they're defecating in buckets, which they have to bring down themselves," he says. "People are lighting their stoves to keep warm, which is very dangerous, because it's carbon monoxide poisoning, and there's no detectors. This is basic humanitarian issues here."

Moed and his colleagues immediately teamed up with Deborah Reed and Steve St. Bernard, heads of the residents' association for the five buildings in the complex, to organize what's now being called People's Relief. "We have residents who've had no power for two weeks, and they're volunteering," says Moed. Because there was no nearby church building to serve as a distribution hub, the tenant leaders offered to open up their buildings' community rooms to to store supplies. "So instead of people having to walk ten blocks, they can get food directly at their own buildings." The group has also organized trained medical teams to go into the remaining darkened towers and shuttle in food and medical supplies.

One big problem for Coney Island, says Moed, is that the "sexier" parts suffered relatively little damage: "No one was out there saying, 'Look at the Cyclone, it's sheared in half,'" he says. "Then once you start canvassing the buildings and seeing the residents, it's deplorable. You have elderly people sitting in apartments who haven't talked to anybody in a week."

With many buildings run by the New York City Housing Authority badly hit — not just in Coney Island but in other low-lying areas like Red Hook and Gowanus that the city determined to be the easiest places to site low-income housing in the 1950s and '60s — one would expect NYCHA to be taking the lead. But aside from a small crew rushing to install temporary boilers, the agency's 13,000 workers are little in evidence here. (NYCHA did not reply to questions by press time.)

"They're working hard, they're doing the best they can, I guess," says St. Bernard of the NYCHA response. He's glad to see the boilers, as building residents have been struggling with the cold. "It's been a madhouse. They've been coming needing blankets, because the last couple of days it's been real cold." As for FEMA, he says, "FEMA hasn't come all the way down here. They're stationed up at Our Lady of Solace Church. So to use FEMA, the tenants have to go over there."

Other signs of action by government and major aid groups are similarly muted. Across the street at the still-darkened Surfside Gardens towers, a Red Cross van disgorges a dozen volunteers, who carry premade plastic bags of Red Cross-branded towels, flashlights, and other supplies up to residents. ("We're from Citigroup," one explains.) Back at the stadium, a handful of Red Cross volunteers recently arrived from places like St. Louis and Seattle perform blood pressure and diabetes tests and give out lists of pharmacies in other neighborhoods that can fill prescriptions. Nearby, a half-dozen men with jackets bearing the insignia of the city Office of Emergency Management unload trays of hot meals from a flatbed truck to a City Harvest food tent; asked his position with the agency, one replies, "I'm a superintendent for an electric company," here with OEM's Community Emergency Response Team, an all-volunteer force set up to support established groups.

This is, of course, a citywide emergency, one where many city agencies themselves, including NYCHA, saw their headquarters ravaged by the storm. Many agency HQs are located in lower Manhattan, where power is still out to several buildings and phone service remains spotty. (Asked by email on Friday if the Department of Homeless Services building was still without power, one official replied, "I'm working out of my car.") And city agencies themselves have been quick to credit Occupy Sandy and other volunteer groups for the invaluable aid they've provided.

Still, it's notable how hard it is to find anyone who gives government agencies more credit than they give grassroots volunteers — especially the deeper you get into stricken communities. The one major government presence remains FEMA, but you have to look hard to find them, especially since the agency decamped post-nor'easter from the stadium lot to an indoors space at the sprawling Our Lady of Solace Church complex. Inside, a few people approach desks to file official paperwork; outside, Frank Lepore, a FEMA press relations agent from South Carolina, takes questions.

Lepore says he arrived several days after the storm, after first being flown into Albany to get his assignment. "The objective is to get the disaster survivors into a centralized facility where they can register for all of the different federal programs," he says, including both FEMA aid and help from the U.S. Small Business Administration. To register, he continues, they are directed to call an 800 number, after which FEMA will dispatch damage assessors to determine what claims they'll pay. "That is the message of the moment: To get people into the system."

It's a measured process that is in stark contrast to the "find the needs and meet them ASAP" ethos of Occupy and the Vollies. "We would love if they could take over for us, because I need to get on with my life, and that's their job," says Moed. "The Staten Island borough president said something after the storm that has resonated with me greatly, which is that government is here to do for people what they can't do for themselves. But it hasn't been here."