As more stories of heartache arrived on the news every day from New York and New Jersey, my husband and I drove south to help with Sandy victims & recovery efforts. I’ve been asked how we got involved–or how it came about, and I’m afraid my answer may be disappointing–there is no complex or deep reason. It’s rather simple, actually: There were people suffering six hours away from us, and they needed help.
Not wanting to arrive empty handed, we put out a last-minute call to my school community, and were gifted with not only a generous abundance of supplies, but also a delivery van from a local business to drive them down in. We were given money for gas and tolls, a Dunkin Donuts gift card to refuel ourselves along the way, and enough extra money to stop at Walmart and buy $300 in much-needed water and medical supplies.
We arrived in Brooklyn on that crystalline Saturday morning at St. Jacobi Lutheran Church, where Occupy Sandy had set up distribution headquarters. The street was crowded with volunteers, cars, and the chaos of unloading vehicles, sorting supplies, and then distribution. Typically impatient New Yorkers patiently drove around vehicles that were blocking traffic and instead of honking or yelling or insulting waved. Some said thank you. We learned quickly that the van & its full tank of gas were treasured resources and spent the remainder of the day trucking clothing and other supplies through the city. It was hard work–we loaded and unloaded, carried up and down stairs, and drove away utterly exhausted at the end of the day.
Occupy Sandy’s organization system astounded me. Everybody had a job to do. It was an incredible balance between efficiency, spontaneity, and planning. What I didn’t see–not once–was red tape. There were no cardinal rules or sacred protocols. There was also no complaining, griping, or grumbling. Every single coordinator and volunteer was upbeat and competent. There was an inherent trust that we were all there to do our best in the name of humanity. And everybody was coming together as a part of a giant machine that was reaching out to the most disenfranchised people affected by this storm to help improve their situation. In the face of disaster, we all become so decent.
On Sunday morning when we arrived, our van was immediately filled to capacity to bring supplies to the Rockaways–one of the hardest hit areas–an area that saw the highest increase in crime in NYC 7 years ago and struggles with higher rates of diabetes, drug-related deaths, alcoholism, premature death, smoking, heart disease, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, and infant mortality than the rest of New York City.
The man who was directing us looked at us and asked, “Are you okay going here?” We nodded. ”I’m sending you to the projects. Just be cool. Treat everybody coolly, and you’ll be okay. Okay? You cool?” “Cool,” we agreed. ”I sent one guy there a couple of days ago and he returned and said he wouldn’t go there again,” he continued. “But you guys–you’ll be okay. I’m pretty sure. Just get out by dark–because that van there? It says ‘Loot me’ all over it. There’s a curfew, but you want out before dark.”
People are people, and they don’t scare me, and knowing the history of race and Katrina rescue efforts, I couldn’t even believe that there were people refusing to help predominantly black neighborhoods.
And so we took our van full of supplies into the worst hit area of the storm.
Driving into the Rockaways was completely overwhelming. No matter how many pictures of the destruction you see ahead of time, none of them can fully prepare you for the streets of sand, the debris piled high outside homes, the police and National Guard at every street corner, or the sadness that permeates the air. The surrealism seeps in and you move because you need to, but after you leave, you are not quite sure if that happened or not.
When we arrived at the headquarters they sent us to a low income apartment complex that was in need. We were looking for “a black woman named Shawn who lives there. She’s wearing a black down coat and blue winter hat.” I looked at the man telling me this. It was nearly 70 degrees and he was wearing a tshirt. So essentially, he was sending us on a mission to an apartment complex to find a black woman–because chances were she had taken off the jacket and hat. I hoped we were successful. Miraculously, after driving to the back of the building and entering an underground parking garage where cars were filled with mud and turned at odd angles from their floating away, we took a sketchy head-lamped walk through sludge-filled, windowless, dark hallways and stairwells, and we found her.
And there, in these so-called “projects”– in the “ghettos” — in the areas where we were the only white people — in the place where that man dared to say he wasn’t comfortable, we found the most amazing, resilient people. For thirteen days they had had no power. They had saved their neighbors on the bottom floor from drowning during the storm surge. Teenagers carried water and food up to the 14th floor to the elderly who couldn’t go up and down the stairs. They had watched their cars float away. They shared a small grill for over a thousand people. They faced down looters. They were cold. They felt forgotten. And they walked out to our van, nearly a half block away, and filled shopping carts and their arms with supplies trip after trip after trip, placing them in a common room where teenage boys organized everything.
Between trips, people who didn’t live at that complex, would sneak over and ask for supplies. “Do you have any diapers, size 5?” “Do you have 3 blankets for my 3 children?” “Could I please just have one roll of toilet paper?” “Is there a toothbrush in there?” I would rummage through and find what they were looking for while two children I was babysitting, so their parents could carry supplies up the block, sat in the back of the van with me.
We did meet somebody from FEMA. “Why are there hundreds of generators sitting in that field down the road,” we asked him, “when there are so many people here without power?” “Well,” he drawled, “we can’t find enough electricians to do the job, and we didn’t even know these people don’t have power.” I was stunned. “Hey,” he said. “I’m from Louisiana. I work for FEMA, and I still couldn’t get help from them after Katrina.” Oh.
With only an hour and a half until dark, we then drove down to the boardwalk and walked through a war zone of remnants. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Piles of boardwalk debris were piled 10-15 feet high alongside the sand-covered, hushed road. Red Cross and National Guard vehicles parked in odd places along the way. Dump trucks rumbled by. People who had evacuated and had just returned wept openly in the streets. We walked down the middle of the road, and cars would stop and talk to us. Everybody was part of the experience. Everybody wanted to share.
That night, as we drove back over the bridge to New Jersey, before the curfew, we sat for twenty minutes watching a line of ambulances file onto the peninsula for the evening where they would service the population. We would return again–with the force of our generous neighbors and friends behind us. At Thanksgiving to gut out a home and serve meals. At Christmas to deliver presents, trees, beds, kitchen utensils, and books to the elderly who were still sleeping on the floor, to families who had no presents, and to schools who had lost all of their books. And each time we arrived, we were met with the biggest hugs, widest smiles, and the most gracious people we’ve ever met. I still get texts from my Rockaway friends–sometimes on Mother’s Day or Christmas, but always, always on October 29th, the anniversary of when their beaches and boardwalks were swept into their homes and they lost everything but their dignity.
What we did was not amazing nor celebratory. We just know that when there are people hurting, you show up. You park in front of somebody’s house, take out your shovel, and offer to lend a hand. You drive up to an apartment with supplies and let them know you’ve got food and blankets. You ask them what they need, and then you help them. You don’t need permission. You don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to be an expert. All you have to do is have a heart.
As for me, I left part of my heart there in the Rockaways. And I’ll keep going back to retrieve it.