This is my report from Friday November 2, my third day at Red Hook. Our relief effort continues to provide a lifeline for the community in Red Hook and many other neighborhoods around the city (including particularly the Rockaways) while various larger organizations figure out how to get going. On Friday I did see one Red Cross truck that delivered supplies at Miccio, but there was no support provided for their distribution. I am becoming frustrated that high profile people and websites are encouraging everyone to give to the Red Cross when they don’t seem to be getting the work done.
On Friday we expanded from a substantial operation at Red Hook Initiative to a major operation at the Miccio Community Center, two blocks down the street, which took over all reception and distribution of supplies and was managed by two incredible women from the Trinity Church network. Huge props to Trinity Church for taking this on. RHI remains the check in point for volunteers and continues to serve two hot meals a day. The fact that these two sites are close made it possible to coordinate and implement a huge number of volunteers and supplies between the two sites. Cell phone service remains spotty which frustrates efforts to communicate in real time between sites that are not next to each other. As relief operations continue to ramp up, this is a significant concern. Transportation between sites is also becoming more and more difficult as the fuel shortage in NYC becomes more acute. Last I heard, power will not come on for many buildings in Red Hook for another week, so these emergency operations are going to have to keep on functioning at a high level notwithstanding fuel and communications challenges as well as exhaustion of team leads and the fact that many people in the city will be going back to work on Monday.
After spending a few hours at home in the morning on Friday dealing with Sandy relief emails and tweets, I biked down to Red Hook. On the way I saw that the highway was moving very quickly, likely a result of the major gas shortages that are making car travel increasingly challenging. Tillary street in downtown Brooklyn, normally clogged with traffic, was wide open. Arriving at RHI, I found the place full of new volunteers helping to manage distribution of food and supplies. The influx of new people had put a strain on the operation earlier in the morning, as several of them questioned the systems that had been put in place earlier in the week. This problem seemed to resolve itself as all of the supplies other than medical, cleaning (for the volunteer teams helping businesses to clean up) and some water and flashlights/batteries were transferred to the Miccio center, which had just opened its doors that morning. At RHI, I walked around and said hello to people I knew and introduced myself to new people who seemed to be running various tasks. After gathering information about medical supplies and staff needed, volunteer needs, hot food needs, etc., I tweeted that out and started my rounds again. Along the way I communicated information between different teams and tried to ensure that everyone had what they needed, from boxes to cups to volunteers. I also received an email from MoveOn asking me to knock on doors for the election which seemed just absurd under the circumstances.
A significant improvement over Thursday, when we had to catch volunteers wandering in and put them to work, was the installation of a large volunteer intake table staffed with at least two people all day who took down volunteer information, passed out name tags, and organized volunteers in groups based on the needs of the various team leads. This allowed us to process a huge number of people who came down to help throughout the day, after word had spread on facebook and elsewhere that RHI was doing effective work in an area accessible to many Brooklyn residents. I wish there was time to talk to people about what brought them down there and what their reactions were to the conditions they were seeing. I would also have liked to speak to locals and RHI staff about the conditions in their buildings, but I never sat or stood still long enough for that.
Soon after lunch, after giving a tour of our operations to a NY1 reporter, I walked up the street for the first time to the Miccio center. The first thing I saw was a massive line several people wide stretching around the corner, with hundreds of people waiting for distribution. I had no idea the operation would be so large. The police had showed up and were concerned that our volunteers were passing out some drinks to people waiting on the line, worrying that people would block the sidewalk, and requested that we stop doing it. I asked someone there to keep and eye on the police and make sure they stayed happy so they didn’t decide to shut down our operation.
I walked in the volunteer entrance at Miccio to find a huge gym filled with hundreds of brown paper bags in neat rows full of supplies to be distributed one by one. There were tables set up around the room on the edges piled high with supplies of all kinds – food, clothes, blankets, toiletries, diapers, and more – being constantly sorted by volunteers. Up front there was a long row of table staffed by dozens of volunteers handing bags and other special request supplies over to an endless stream of those seeking aid, who were held at the door until there was someone on the line free to help them. The scene was well organized but very intense and somewhat overwhelming. I made my way to Kristen, one of the Trinity Church women I had met on Wednesday at the flag pole, who told me she had not slept in three days but things were going well. She told me she would need 16 volunteers to replace workers on the distribution line who had been there all day. I was eager to leave Miccio and return to the much smaller and more humane RHI.
Back at RHI I saw the kitchen intaking and managing many trays of donated hot food while also coordinating an extremely dedicated team of cooks in preparing food on site. We had to set up excess tables in another room to handle all the trays, many of which had been prepared by parents who had gotten word over their email groups that hot food was needed. The unpredictable amount of food and the changing circumstances of people lining up for food made it hard to say whether there would be enough to cover the need – at every meal there was a different number of residents seeking food. Also in the kitchen a group of people were preparing hot food plates for home-bound people, wrapping them in foil and putting them in boxes to be sent to the volunteer coordinator up front. I then turned down the hallway and saw staff from IKEA wheeling in large carts with an enormous number of small candles and unloading them in a small side room. A plan was formulated to send volunteers directly up into the towers to deliver candles in bulk to home-bound residents who could not come pick them up. This direct delivery distribution model is something that is being implemented in various ways at relief sites, some of which have a glut of supplies even though some residents (who may not know a relief center even exists), are still very much in need.
Once I was able to round up my first big batch of volunteers to walk over to the Miccio to work I gave them a very brief history of the relief efforts and warned them that the Miccio wss going to be extreme. I then asked them to grab a bunch of donated supplies out of a car that had just pulled up and led a parade down the street. When we arrived we were told that no more donations were being taken as the Red Cross had just donated a mass of supplies that needed to be sorted. Leaving my crew of patient and eager volunteers on the corner out of the way, I went inside, learned that people were needed sort clothes, and sent my volunteers on up. I did several more trips over the afternoon escorting volunteers into the building and pointing them in the right direction. Once the RHI team learned that we could not pass out stuff to people in line, we coordinated social workers and other volunteers to walk up and down the line checking in with those waiting to assess any immediate health or safety needs, especially for elderly people.
Overall throughout the day I was hugely impressed by the dedication of the volunteers who came to help, many of whom stayed for hours on end chopping carrots, handing out food to hundreds, of people, sorting supplies, and many other tasks. They were patient, responsive, and humble, wordlessly taking marching orders from complete strangers like myself. I saw none of the NYC ego apparent – maybe that part of the brain gets muted during these types of collective disasters. For the most part we were able to put people to work as soon as they came. I have heard this was not the case at many sites on Saturday, where large numbers of people showed up and had no way to plug into the work. Organizers at various sites made all attempts to keep each other up to date on volunteer and supply needs so that people could be sent to where they could be useful, but the fuel situation made that type of transportation challenging. This is the type of infrastructure that will need to get built in order for this effort to be sustainable.
After three days on site, I got out of town upstate. Driving out of the city on Friday night I saw incredibly long lines for gas at every exit. The fuel situation grows more dire every day, affecting relief work, making it very difficult for people to get to work, and keeping people form leaving the city. It’s a very isolating experience. The city can only be a city, I found, if its infrastructure is working. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people who only really know about what’s going on in their tiny corner of town. For now, the volunteer relief effort that occupy is coordinating is connective tissue holding those particularly marginalized and isolated areas together and ensuring that they get much-needed attention and care. Without our efforts, I believe many of these places would have undergone immense suffering over the past week. Now we just have to figure out how to sustain and grow that system so that it can be part of the recovery and not just the relief.