November 2012, Week 2


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Tue, 13 Nov 2012 22:44:53 -0500
text/plain (342 lines)
Grassroots Groups Have Taken Over Sandy Relief

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| 
Nov 13, 2012
The Brooklyn Bureau


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 worldfor 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 outperformedby 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

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

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 Berke 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


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

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

"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 notone 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

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

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 Sandyand 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."


Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

Submit via email: [log in to unmask]

Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3

Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq

Sub/Unsub: http://portside.org/subscribe-and-unsubscribe

Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive

Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate