There is enormous outcry about Hurricane Sandy and the path of destruction it left on western LI, NJ and Staten Island. So many people want to help out the victims. And, although our hearts may be in the right place, it bears saying that if you truly want to be EFFECTIVE in your response, you have to listen to the needs of the people on the ground in Rockaway, Staten Island and New Jersey.
For days now, the shelters in these hard hit places have been telling grassroots supporters to STOP sending in clothing. They are inundated and the bulk is creating more debris, and adding to the chaos. I went on a trip to Rockaway where one of our tasks was to remove a mountain of clothing from an existing shelter because what was really needed was room for more beds, to house people. I've also heard stories about people who are running into the heart of the devastation, without prior knowledge of where they should go or what they should do. The last thing the people on the ground need is to be taking care of US right now. So please, take a moment, and if you are inclined to help (and I hope you are!) do some research and contact an active organization that has current knowledge of the needs on the ground, established connections with shelters who need assistance and, generally, can put you to the best use you can be in this crisis.
I was lucky enough to join Melissa Berman from East End Cares as she spearheaded an election day trip into Rockaway with a group of about 30 volunteers. Melissa and her compatriot, Mary Jo Walker, are absolute professionals in the pursuit to be of service in the Rockaways and have reliable on-the-ground connections delivering information on the constantly evolving needs of the people who have been left without heat, electricity or water for over 10 days now. You can check out East End Cares both on Facebook and on their new webpage.
The day started with loading the Hampton Jitney that we journeyed on with supplies of blankets, rags, flashlights, food and cleaning items. Travel into the Rockaways was slow due to heavy traffic on the roads. As we approached our destination, St Francis Desales School on Beach 129th Street, we caught our first glimpse of miles of houses on Beach Channel Dr. with mountains of wet debris piled outside from the flooding. Watermarks are sometimes as high as 4 feet up the exterior wall and dozens of cars have been abandoned on the central meridian which were clearly washed out when the water breeched the wall. It looks like a war zone.
The National Guard is out in force, equipped with all terrain vehicles, trying to help keep streets passable and working to ease the congested traffic. We passed one polling center in the midst of the chaos, but for so many in Rockaway & Breezy Point, it was clear that even getting to the center would be impossible.
St. Francis Desales school is on a block containing burnt out homes, downed wires and mass destruction. We were there met by one of the many tireless workers who have been on the ground since the tragedy unfolded last Monday during the storm. Allison is one of our connections and regularly blasts out tweets to get up-to-date information out to the supply trains headed in. She explained to us that due to the impending Nor'easter, they were racing against time to set up more shelters and warming stations where people could wait out the storm. St. Francis Desales was to become one of those stations. One of our tasks this day was to ready the building for the influx of people she expected to arrive when the weather turned bad.
Another collection of men from our group were sent out into the surrounding neighborhood to help individuals with their homes, removing SheetRock, emptying basements and trying to ready the houses as best as they could before the onslaught of more rain & snow.
I was assigned to a third group, led by East Hampton's Brian Lydon, to move out into the Rockaways with the prepared food we had brought with us and distribute it in those areas that had not received any aid. We were headed into the projects and down the side streets where people hadn't seen workers or helpers yet.
Our first goal was to merely get the food truck that had arrived along with us turned around. My first glimpse of Rockaway from the ground was literally stepping over rubble , looking down towards the water and seeing only piles and piles of debris stacked as far as I could see. Brian was out of the car and conducting traffic to turn the truck as there are no street lights or signals to help. In fact, there are no lights anywhere. We got underway and quickly found a street where a food distribution staging area had already been set up by a local volunteer. The look on his face when we unloaded approximately 50-60 pre-packaged lunches, including chips, apples & juices was priceless. But it was a drop & go and we were off again.
Bryan pulled over in the projects and we set up a curbside table, enlisting the help of a resident with a loud bellow to announce free lunch had just arrived. People appeared quickly, excitement at the choices we provided were palpable and many thanks were murmured. Our supplies rapidly disappeared so we broke down. This was disappointing to a group of workers who had arrived late and despite the tremendous amount in our original supply, we had to tell them we had run out. All we had left in the truck were cases of frozen meat, already thawing, that we needed to get to a shelter with cooking facilities to feed as many people as possible.
Driving along, craning our necks to see down side streets and find a place that had grills, we passed a National Guard shelter that had long lines of residents waiting to receive supplies and food donations. Brian explained these shelters were good; however, there were many, many people who would or could not make the walk to these distribution centers and we needed to get some aid to them as well. Turning down a side street that looked especially hard hit, a young man yelled as we passed, "Are you FEMA?!!!". They had seen no one on their block and were 8 days into this ordeal. Brian stopped and leaned out the window towards the young man. "No, we're not. But we have food! Do you have a way to cook some meat?"
That changed the tone of things and our food truck was quickly surrounded by a group of neighbors who told us they had not received nor seen any assistance since Sandy had decimated the area. They were rightfully angry and frustrated. And, they had a way to cook. When we started shoving boxes of hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken breasts and pork butts into their hands, their eyes started to shine with new feeling. Nobody took more than they needed. They were neighbors and would divvy up the food amongst themselves. "God bless you," one woman said and proceeded to give each of us a warm hug. It felt like our trip unfolded just for this one precious moment, on the ground, helping the people who needed it most.
Still, with 5 pallets left of frozen meat to go, we had to keep moving. Saying our goodbyes and promising to connect the block with an outside aid agency, we took off. It was decided that Brian and Tom Donohue would stay with the food truck and take the rest of the supply out to Breezy Point where a Red Cross station was in full swing and could accommodate the amount of meat we had. The rest of us would stay with Brian's SUV and meet up with the Jitney to distribute the rest of dry goods we had brought to various shelters. Within a moment, they were gone and I was suddenly driving Brian's SUV though the war-torn streets of Rockaway.
Our final stop, after having rendezvoused with the Jitney, was a shelter that had very little support or supplies left. Again, the countenances of the aid workers when we opened up the luggage doors of the bus and started pulling out boxes of cleaning supplies, baby goods, blankets, flashlights, batteries and more was a sight to remember. Moving quickly, we unloaded everything and, with the help of the National Guard, got the bus turned around and headed back towards St. Francis de Sales and the rest of our volunteers.
As mentioned earlier, there are no lights in Rockaway aside from a couple of scattered generators. But even then, gas is scarce and people run out. This absolute black-out creates a very different scene for nighttime and the East End Cares group was told by the Guard, very distinctly, to get on the bus and head back East before the sun set. We hesitated, flawed, feeling perhaps there was more we could do to be of service, but ultimately, that is the case with every single volunteer who arrives in Rockaway right now. There is so much to do. One day is never enough. The feeling of powerlessness and heartache for these people carried with us as we loaded the bus, shut the doors and finally headed home.
Our trip had been a success. People had been touched. Aide had been received. However, it has left an indelible impression on my heart of the magnitude of this event and how very much we need to help, every day, in every way we can. We, on the East End, escaped the bullet of this storm, but it very well could have been us without power, water and heat for weeks at the beginning of winter. We have to help because, right now, that's all there is - a bunch of grassroots organizations who are delivering daily medical supplies, food, cleaning materials, toiletries and whatever else is needed into the war zone of destruction left by Hurricane Sandy. We need more help. Please contact East End Cares or one of the following groups to get an accurate read on what donations you might supply and especially, if you're headed west to help, get a contact on the ground to point you in the right direction. We have an incredible, amazing, generous community out here on the East End. Let's mobilize and make a difference.