In Hurricane-Battered Red Hook, Disaster is Breeding Resilience

Bureaucracy may be limiting the speed of official relief but a broad-based volunteerism is trying to fill the gap

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Keith Bedford / Reuters

Residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy receive food distribution in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, New York on Nov. 9, 2012.

“Put Some Brightness Into Your Home!” reads a poster at the entrance to the newly established makeshift FEMA headquarters in Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood devastated by HurricaneSandy. That exhortation might seem tasteless given the fact that most of those coming here for help are residents of the Red Hook Houses, the city’s largest public housing project, who remain without electricity or heat 11 days after the storm surge. But FEMA didn’t put that poster there; it was already on the wall when the agency arrived last Thursday to set up shop in the brightly-lit cafeteria of the local IKEA store.

Outside in the store’s parking lot, dozens of women slowly wheel away carts containing crisp new bright-blue IKEA shopping bags full of household supplies. The bags, although not their contents, were donated to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which arrived Friday morning with five U-Haul trucks stacked high with blankets, towels, diapers, toothpaste, canned goods, cleaning materials and other basics collected from the citizens of the Danbury area in Connecticut, as well as MREs.

The line of people waiting for help at the Foundation’s tables against the backdrop of one of the great temples of contemporary American consumption harkens to an iconic Margaret Bourke-White Great Depression photograph, although this crowd is a little more animated, yelling out requests — “Toothpaste!” “Diapers!” “Blankets!” — to the volunteers behind the tables who do their best to find the items in the trucks. And they complain to one another, in English and Spanish, of those who linger too long, over-filling carts from what is a finite stockpile of assistance. “People making us fight like dogs over stuff we need”, complains Red Hook Houses resident Latoya Barton, as she shepherds her daughter through the crowd.

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It’s hardly an orderly or systematic effort — most on this line had been told by their neighbors that they could get some help here, and there’s no system for ensuring equitable distribution. “People are sneaking back and getting more stuff than they need,” says Barton’s mother, Santa Thompson. Suddenly the truck doors are rolled up. They’re not yet done, but it’s the only way of getting those clustered at the tables to move on and allow others to be served.

“I really needed a quilt and some towels,” says Thompson, but she’s more than grateful for the help she got. There are, of course, hundreds of comforters and towels with odd-sounding Swedish names just behind IKEA’s blue walls. But things haven’t gotten nearly so desperate in Red Hook as they were in New Orleans seven years ago, where private property sometimes lost the argument to human deprivation and the will to survive.

Here, hundreds of ordinary citizens from all walks of life have shown up to help. John Hodge, First Selectman of New Fairfield, Connecticut, is running the Tunnel to Towers Foundation relief effort in the IKEA parking lot. The Foundation–named for a heroic firefighter who ran the 1.7 mile Brooklyn Battery tunnel to get to the World Trade Center on 9/11 and perished there–specializes in building houses for badly maimed soldiers. “We don’t ordinarily do hurricane relief, but we couldn’t ignore the tremendous need. This was a forgotten community, that’s why we’re here.”

Hodge hopes to return next week with three times as many trucks. And his organization encourages residents of the nearby projects to come down here by handing out vouchers for a free breakfast in the IKEA cafeteria. “It’s so cold in those apartments”, says Hodge. “The least we can do is offer people a hot meal.”

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The urge to nourish the shivering residents of the Red Hook Houses is shared by a group of New York chefs who responded to the Sandy crisis by creating NYC Food Flood. A sunny but chilly Friday afternoon finds them having set up a table opposite the projects from which they’re serving takeout containers of a restaurant-quality vegetable soup sprinkled with parmesan cheese and accompanied by huge chunks of freshly baked bread sawn off an artisanal Tuscan loaf. “All of these ingredients were donated by New York restaurants,” explains the soup’s creator, chef Marco Canora (of Hearth and Terroir).

“We’ve done a few fundraising events,” Canora explains, “but nothing beats the experience of being here, with the people in need, and being able to hand them a bowl of hot soup.” He concedes, chuckling, that a meat-free soup has been a bit of a tough sell. Indeed, any hungry resident of the projects wandering up Hicks Street earlyFriday afternoon is arguably spoiled for choice. Opposite Canora’s soup line, the Rickshaw Dumplings truck is serving up potstickers stuffed with pork and Chinese scallions, while alongside it the Solber Pupusa truck offers its delicious Salvadoran corn pancakes stuffed with cheese, beans, pork and jalapenos. And that’s besides the more quotidian fare available inside the adjacent Calvary Baptist Church.

Even the pets are getting fed:  Over in the IKEA parking lot, a bright pink Procter & Gamble truck sporting the IAMS logo offers bags of kibble for dogs and cats. “It’s a lot better than having these folks have to share their own food with their pets,” says Ellen Pearl, running the operation.

The key question in Red Hook, however, is notfood, but power. And nobody knows when that will be restored. Con Edison crews working the area tell residents the grid is ready to supply the projects, but that the distribution systems inside those large buildings have been fried — a repair job that falls outside of the utility’s remit. The absence of power and heat makes the job of  Katherine Ordway all the more  frustrating. Ordway runs the FEMA field office set up last Thursday in the IKEA store, where it processes a steady stream of residents registering for assessment on whether and how the agency can help them. “It’s dark in those apartments and people are cold,”  the Floridian FEMA veteran explains, while keeping a careful eye on a distraught woman being helped by one of her agents, “They’re coming here wanting us to fix the problem in their homes, but we can’t. Restoring power and heat is not a FEMA issue. And that’s very frustrating.”

(VIDEO: After Sandy: No Water, Power or Law in Low Income Neighborhood)

The distraught woman approaches, now, weepingtears of gratitude, and hugs Ordway. “She helped me,” she wails. “She’s a saint.”

Ordway struggles to hold back tears of her own in the client’s embrace. “I don’t have easy answers,” she says, but will help as best she can to find was of coping. “I’m a mother.”

What the residents of Red Hook are suffering is the vulnerability of the infrastructure on which they, and millions of fellow New Yorkers rely, in the face of what may become increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events. Power outages, crippled public transport and a breakdown in the gasoline supply have hobbled recovery efforts. That’s why New York governor Andrew Cuomo has called for the damaged infrastructure not only to be rebuilt, but to be rethought and made more resilient.

But what’s evident in abundance in Red Hook is that perhaps the most resilient element of New York’s disaster response, is the infrastructure of solidarity. There’s a crackle of positive energy on Hicks Street, where residents of the Red Hook Houses stepping up to help one another are brought together with the hundreds of New Yorkers who’ve come from other communities to help them by providing food and transport, medical and legal assistance and dozens of other services through the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) and local churches.

On the sidewalk outside RHI, a group of 9th grade students from Avenues: The World School, a well-appointed private high school in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, is being corralled into teams to deliver solar-powered lamps donated by the non-profit TED to light the hallways in the gloomy projects. “Coming from a shiny new school building in Chelsea,” says a boy who gives his name only as Luc, “it feels really good to be able to give something back.”

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The infrastructure of relationships and networks spawned in response to Sandy, and the resultant experiences by many thousands of New Yorkers of sharing and shaping a destiny, may yet prove to be a powerful part of the Hurricane’s legacy. “We plan to keep NYC Food Flood alive after this,” says chef Canora. “There are hungry people in New York, and they deserve to be fed by chefs.”

The epicenter of much of this citizen relief work has been the RHI, a local non-profit focused on empowering the young people of the projects to be the “co-creators of their own lives,” as organizer Anna Ortega-Williams puts it. Its after-school programs and other youth-oriented activities have made it an established and trusted presence in the Red Hook projects, and it quickly became the go-to hub for organized relief efforts spearheaded by longtime residents and members of the Tenant’s Association and local community activists, joined by volunteers from “Occupy Sandy”, a spinoff of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement.

RHI is coordinating relief and channeling residents to the services available to them, helping them navigate the red tape of the FEMA process, and organizing teams of volunteers — including house visits by doctors — to help the most vulnerable. The momentum generated through RHI has attracted city officials looking to coordinate with the community.  “New partnerships are being forged here,” says Ortega-Williams, as she is consulted by a representative from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office on hotel accommodation for residents needing relocation.” And existing ones are being deepened. Residents were initially demoralized, but they have found great strength in coming together to do what they can themselves to help one another through this.”

So what have Ortega-Williams and her fellow community activists learned from the experience? “That the human spirit is indefatigable,” she says. “And that resilience is best nourished through taking action.”

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