It’s difficult to communicate the destruction wreaked on the Rockaways by last week’s storm, except to say that it is almost certainly far worse than you have imagined.
The storm surge of Hurricane Sandy washed clear over the Rockaway spit, running six feet deep and more in places, pushing the beaches back over roads and into homes, sending parked cars careening into each other like driftwood.
Power to the whole peninsula has been lost, and Long Island Power Authority officials are saying it could take a month to restore electricity.
The images of destruction in the storm’s wake are dramatic, especially on the Rockaways’ western tip, where scores of homes in Breezy Point burned to the ground.
The National Guard in Belle Harbor.
In the peninsula’s central stretch of Belle Harbor, a middle-class neighborhood of mostly single-family houses that’s home to many police and firefighters, the damage is also striking, with collapsed buildings and streets littered with the ruined detritus of thousands of flooded first floors and basements.
Further east, as the landscape shifts towards towering brick and concrete apartment buildings and housing projects, all still standing, the signs of devastation become harder to see.
Until you look closer.
There are no stores open in the eastern reaches of the Rockaways. There is nowhere to buy food. There is no subway service. There are no cabs. If you lived in Edgemere and you had a car, it has almost certainly been totaled by seawater.
There is no light in these towers. Elevators don’t work and the windowless stairways are dark with a darkness that most New Yorkers never see, a pervading absolute blackness like something from the lower reaches of an uncharted cave.
Brave residents use flashlights to navigate the stairwells. The elderly and infirm stay put. Many residents are reluctant to open their apartment doors at all. Residents tell of getting knocks from people announcing themselves as FEMA, only to be rushed by a gang of robbers once they crack the door.
“The police are out on the streets, but they’re not coming up in the houses,” says Thomas Daley, a resident of Bay Towers on Beach 98th Street. “It’s all right in the day. At night, the wolves come out.”
Ahmed Abdul-Jabbar, another resident, says the building’s management company sent its cleaning crews home after the storm, allowing garbage to pile up in halls and stairways. Abdul-Jabbar suspects the owner wants to use the opportunity of the disaster to get the buildings — which contain a significant amount of Section-8 housing, condemned as uninhabitable.
When night falls on these streets, the landscape becomes even more forbidding and post-apocalyptic. The darkness is punctuated every few blocks by a bonfire. Here and there, clusters of people gather around a generator for light and warmth.
As in other storm-damaged parts of the city, there is an impressive volunteer relief effort in the Rockaways, with a growing flood of food and supplies and people coming in every day.
Occupy Sandy, a relief effort built on the back of Occupy Wall Street’s networks of communication and communities, has been in the Rockaways since almost immediately after the storm, setting up shop in the flooded-out storefront of You Are Never Alone, a local community organization.
Over the week, Occupy Sandy’s relief effort has doubled and tripled in size on a daily basis. On Saturday, I followed volunteer Greg Horwitch as he crisscrossed the Rockaways, ferrying goods, scouting, and trading information with residents and other relief efforts. In the afternoon, he spoke with Jerry, the overwhelmed custodian of St. Gertrude’s Church on 38th Street, where a small improvised operation was offering food and clothing to the church’s neighbors. Jerry showed Greg the facilities, including a disused kitchen and a massive gymnasium coated in a thick grimy layer of grime left by the flood.
When I returned the next morning, St. Gertrude’s was buzzing with hundreds of volunteers. The kitchen was overflowing with food, and the gym was gleaming and arrayed with orderly racks of clothing and tables of supplies.
“The idea at this point is to have stations every 10 or 20 blocks,” Horwitch says.
As in Red Hook last week, almost all of the volunteers I encountered throughout the Rockaways this weekend had been directed there by Occupy Sandy. For many, it was their first interaction of any sort with anything related to Occupy Wall Street.
In some cases, the political underpinning of Occupy Sandy’s relief efforts is transparent. Last Wednesday volunteers urged residents of the Red Hook Houses to join them the next day at the projects’ central flagpole for a meeting on building a standing assembly that could address not only relief needs but build the community’s capacity for mutual aid and political power going forward.
The residents were clearly skeptical. They were grateful for the batteries, blankets and food from the volunteer-staffed operation at the Red Hook Initiative, but were less interested in the occupier’s vision of disaster community organizing. The next day at the flagpole, almost no one showed up.
In Rockaway, perhaps because the scope of the immediate need is even more overwhelming, Occupy Sandy’s organizing agenda has been set aside in favor of an all-out relief effort. That effort has been impressive, and is a testament to two of the best aspects of Occupy’s organizational culture: a preference for solidarity over charity, working closely with residents and local organizations; and an operational environment in which individuals feel empowered to improvise, undertaking new projects, confident of collective support.
But impressive as it is, the high profile of Occupy’s hurricane response is as much an indictment of the governmental and non-profit organizations that are supposed to experts in professional disaster relief.
I saw Red Cross workers and members of the National Guard in the Rockaways, but the showing was anemic at best, and made the organized chaos of the Occupy Sandy operation look expert by comparison. Every resident I spoke with said the only relief workers to ask what they actually needed were from Occupy Sandy.
“They’ve been coming to us asking what people’s needs are,” Horwitch told me. “They’ve been bringing us supplies because they don’t know where to distribute them.”
In the Bay Towers yesterday, residents’ only contact with the Red Cross came as the sun was setting, when relief workers brought two boxes of egg-salad and other perishable sandwiches — perhaps enough for every resident to have one bite — to a building without power.
Occupy Sandy is mobilizing an army of sincere and hardworking volunteers, and is working to assess the needs of residents. But they don’t have the earthmovers necessary to clear the streets of sand and rubble. They don’t have the ability to restore power to residents. The crisis in the Rockaways remains severe, and it’s looking less and less like a natural disaster and more and more like a failure of the state.
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