Culture

Red Hook still hurting after Hurricane Sandy: A diary

Red Hook under water

New York is slowly but surely coming back to life after being battered by Hurricane Sandy. Nearly all of Manhattan has electricity, and subway lines are being restored. But not every area of the city is faring so well. As The New York Times noted on Saturday, many of the city’s public housing facilities — often located in low-lying neighborhoods that were hit worst by the storm — remain without power and may be without it for some time. The paper reports today that as many as 40,000 people from New York public housing complexes may be homeless, with their buildings in serious disrepair. TED’s Product Development Director, Thaniya Keereepart, shares what she saw:

On Thursday night, I went with some friends to the heart of the Red Hook Houses to volunteer for disaster recovery. Red Hook took a big blow of the flood from Hurricane Sandy. The water rose well above seven feet on the streets there and, compared to other neighborhoods, cleanup has been slow. I was expecting that I would just drop off food, clothing and supplies and help out at the center where I could. But I found something different there that compelled me to share with you. Below, the diary of my last few days.

Thursday

While a few of the buildings in Red Hook have power back on, overall, the neighborhood remains pitch dark. Because it is somewhat of a forgotten — or rather “de-prioritized” — neighborhood due to poverty level, the volunteer coordinator I spoke to expected that they will remain in darkness for the next 10 to 14 days to come. That is a long time to not have heat, water, working sanitation or light.

Upon entering the main office area of the volunteer center, a little girl rushed up to whoever she thought knew anything about anything. (Most people don’t. To my surprise, it was pure chaos.) She wanted insulin for her mother, who wasn’t able to come down 14 flights of stairs in darkness. There was none to give out. She took the last of the ice packs and was told that it will help keep whatever insulin left in the house cold (and I suppose longer lasting).

Rodents were also a big problem. The water had pushed critters up the building. Without light or power, raccoons, rats, the works would crawl everywhere. War broke out at the sight of a flashlight or batteries or blankets.

We were asked to go get water from Coffey Park by one of the coordinators. The National Guard had come by earlier and dumped a bunch there as a part of their “rescue effort,” so to speak, but why was the water left at the park? Five of us set foot into the night. The streets were dangerous. Teen boys howled at the sight of us. Crime is high here. The only light source around at this point was one mobile floodlight that shone on three cops who we spoke to briefly. Not a sign of care in the world as to what was going on around them. Their job was simply to stand in the light to emit presence.

We quickly realized that this volunteer center was not only immensely inefficient, but will likely not be able to continue to provide support to the community if the power stays out for two weeks without more help.

My friend JuAnne, a project manager at Google, and myself took it upon ourselves to analyze the workflow of the volunteer resources with the current heroic coordinator Kirby. Our hope is to build a lightweight system that helps improve volunteer process efficiency … in 36 hours. Turns out, the tool that the Red Hook team currently uses, and the one that I found them on, is from Recovers.org — and there’s a TEDTalk on it! This same platform is being deployed for the Lower East Side, Staten Island, and Astoria as well … all for Sandy.

Luckily, others are stepping in to help at the Red Hook Houses, and New York’s other out-of-power public housing facilities too. The folks from Occupy Wall Street — under the name to Occupy Sandy — are coordinating volunteers and resource distribution to areas still hurting from the storm. Through their website, you can volunteer to help in person and find out how to donate money as well as supplies like blankets, candles, flashlights, batteries, diapers, gloves, masks, rubber boots and, of course, nonperishable food.

Here’s hoping the power comes on far sooner than expected, and that cleanup efforts in this area are speedier than we fear.

Friday

It’s a weird feeling to hop back and forth between the warm and inviting Park Slope and the drastically not warm and inviting Red Hook.

Today was a shorter day at the volunteer center, but one of good progress. I am now able to access the admin panels of Occupy Sandy. Other areas seem to be utilizing the tool quite well, updating news to the general mass every few hours. Red Hook sort of goes with the minimalist approach of once every rarely. At the center, I was able to assess network needs. We’ll be placing WiFi repeaters on location once the shipment arrives (hopefully Monday) so people can share data entry responsibilities using a Google Doc. Logistics also improved tremendously with a few key coordinators in place and simple changes (like name tags!) were implemented. We also got one nurse. Yay. Most of the medical asks have been related to diabetes (no insulin, no fridge) and asthma.

We’re working towards placing orders for battery- and solar-powered lights to all of the Red Hook House buildings that are still in the dark. That’s about 63 building entrances, about 354 hallways, covering a few city blocks. More friends joined in, pledging batteries and blankets.

Back towards the edge of Park Slope, lines around the one and only gas station formed about five blocks long on all sides. One lady I talked to had been waiting more than four hours and, as rumor had it, the next gas drop wouldn’t be for an hour and a half. Yet no one budged. Every now and then, someone would scalp gas. Eight cop cars were lined up every side to break up the occasional fights from line cutters. There is a $50 per person spending limit at this station, so many people would bring the entire family over to wait. The price one pays for liquid gold. Of course 20 minutes later, a huge “rogue truck” swung into the parking lot of a hotel and started pumping gas straight from the truck for a “nonregulated sum.” I didn’t see this with my own eyes, but the chaos that ensued was probably as maddening as you can imagine.

Saturday

After much discussion on how to best improve logistic operation, we decided to abandon the custom-built software route. Trained volunteers worked in shifts digitizing requests and response (“canvasing”) over numerous Google Doc spreadsheets. That was enough to streamline the core necessities — search, sort, logging, etc. The team became so efficient that word got on the street that the Red Hook operation has a great working model. Teams from nearby operations came to get training in the afternoon.

My job for the day was to shuffle materials into the center and coordinate needs. Volunteer medical personnel arrived. That was a huge relief. Our friend Todd came through with 200 units of LED lights. We formed “project light path” at the center where teams of 3-4 volunteers visit the homes of known cases with medical, elderly, family to deliver light. I joined the last team out. Four of us — Vanessa, who biked from Bushwick, my friend Lander who coordinated all the need surveys across the entire project, and Andrew, a 16-year-old who lives in the neighborhood and had been helping out for many days.

Many grateful faces greeted us. Stories were shared. Neighbors helped each other. Andrew, more than anyone, gave me hope. We walked past one bus garage hiring drivers and he asked if we could write down the contact number for his brother. He goes to a magnet high school for environmental studies by Columbus Circle. He brought up the case of Nikola Tesla and asked if we knew it was a political assassination. Having him on the team to guide us through the labyrinth of dark streets with seemingly identical buildings made me feel safer. When we conversed with the elders visited, I could tell the kid has a great heart. I think he might find TEDYouth an engaging event. If I find him again I’ll ask.

The night ended late. I was exhausted. A long and thorough shower was in order. Overall I think the neighborhood is becoming more stable. With heat-pack delivery on Monday and continued food and medical units on the ground, these guys are on their way to better recovery.