Monday, November 5, 2012
Helping with the cleanup, one trash bag at a time...
HALLIE EPHRON: Like many of you, I see the pictures of neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy and wish I could help. My daughter Molly was out this weekend in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood on Brooklyn's waterfront, helping with the cleanup. She tells what it's like.
During the hurricane...
I camped out out on a spare mattress in my sister and brother in law’s apartment, mostly for the company. Neither of us live in evacuation zones. We listened to the wind, watched the news, argued about whether the constant coverage was frying our brains, whether it was alarmist and whether we should watch NetFlix instead.
ConEd called and said our electric might get cut. Then downtown Manhattan went dark. But our lights in Sunset Park stayed on and I baked cookies and we watched a documentary about sushi-making. In the morning, on the news things looked bad, but our Brooklyn neighborhood did not. A few trees down. I went home, fed my cats and took a nap.
Wednesday we waited
... for news of the return of the subway system, whether school would open, whether we needed to go to work. We saw the pictures of the Rockaways, of Staten Island, of New Jersey, Red Hook. Places that were nearby. But they weren’t exactly “here.”
In my neighborhood stores were open with fully stocked shelves. Restaurants packed. Except for the fact that the traffic was unusually thick, it was almost like a snow day. We met up for dinner and drinks and believed the appropriate agencies would fix the broken things because this is New York and this is what happens here.
Then the mayor announced that school would be cancelled for two more days—a full week. And the lights stayed off downtown. And the news from the disaster areas got worse and the marathon got cancelled and cops started having to patrol gas stations so anxious drivers didn’t beat the crap out of each other.
And when the lights finally went on, it didn’t mean that everything was back to normal. Not even close.
I didn’t understand how bad it was at first. I don’t know what it’s like for anyone outside of New York but for those of us who live in New York City who weren’t directly affected by the storm surge, it’s been a slow reckoning, part naiveté, part willful ignorance, in part a function of just the way this city works. To live in a New York neighborhood is to be a citizen of a very small geographic area, to which you have loyalty, and where all of your goods and services are provided.
Because in my neighborhood we continued to have, I didn’t immediately understand how different the situation is for people just a few miles from my apartment.
... I went with a group of friends to volunteer in Sheepshead Bay/Coney Island. It’s not just bad. It’s beyond bad.
Driving south from my apartment for a while there is still “the normal.” Grocery stores open. People walking dogs. Hassids walking to Sabbath services. It’s like that for about a 15-minute drive from my apartment.
And then it gets just the slightest bit quieter. And then you start to see the garbage piled up in front of the apartment buildings and houses. Couches. Mattresses. Debris. And it’s like that in front of every single building, everywhere you look.
And then the traffic lights aren’t working. And then you start to notice that the cars lining the curb are all filled with mist, some of them kissing bumper to bumper, a pile of waterlogged sludge nestled in between.
And the businesses that at first appeared to be open actually have people in them because they’re clearing out their entire livelihoods, taking out soggy files and cash registers. And there are no lights, just flashlight beams flickering out from internal spaces.
That’s when I began to understand
... what “storm surge” means. It means “where the water came in.” If you weren’t near the water, Sandy was loud and windy but not particularly terrifying. And if you were in the way of the water, God help you.
Volunteer opportunity posted on FacebookMy friend Katina forwarded it (http://www.facebook.com/CleaningSheepshead?ref=stream). Just something that went around, no real organization identifiable. A young guy who identified himself as a resident of the neighborhood had been going around to local businesses, seeing who needed help. A real angel. He handed out assignments.
We had followed the instructions and brought rakes, gloves, face masks and garbage bags. I had spent a good 20 minutes that morning staring at the garbage bag options at C-town trying to decide which strength to buy. Being somewhat indecisive, I bought a mélange, some Hefty, some generic.
At the sandwich shop: Throw everything out
We got sent to a sandwich shop called Jimmy’s Famous Heroes (photo by Janine Feczko) where the proprietor’s instruction was just “throw everything out.” The chips we asked? Yes. The shelves? He pointed to the wet walls and floors. Sewage. Everything had to go.
The owner told us: “The shop would have been 75 this year.” “It will be!” offered a volunteer. Nobody contradicted this.
We cleaned out the deli case, whole hams, huge cylinders of provolone, pickles, soggy bread. The file cabinets had water in them. The owner asked if he should keep a waterlogged book on Joe DiMaggio. “Is it signed?” someone asked. It wasn’t. Throw it out.
A couple, friends of the owner came by to see how he was doing. “Ok,” he said.” You?” They said they’d lost everything. The woman said: “My brother literally only has the clothes he’s wearing. But we have each other.”
It turns out people really say these things when horrible things happen. Because that’s what there is to say.
The trash bags turned out to be useful. Heavy contractor bags are good for things like files and hams. Crappy generic trash bags are good for cleaning out shelves full of potato chips.
On to an apartment building
After we were done at Jimmy’s we went over to another place identified by the organizer, the Warbasse apartments in south Brooklyn, several 23-story buildings all part of a City middle-income “Mithchell-lama” complex. On the first floor, in one lucky building with power, volunteers sorted random relief foods (canned pork, popcorn) for residents. FEMA was there too but it was unclear who was coordinating what.
As a group of four we took an assignment sheet with a building number and a list of apartments and needs for each: foods (some kosher), blankets, water. We collected the needed supplies from the supply tables then headed out, and immediately realized we had no idea which building we were going to with our 50 pounds of relief materials. We met a kind French biker named Andre who biked around until he found the building for us, then let us strap a crate of Poland Springs to his bike rack to ferry it over.
We went in through the loading dock. A kid in a sweatshirt—a super?—told us water would hopefully be coming back on that day, but no electric. There had been no electric since Sandy.
Then he showed us how we had to bring up the food—the windowless stairwells of a 23-story building.
Up up up, in the dark
We looked at each other. We hadn’t thought to bring flashlights. But it’s the modern age. Cell phones have lights. And Andre’s bike helmet had a little head lamp. So that could work.
We entered the stairwell and climbed in the dark, tripping at first, stumbling with vertigo, then getting the hang of how to share the lights efficiently and quickly grab the banisters. We knocked on the first door of our assignment list, and were greeted by an older, very overweight couple who mostly spoke Russian. They were clearly happy to see us. We gave them their food bag and some water.
Then the man asked “Orange juice?” “There’s apple juice” my friend Elana said. “Diabetics,” the man explained. Crap, we thought. We quickly dug through the other bags and found whatever we could with additional fruit sugar and made a note on the assignment sheet that they needed to be checked on again and brought OJ.
In the other apartments, it was a mix of needs. Everyone in need was elderly, some more elderly than others. They were riding it out not out of stubbornness but because they literally couldn’t get down the stairs.
There was the woman in her 70s who told us she had her 96-year-old mom in the back. There was a younger woman with her older, seemingly senile mother, a cat and a bird. No one had been out since Sandy hit. One woman asked if she could use the water to flush her toilet.
In some hallways, it was clear from the smell that in some apartments, toilets had not been flushed. The residents put in additional orders for food and water, and when we told them we didn’t know when electric was coming back on, they started to ask if someone might help them get out. But it was clear they didn’t really want to go. And where they would go, none of us knew.
We dutifully took note of their requests to give to the volunteers/FEMA.
Coney Island, worrying about the baby walrus
When we were done, Elana and I drove to Coney Island. “I just want to see it,” she said.
We parked and walked by the aquarium and wondered about the animals with their delicate swimming tanks, about little Mitik the baby walrus who had just arrived. The boardwalk was covered with sand, the beach with random detritus. Futon frames. Sheets. Someone seemed to have made some art out of the debris, a dog house with a rug placed perfectly in front of it and a set of shelves.
The Wonder Wheel sat silent, it’s underground controls soaked in sea salt, same for the other rides. The wind roaring through the giant steel structures sounded to me like an adult walrus crying. I was happy to figure out it was just wind on metal. But still. Eerie. But it was also beautiful. The late fall light saturated everything with color, the rides extra bright, the water dark blue green. A million fat seagulls standing around like nothing had happened.
And then we walked by a fried food stand and suddenly realized, it was open. The people behind the counter were actually serving food. Corn dogs, fried shrimp. A full display case of golden fried deliciousness.
I talked to the owner. They hadn’t had any damage, he said because they were high up, higher than the workings of the Wonder Wheel. They were OK. Full electric and water. That’s great! I said. I bought onion rings and lemonade even though I wasn’t hungry. And I was grateful.
Did I want anything else? the owner asked. The truth was I wanted to buy everything. “No,” I said. “I’m ok for now.”
We kept walking down the beach to where a crowd was gathered. Dozens of people with shovels clearing off the boardwalk. The organizer was standing on a table telling people that it was time to pack up for now.
“But we don’t want to,” one older gentleman protested. The organizer gently told him that they would meet again tomorrow at 9 a.m. There would be plenty of work to do.
HALLIE: I hadn't realized how bad it is until until I read this. Here are some links to organizations that will help you help, too. Anyone who has any additional suggestions, please post them in comments.
And a list of relief efforts posted on NY1.com: