collection lay ahead of them. It was as if the Far Rockaways had truly shed it’s skin. People with handcarts were everywhere making their way down the street. Foraging at different stops for fresh clothing, canned good, a cup of hot soup, cleaning materials. The predominant look was African American. One man said, “They told us we can drink or bathe in the water, but it is brown.”
Another older woman said she was on her way to Greenpoint, because you couldn’t buy any fresh meat there, “I’d be too scared to eat the meat.” She had the look of a migrant worker, carrying her world in a handcart, head covered in multiple scarves for warmth. I asked her about how she was coping with no heat.
She said: “Made my husband get down on his knees to light the pilot. “ She smiled a big smile and said, “You people must have a big heart to come here.”
We passed a grocery shop, which seemed fairly well stocked with batteries and dried goods at a high price. It was the only shop in miles and it knew it. Outside bright gaudy images of sandwiches and cooked meals greeted the eye. Providing a window into what the inhabitants of Rockaways would have eaten before the wave came and destroyed all their food, refrigerators and lives with it.
As I walked down the street, I felt eyes on me and realized that my cell phone was also attracting a lot of attention. One man muttered to his friend, “Snatch her phone.” Looking around, I realized my friends were two hundred feet down the road. I immediately felt very vulnerable. My brain said run. I caught up with my friends in front of 96-15 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, the home of Larry and Linda Holcomb.
Linda Holcomb greeted me with her warm smile and the question, “Do you need a job to do?”
At first I wondered how she knew I was a volunteer, then after thirty seconds of looking around, it was transparently obvious. After all, we were turning up all pink and scrubbed, wrapped up in our nice winter hats and coats. The locals were predominantly African American and wearing layers of mismatching garments, obviously donated.
Linda was beautiful in a Mid-Western corn bread kind of way:
“God brought us to this place, she said. We are doing God’s work.”
When she explained they had donated their house, so that it could become a Ministry it was hard not to be impressed. People came and stayed. Teams who were focused on relief work were allowed to stay. The house stood like a beacon of hope in the midst of desolation and the post Sandy world.
A hummer drove past us on the street, reminding me that security came at a price. A large Doctors Without Borders Vehicle was parked opposite. It was hard not to point to Linda and Larry as the origins of this community. After all their house was the only apparent relief centre in miles, aptly named, Ocean Beach Relief Center. A newly painted sign rested between two chairs, drying in the sun. Linda explained that their relief effort had started with Tom Victor.
Linda sent an email to Tom, who had apparently sent an email out to all of the surrounding churches. Their mission was made up of volunteers from several churches: New Hope Christian Church, Mission House, and a lot of students from St John’s University. All of the people I saw were kids, filled with smiles and youthful optimism. I realized that this young energy is needed, since middle aged people would have looked around at the desolation and despair and probably lost steam. Also the fact that the Volunteers were still children was apparent, as Jess, who was sipping a cup of coffee and taking a break on some stairs said, “Blare doesn’t want people to stay after dark.” I asked why not if they had flashlights. “Too dangerous. No police around here to protect us.”
Dorothy, who seemed to be the second in command, was a woman in her forties, dark hair, Irish look, determined look in her eyes. She barked out orders to the young parishners, “Clean those shelves, so we can put food on them. I want them really clean!”
Two young men outside were chopping pieces of non descript rotten wood and stuffing it in black bags. They were busy deconstructing the basement, so that they could use for organizing food and the three generators and pumps that were coming the following day. A big truck with a generator was on it’s way that would run for forty –eight hours at a stretch. This would help them to pump out water from a lot of houses.
Dorothy kindly gave my seven year old and his best friend Ruby a job to do, which he had completed. He asked brightly “I finished..”
“Good she said, I have another very important job.”
She lead him and Ruby over to what was technically their backyard, which had some grass in it. Her dog was running around in the enclosure.
“You can take care of my dog.”
The two boys were delighted with their new job, chasing around the dog, who in turn chased them back.
The boys ate hot dogs and asked when we would be going to the beach. We explained once again we were here to help people, not go to the beach. They seemed disappointed.
Will said, “Where are the homeless people? I haven’t seen a single person.”
When I pointed out the people who were walking along the street, he shrugged his shoulders.
“But they still have houses.”
Hard to explain the level of hardship to a seven year old. Also I felt at that moment it was best to conserve my mental energy for the task ahead.
We decided that our work was done at the Beach Relief Center and we should go somewhere else where we could lend a hand. We all piled into the Hybrid and drove to another relief station. There was a huge group of local people gathered outside, sorting through bags of clothing. Lots of hot food being served, rice and cooked meat. It looked Mexican. I saw only one man in the crowd taking photographs with a professional camera and doing interviews. His name was Michael J Shade, a journalism student from NYU. I commended him for being there and asked if we could exchange numbers. I would try to help get his photographs in print.
When I asked at this relief station what was needed most, I was told: Insure, pedialite, batteries, toiletries, cleaning supplies and flashlights. My nurse friend, Debbie was very disturbed to hear that the diabetics were relying on Insure.
She said “They need real food. And pedialite is for extreme dehydration.”
Of course one could not argue that the children were not dehydrated from six days of no water. However harder to understand because of the water stock pile that was occurring.
The lack of doctors and nurses was also upsetting to Debbie. “Why have the Cities not sent any health professionals down here? Why is Doctors Without Borders the only Health organization here? They usually get sent to International Disasters.”
I asked a ten year old child who was seated on a cart, beside his grandmother, whether he saw the wave.
And how are you doing now? He said he was very happy to be going to school on Monday. They were bussing the children out of the Rockaways to a different part of Brooklyn. I asked which part. He did not know. He smiled at the thought of going to school. His little sister who was probably six years old, remained silent. She looked unwashed and uncombed. Hair all matted, dirty face, snot running down it.
Back in the Hybrid. We passed a gas station which was obviously closed. Black bags adorned all of the pumps.
We arrived at two large Tenement flats, which go no so ironically by the name Ocean Village, located on the Shore Front Parkway between beach 59th st and Beach 56th Street. standing tall like monoliths.
These buildings are filled with people who refused to evacuate. Unfortunately they were then written off by Mayor Bloomberg and the City, who decided not to send any help, hoping they would evacuate. Six days later, you have a large population living with no water, food, power or sanitation. The smell of rotten eggs is everywhere, caused by stopped up garbage shoots.
From a far, the volunteers appear like an army of ants. They have formed a fire line, making the burden of transporting the boxes of water into the building that much easier. A great relief for me, as I have a lower back problem. The fire line at one point stretched from a truck in the parking lot, right up the stairs into the first floor room. Passing through pitch black corridors into a large sunlit room.
When I called up to ask who the people on the truck are, they said they were all from Corcoran. It was impossible to tell which walks of life people came from, as everyone wore the same uniform, jeans and dark jackets with woolen hats. I was happy to discover that regular people had taken it upon themselves to drive down. A white woman volunteer looked at me and rolled her eyes, clearly upset by the presence of children.
At the top of the stairs stood the sole source of light in the building, Security Guard Officer Ajishafe, who stood there like a statue pointing his flashlight down the long staircase. His dark skin makes him appear almost shadow-like. When I ask if I can take his photograph, I realize there is no way to capture his tired face without standing him by the window. It is simply too dark. I asked how it had been for him for the past week. He tells me it was very tough for the elderly and children. How does he protect himself and feel safe when there are no police?
Officer Ajishafe says, “We protect ourselves from past situation, come to work every day, just try to help everybody as much as we can.”
I asked what in his opinion is needed.
He says, “Checking up on elders. To make sure no doors get kicked in and robbed and apartments getting looted. No safety procedures and no police, robbings, shootings, stabbings. “
I ask again about his comment about doors being kicked in.
He says, “If you don’t answer they kick in the door.” I see from his face now what was apparent if you knew what you were looking for. He has the look of a soldier in the trenches. His eyes are blood shot and glazed over. I ask what he does to stay safe. “I leave at 4pm. If you want me to stay a little bit longer we stay.”
Seeing that it is one minute to four, I tell Debbie that we must leave now with the kids, it will not be safe.
As we exit Far Rockaways in our Hibrid, I see a Red Cross vehicle parked. No evidence of activity around it. Then I see people standing in line to get on a bus.
These two images help to reassure me that there is some escape from this hell for those who can take it. Friday was the last day that the MTA were not charging for fares. I wonder how many people took their cart and went to a shelter. The real question is bridging the comprehension gap. How can a Billionaire like Bloomberg ever understand what is is like to be so poor, that you would rather cling to the few possessions you have, then leave and risk never seeing them again?
The experience of my friend, the millionaire escaping from her evacuated building, wet bar and flat screen TV, is not the experience of the old woman who lives in a Tenement flat with only a few possessions and a history of diabetes. If your health is compromised to begin with and you have poverty to go with it, you stay put. Also when word gets out from the shelters that there are no showers. Not to mention all of the hospital patients who have been emptied out of their beds and put in shelters. Why would any white middle class person choose to stay there? Even my wealthy friends living in Chelsea, would rather live in a blacked out building then moving to a shelter.
My son’s comment about “Where are all the homeless people?” is the barrier we must all overcome. Since many of the homes still exist, we can not treat this like a Haiti. However since most of the homes in the Rockaways, Coney Island, NJ and Staten Island are awaiting generators to pump out the water, why is it so hard for the City to provide this fundamental need? Without this, can anything truly be back to normal?
Today six days after the Hurricane, I know that the world did not end, but I do believe that Mitt Romney’s comment about Global Warming can now be seen for what it is, naïve at best. As far as the elections, which are coming up rapidly. We are told you must register online to find your voting station. When you have no power, how do you have the option to go online? This then begs the question, what happens to the huge migrant populations, forced to leave their houses and their paperwork. How do you vote if you have no official ID? As we head into another storm, the repercussions of Hurricane Sandy may follow us for years to come.