Hurricane Sandy Is New York's Katrina

Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

This recovery station has been around, in one form or another, since the day after Sandy hit New Dorp, more than a week before the massive FEMA camp was erected on Miller Field.

It was set up by members of the Hallowed Sons, a Bay Ridge motorcycle club that crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that first night to check on the family of one of the club members and never left.

In a far corner of the parking lot this Sunday, Bobby Hansen is lying on his back underneath his 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster, working on changing a tire wrecked after he drove his bike through floodwaters and over building debris. Hansen is wearing a week's worth of white stubble, glasses, and a soiled gray waffle tee and black jeans, with a seven-inch knife sheathed on his belt. Speaking in a slurred staccato, Hansen recalls the scene when the club first arrived.

A family searches through the remains of their Breezy Point home, destroyed in a massive fire during Hurricane Sandy. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
C.S. Muncy
A family searches through the remains of their Breezy Point home, destroyed in a massive fire during Hurricane Sandy. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
Nastaran Mohit, a labor organizer, led one of the early drives to assess the medical needs of stranded residents in the eastern Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
C.S. Muncy
Nastaran Mohit, a labor organizer, led one of the early drives to assess the medical needs of stranded residents in the eastern Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery

"When we first rode in, we were like, 'Holy shit!'" he says. "Everything was flooded. There was debris everywhere."

By Tuesday morning, the waters had receded, and the Hallowed Sons had set up camp in the Oceanside Park, serving food and sending teams out with residents to their small, single-family homes to remove wreckage and junk out of the ruined basements and first floors. On a bedsheet they spray-painted the words "Hallowed Sons MC, Just Ask for Help." Aside from the shell-shocked residents, they were the only people on the scene.

Some of the homes in New Dorp were completely destroyed in the storm surge; others are still standing but ruined. The Hallowed Sons kept the food coming and worked with residents to canvass the neighborhood, checking on the homebound, assessing property damage, finding out what people needed and getting it to them.

In the process, the Hallowed Sons became the de facto recovery operation in New Dorp. With no one else on the ground, volunteers from unaffected parts of Staten Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Ohio made their way to New Dorp and attached themselves to the motorcycle club.

Hansen and the other Hallowed Sons brought a biker's swagger and a certain lawless initiative to their relief work.

After their recovery station's food stocks were raided one night during the first week ("Mexicans," Hansen opines), the gang suspended a warning hangman's noose over their operation and posted Hansen, complete with his menacing Crocodile Dundee knife, to stand guard overnight next to an illegal bonfire.

When the nor'easter battered the neighborhood all over again 10 days after Sandy, residents found themselves trapped, without means of evacuation. Hansen, a 15-year veteran of the MTA, found a public bus idling on high ground.

"I told the driver, 'You want to be fucking useful? There are people down there who need to get out of here,'" Hansen says. "I made him go down and get people to a safe place."

Perhaps because they were literally the only recovery operation in the neighborhood, police tolerated the bike club's presence in the park until, the following week with the nor'easter approaching, they told them they'd have to move. Unfazed, the Hallowed Sons moved across the street to a flooded-out storefront, commandeering the space over the objections of both the property owner and the cops.

They cleaned out the space and ran their operation from the storefront for several days until the landlord started to demand rent. Hansen couldn't believe it.

"I told him, 'I just became clairvoyant,'" Hansen recalls. "I said, 'My two crystal balls'"—he gestures to his crotch—"'are telling me you're gonna regret this. Four thousand people in the neighborhood are gonna know you threw us out. You might have an accident, step on a nail or something, and when you do, you better not come to us for help.'"

After the loss of their squat, the Hallowed Sons are now running their operation from a third location, a nearby parking lot. Hansen is clearly exhausted. He's also broke and verging on homelessness. He's spent his unemployment checks buying supplies for New Dorp residents, and the landlord of the Bay Ridge building where he works as a super is tired of Hansen neglecting his duties in favor of hurricane relief.

But for the moment at least, Hansen is undaunted. He feels good about the work he's doing, and it is not without its perks. "Look at this," he says, pointing to the cell phone that will be disconnected for nonpayment in the next week. It's a string of text messages from Lillian, a woman about 30 years younger than Hansen who lives far away and has never met him but was moved by a press account of his storm relief.

"This girl says she wants to marry me!" Hansen says with pride. But he's more impressed with Lillian's other token of appreciation, tendered in a currency close to Hansen's biker heart: a photograph of herself hoisting her naked breasts in salute.

The lot where the Hallowed Sons are now set up belongs to A Very Special Place, a local nonprofit that trains and employs people with mental disabilities. A Very Special Place was devastated by the storm—the café where they employed many of their clients is shuttered, their offices down by the water are ruined, and more than 150 people dependent on the organization were totally displaced, says Diane Buglioli, the group's head.

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