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Today, Far Rockaway

Today, Far Rockaway
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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared here.

The second problem is the government’s inability to protect human interests. While armies and reserves are trained, resourced and mobilized to destroy, it seems like an overreach to ask for those same people to put down their weapons and pick up a shovel and some gloves. After not being able to point me in the direction of donation drop-offs or shelters when I first went out to Far Rockaway two days ago, an officer recommended I call 311 for information. Call. From an area where phones are mostly down, to a number clogged with phone calls asking for help. Not that I’ve ever been a big believer in the powers of government, but can’t they even organize volunteers better and drive them down in public buses to the areas where they’re needed?

I don’t even know how to begin processing the experiences I had today.

I woke up early to ride out to Far Rockaway with a friend of a friend who was one of the precious few with a car that had gas in its tank. My plan was to get to my friend Heather’s house, which I already knew had been severely damaged by the storm, taking three feet of water in the first floor because of its closeness to the beach. I brought along random things that I thought could be helpful – trash bags, heavy duty gloves, cleaning supplies, shovels, some extra apples.

We drove through mild traffic in the Brooklyn that didn’t have it so rough, the Brooklyn that still has power, working stoplights, open shops, and lots of people on the street trying to get back to their normal lives. As we neared the Rockaways there were subtle signs that things had been much more difficult out there: fallen trees, boats that got carried out onto the grass, debris everywhere and a puddle here and there.

As soon as we crossed the bridge onto the Rockaways, the day turned into a marathon of oh-my-gods and holy-shits that seem to be the only empty phrases one can call on when you’re driven speechless by what surrounds you. What happened here? How is this not in the news? Where is the government? What can I do? Where do we even start? The enormity of the desperation and destruction is such, that you just feel like it’s out of your hands, above your pay grade, beyond your biggest efforts.

There’s sand and rubble everywhere, like the beach stretched out for blocks into the streets and once the tide retreated all that was left was the bottom of the ocean. Cars are strewn about, some upside down, others on top of lamp posts, and some seem normal, until you get close and you realize they’re not parked on top of that sidewalk or across those two parking spots, that’s just where the waters left them. Everyone’s been taking out everything they lost and placing it on their sidewalk, so a drive around town is a tour through people’s discarded belongings, sitting like abandoned memories waiting for a garbage truck that no one knows if or when it will come.

Here and there sit houses and small businesses burnt to the ground, an image of desolation unlike any I’ve ever seen; and I’ve seen hurricanes, I’m from the Caribbean. Granted, in Puerto Rico I would see the devastation on TV, maybe drive out donations to a shelter. Now it seems like a premonition that the first thing the burnt block on 114th reminded me of was footage of the Detroit riots of decades past. Three days later, smoke was still coming out of the rubble, and one could see the occasional flame. Here a staircase that leads into nothing. There is a door that doesn’t open into anything at all anymore. Neighbors crowded around still staring in shock and taking cell phone pictures. Some held tissues to their face so as not to inhale the smoke or smell the burning. A mother told her child in rain boots not to step on the puddle, because there’s gasoline in the water running down the street.

We got to the house early and Heather wasn’t there yet to instruct us on how to help her out and clean the house. We knew a block away some friends had set up some sort of temporary donation drop off and relief center, so we walked over to lend a hand. First we met Wayne, a neighbor who seemed to have the situation under control. Next we met Sal, the owner of what a week ago was a brand new community center and is now this refuge. Less than five minutes passed before a church van pulled up with 25 boxes of pizza, and we started handing it out. The sidewalk flooded immediately and we ran out in a matter of minutes. The need became immediately apparent, and we started giving out everything we could that was in our hands. As time went by, more volunteers showed up, with more food, more clothes, a big Greenpeace truck with a solar power generator, lots of people anxious to make themselves useful, and fortunately for all, name-tags.

Outside on the sidewalk, the parade of pleas and horrific stories seemed infinite. A spanish-speaking family whose house was burnt down on the block told me of swimming out of their house and treading water while the flames took over it. Swimming over the train tracks behind the house, they had no idea what lied underneath or where this was going to take them. Half of the family walked away in the middle of the retelling, seemingly tired of hearing it again and again.

As the hours went by, we started learning peoples’ names and organizing things in shelves, by sizes, through committees and other intuitive classifications. Friends kept showing up with new energies and a clear sense of purpose. People asked who we were, where we came from, who they should thank. People asked “what’s happening everywhere else?” “When do you open tomorrow?” –and up close in a whisper- “Do you have sanitary napkins?”. I didn’t even have time to take my camera out of the trunk of the car.

Some came to get a plate of hot food and stayed to help out, charging phones or sorting out donations. A woman showed up and asked if anyone recognized her dads’ name, because he used to live in the street in front and she hadn’t spoken to him in years and wanted to know he was all right. I was serving dishes of food as fast as I could and had to stop and hold back the tears. I was holding back tears all day, it seemed. At the time, I was just glad the Wall Street Journal photographer had left and wasn’t around to capture that.

A woman who had been helping together with her family since early in the morning confessed to us that she had lost everything. She was happy to stay busy, give back to others and not think about it much. Still, every now and again, some relative would grab a nice comforter or a bag of breadsticks and sneak it out for her.

I don’t even know how many hours went by, I never made it to Heather’s house for anything else but to deliver hot soup and chit-chat. The sun went down and all of a sudden everything was dark. The first ominous sign of what was ahead was the military truck that lit our path as we tried to guess our way down the block back to the car.

We gave a ride to a neighbor and fellow volunteer that had walked 40 blocks to be with us. Suddenly, we found ourselves behind a Homeland Security armored vehicle parked on the middle of the street. Men in military uniforms and bulletproof vests climbed out holding long rifles and surrounded a group of three young black males. The guys put down the cans they were holding, put up their hands and smirked. The four women in our car looked on horrified, and I pulled out my cell phone camera as fast as I could, only to be confronted by one of the men in uniform. “There’s been looting”, he said, and I realized he was the first government official of any kind I’d seen outside of a vehicle today. Everyone else had been guarding a gas station or a cell-phone recharging generator. We were shaking with anger, and were instructed to move on.

After dropping our friend off, we started driving back home with a tank low on fuel and an extra empty seat. The streets were dark and there were no working stoplights. In the middle of the highway behind Jacob Riis Park, where the beach seems to have flooded over the entire parking lot, across the highway and met the water on the other side, we saw a silhouette on the side of the road walking. I jumped out of the car into the cold, cold night and offered a ride; we got thanks and blessings to last us a lifetime of mischievous deeds.

After dropping him off two hours early of his estimated time of arrival, we drove around frantically trying to fill up the tank with gas before getting stranded in unknown territory. Station after station was taped or boarded up, with sloppily written signs on the pumps announcing they were out of gas. The only station that was open we found after driving past over a hundred vehicles that were parked in line waiting to fill up. A hundred more people stood in line filling up little red tanks.

On the final walk home, as I neared ‘normality’, I walked past a woman talking on her phone. “Maybe this was a blessing in disguise” is all I could make out and all I needed to hear. I tightened my grip on the shovel still dirty with sand that I was carrying, wanting to hit her on the head with it. I kept walking, down the street full of leaves, past the car crushed by a tree (now partially removed and chopped up) and into my apartment. The first thought as I walked through the door was “why didn’t I donate that blanket?” “I don’t really even use those shoes” “what else can I give?” Nothing feels like enough.

At least, I can say, I went out there today, and will again tomorrow. At least, I can say, I kept busy and felt useful. It’s a magical feeling, at times. Other times, it’s not nearly enough. What breaks my heart is having lived through that for just a day and not knowing what to do with myself. What hurts is recognizing now more than ever how easily we detach from the reality around us. What pisses me off is how it’s up to ragtag teams of individuals to make things happen, in a rich city where until a week ago everything seemed surmountable.

There’s a problem with our attitude of measuring the damage of the storm by just looking at ourselves, our apartments, our blocks and maybe our neighborhoods after a leisurely morning-after stroll. There is no our. The thinking is, now I’ll go back to normal. I’ll take the unexpected vacation. I’ll finally finish that book, that TV series, that thesis. We reach out on facebook and holler out “I got power back! If you need anything just come on by!” and we feel good about ourselves.

The second problem is the government’s inability to protect human interests. While armies and reserves are trained, resourced and mobilized to destroy, it seems like an overreach to ask for those same people to put down their weapons and pick up a shovel and some gloves. After not being able to point me in the direction of donation drop-offs or shelters when I first went out to Far Rockaway two days ago, an officer recommended I call 311 for information. Call. From an area where phones are mostly down, to a number clogged with phone calls asking for help. Not that I’ve ever been a big believer in the powers of government, but can’t they even organize volunteers better and drive them down in public buses to the areas where they’re needed?

But maybe none of this is true and I’m just spitting out something that was brewing in my belly when I got home after a heavy day. The underlying problem is that after getting frustrated by the mild opportunities the bike-able city gave me to volunteer, I decided to go out to Far Rockaway to help my friend Heather out, because cleaning her flooded house sounded like a good, decent, concrete thing I could do to lend a hand after the storm. It wasn’t until I drove down Rockaway Boulevard looking at burnt down buildings and piles of damp furniture on the sidewalks. It wasn’t until I asked someone what they needed specifically that I could get them from our stash of donations and he looked at me half-proud, half-embarrassed and said “Everything. We have nothing.” That’s when my brain exploded.

PS: I’m not writing any of this to make anyone feel better or worse about how they’re dealing with the storm. I’m writing it because I needed to get out something in my gut and put it into words, share it with friends and leave some proof of this feeling. I don’t even know some of these friends that I talked about, I just shook hands with some of them today or tried to remember the name scribbled out on red tape on their chest. They are my friends, still. I hugged them and they looked me in the eye. They are people I want to call my friends, known or unknown.

—-

If you want to join storm relief efforts in Far Rockaway, our yet-to-be-named donation drop-off and relief center is located on Beach 113th street and Rockaway Boulevard, a block or two away from the 116th street subway station, which of course is out of service.

If you want to help the people of Far Rockaway, here are some ideas:

If you have a car with gas, there’s no excuse. Drive it out to where people need help, bring people and things with you. Lend it out to someone who’s willing and able, if you can’t. Worst case scenario, donate your gas, let’s suck it out with a tube. It’s simple.

If you have access to any of these or to money and stores where to buy them, here are some of the most popular requests of the day:

-Blankets
-Sweaters
-Batteries
-Candles
-Diapers
-Socks, gloves, scarves

If you have time on your hands, cook a big hot meal. We have ways of getting it there. Hopefully you do too and there’s one less thing to worry about.

-Sofía Gallisá Muriente-

Read more #OccupySandy Stories >>

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One Response to “Today, Far Rockaway”

  1. Marlene Creech says:

    I grew up there, & right now I am so worried about my family and friends. Mayor Bloomberg, city officials PLEASE HELP FAR ROCKAWAY!

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