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On the Margins of Disaster, Revolutionary Acts of Care

Photo: Rockaway crew

On the morning of October 30th 2012, residents of the Rockaway Peninsula awoke to a virtual wasteland. After a harrowing night riding out 60-mph winds and the flooding of virtually every inch of the entire 11-mile peninsula, devastated community members peered out onto unrecognizable streets strewn with flooded cars, 15-foot pieces of the shattered Rockaway boardwalk, jagged piles of debris and mountains of sand.

Hurricane Sandy tore through a community devastated by the man-made disaster of capitalism, situated only 20 miles from its command center, Wall Street. Hurricane Sandy forced a microscope on an area historically underserved, pushed to the margins, and labeled a dumping ground for New York’s dispossesed — the formerly incarcerated, elderly, mentally ill, and drug-dependent.

After decades of systematic neglect, marked by crumbling, underfunded city hospitals, inadequate for-profit clinics, and limited service providers, the entire health care infrastructure of the Rockaway peninsula was decimated in Sandy’s path. Chronic conditions intimately connected to socio-economic factors of unemployment, diet, stress, environmental pollution, and inadequate health care were only exasperated by the storms’ destruction. At every turn, on every block, the script read the same: asthma, hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, addiction. Everywhere we looked, people were suffering.

Scrambling to fill the void, YANA (You are Never Alone) Medical Clinic was erected out of pure necessity and built upon the simplest of principles: to provide free medical care to all who walked through its doors, no questions asked. Within its walls, and without fully grasping what we had created at the time, a beautiful space opened up. Volunteer nurses and doctors from hospitals across the city and state partnered with Rockaway residents, Occupiers, and street medics to provide immediate medical care to the surrounding community.

Set up in the unlikeliest of locations—a former fur shop offered in kind by a sympathetic landlord–the clinic served as one of the only operational health care facilities peninsula-wide. Left to fend for themselves in adult homes, shoddy halfway houses and SRO (Single Room Occupancy) buildings, many of YANA’s first patients were elderly, drug dependent and/or mentally ill, completely severed from access to their healthcare providers and critical medications. We treated these patients with the same care we would our own family members.

Void of the constraints, bureaucracy and red tape of agencies and organizations who clumsily attempted to navigate the post-disaster landscape, volunteers structured a disaster response that served the needs of the community first and asked questions last. Within days, we discovered with shock and numbness that both FEMA and the American Red Cross were referring residents to YANA. In this space, where some of the most egregious breakdowns at the city, state and federal level occurred, medical and mental health professionals staffed a free clinic, canvassed pitch black high-rise buildings (armed with headlamps, intake forms and prescription pads), and combed the Rockaway peninsula block-by-block to deliver services to thousands of residents without power, heat, food or water. Volunteers not only provided a compassionate voice on the other side of the door to terrified and isolated residents, they offered desperately needed services at one of the relief effort’s most critical junctures.

No longer hamstrung by the same bureaucracy and red-tape of their own professions, volunteers were able to serve the needs of patients above all other considerations. They were not incapacitated in their role and responsibility as healers based on their patients’ financial limitations or lack of coverage, allowing them to serve on the front lines in a way they had never thought possible. They felt a sense of pride and purpose in their work that had long been stolen from them by a system that refuses by its very nature to acknowledge its own barbaric ineptitude. What they found in those spaces changed them in lasting and immeasurable ways.

The Rockaway community thanked us from the bottom of their hearts. What they may not have known is how much their perseverance day in and day out inspired each and every one of us to continue our work. While Sandy revealed and reaffirmed this system’s inhumanity, it has paradoxically opened up a transformative space for us to assert our own humanity. Occupy Sandy demonstrated for us–in the provision of some of the most basic and essential services necessary for a healthy society-that our human potential is both immense and realizable if we so choose. In the Rockaways, expressing our potential to care for one another was in itself a revolutionary act. Even amidst the heartbreaking destruction and loss surrounding us, the glimpses of a kinder, saner, more just world served as a reminder and inspiration for us all to fight for that world together.

What we build based on those experiences is entirely up to us.

This article was originally published in Tidal, Issue 4, Block By Block.

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