I live in northern Manhattan and within a few days of Hurricane Sandy striking at the end of October, the only signs that disaster had hit the city were the disrupted transit schedules and the long lines of cars attempting to get gas.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the local news on a daily basis rattling off an impressive-sounding list of initiatives to get the city up and running. In Manhattan, the Bronx, and most of Brooklyn and Queens, it's easy to believe that the worst is past, and we're well on our way to recovery.
But in the far southern reaches of the city–places at the very ends of some of New York's subway lines–there is an invisible catastrophe unfolding for tens of thousands of residents still trapped there.
I only really understood the scale of the crisis when I was able to get out to Far Rockaway last week to volunteer for disaster relief–an effort coordinated almost entirely by individuals and groups not associated with the government or big disaster aid organizations, like the Red Cross.
I had been trying to get there for almost a week, but since the storm, the subway doesn't run to these areas along the coast, and the gas crisis made it difficult to get there by car. If I, coming from the center of the city, had such a hard time getting there, you can imagine how impossible it must be for people with little or no resources to get out.
As my friends and I crossed the bridge separating mainland Queens from the little spit of land that constitutes the Rockaways, it felt almost like we were entering another country. Suddenly, there were no working traffic lights; a string of gas stations were deserted, marked off with yellow tape; a Starbucks was dark and filled with debris; and there was an eerie silence as we drove past row after row of seemingly abandoned cars.
The disconnect between what I saw and experienced in the Rockaways and what the rest of the city is experiencing and seeing on television is so great that it took me a few hours for the full impact to really sink in.
I had gone expecting the worst of the worst–especially since my initial plan had been to go door to door with medical supplies for people. I didn't actually see the worst problems–people completely immobile and left without food in their homes; a freezing baby saved by a volunteer nurse on Staten Island; others without shelter; those who had to swim out of their homes in the flooding.
These stories exist, and some of them even leak into the mainstream media on occasion. But they are portrayed as exceptional tragedies in an otherwise improving situation. The terrifying thing, though, is that the individual tragedies are the visible signs of the mostly invisible suffering of tens of thousands of people facing deteriorating conditions.
My friends and I were headed for a makeshift medical clinic that an Occupy activist had set up in response to the desperate need volunteers discovered while knocking on doors in the aftermath of the storm. I never made it to the clinic–because when we went to drop off baby supplies at a church that was acting as a distribution center, it was clear that they desperately needed help there.
When we arrived, there was a long line of people waiting for the doors to open so that they could get urgently needed supplies. The volunteers staffing the center still needed help organizing things, and then helping people who came in. I took one look at the panicked look in the eyes of the woman coordinating the effort and agreed to stay.
So for a few hours, I went from person to person, escorting them through the church, listening to their stories and trying to help them get what they needed–sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
There were some people who had literally lost everything. But most were "only" without power or heat, or whose had suffered some damage, but wasn't uninhabitable. It was hard to think about the full implications of what we were seeing, and the effort quickly became routine–rationing out to each family two rolls of toilet paper, two bars of soap, one pack of diapers, one set of wipes, one box of cereal, one blanket, and on and on. It was heartbreaking, but felt manageable.
It was only after we left that the full reality of the situation sunk in. There are literally thousands of people there who are completely cut off from the outside world. They have no power, no heat, no grocery stores, no supplies, no gas to go anywhere, no way to get to a job. They are completely dependent on the makeshift centers set up by networks of volunteers or on what family and friends can help them with.
When we ran out of baby wipes and soap and blankets, there was nothing I could do but tell people to try tomorrow or look for another site. Given the scale of the devastation we saw, I can't imagine basic functions being restored sooner than a month–it could be many months.
Unless something changes drastically, this is the new reality in the Rockaways for some time: standing in line at distribution centers, hoping there are still batteries for flashlights, food and other basic necessities. This is a chronic situation, where minor problems now–cold fingers or toes, slight hunger, asthma, a sick baby, an isolated senior–could easily escalate into a tragedy.
It was only after this realization that I could feel the full weight of the individual stories I had heard or things I had seen. And now I can't get them out of my head.
There was the woman who said she was starting to get depressed and didn't want to get out of bed because all that was ahead of her was standing in line, making do, just trying to live through the day. There was the man who could barely speak as I asked him what he needed–he was in an almost catatonic state.
The man who kept telling me how cold his fingers and toes were, and who couldn't find a pair of warm adult-size socks in a bin filled with only baby socks. The father who came in with a list that had "diaper cream" in huge big letters at the top, underlined twice and starred. But we had no diaper cream (and I never saw it on a list of requested supplies), and I can't stop thinking about a crying baby with a bad case of diaper rash and an overwhelmed mother trying to cope.
There was the mother with a three-year old at home who lunged for this stuffed-doll thingy in the toy box and eagerly showed it to her husband to see if he agreed it looked enough like the one their daughter had lost in the storm that she might think it was the same.
And then there was the last woman we helped. She was 70 years old and had come down 10 flights of stairs in the dark to get a flashlight, some food and a case of water. We walked her back to her building to carry her stuff up the stairs. The building was surrounded by rubble that we had to pick our way through to get to the front door. There was spilled food and broken glass in the pitch-dark stairs. She had a nebulizer and was having trouble breathing–it took her almost half an hour to get up the stairs.
On the way up, she told me that she had respiratory distress and had been intubated twice recently. I asked her if there was a social worker or visiting nurse or anyone who knew she was there. There wasn't. Her ex-husband had come to help, but she confided in me that he was "mean" to her, and she had to tell him to go away because it was putting her in more distress.
Luckily, when we got to the top of the stairs, someone from the makeshift medical clinic (our original destination) had come with her medicine. The team at the church and the team at the clinic had managed to coordinate and figure out who she was, where she was and what her needs were.
But I'm not sure that she can survive another trip up and down those stairs. The volunteers put her name and address on a list, but there is such turnover and so much need that I worry about her slipping through the cracks.
After I finished volunteering for the day, I returned to upper Manhattan where everything seems normal. The front page of the New York Times carried a story about how impressive it is that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority got the subway system restored so quickly.
The message from Bloomberg and the media is that things are coming back to normal, and people's needs are being met. This isn't even close to true.
I was volunteering with SocialistWorker.org contributor Danny Katch, and he actually made it to the medical clinic. He was able to witness firsthand the contrast between what the city claims to be delivering and the reality.
At the YANA medical clinic–named after a local community organization that Occupy Sandy volunteers have partnered with–volunteers have set up an impressive operation. Danny describes a system that is responsive to the needs volunteers have discovered:
The clinic consists of a MASH-unit type room where a doctor and nurse see people who come in off the street. The rest of the clinic is devoted to gathering teams (which have to include a registered nurse) to go into high rises to assess medical needs and have people fill out detailed medication forms, so the doctor back at the clinic can write prescriptions, which other teams then pick up from pharmacies and still other teams will later go back and deliver to the buildings (where they have to fill out another form to try to desperately keep a sense of formality on this whole bootleg operation.) The clinic is both impressive and obviously insufficient.
Likely as a response to the efforts of these volunteers, Bloomberg finally acknowledged the need to send workers door to door to find people who might be trapped in their homes and need medical assistance. With much fanfare, he announced that he would be sending a team of 25 medical professionals out to do this work.
But for the volunteers running the medical clinic, these professionals are nowhere to be found. Danny reports that he was assigned to find out which agency was in charge of this operation so they could coordinate efforts. He called multiple city agencies, was continually redirected and was never able to uncover any evidence that anyone had, in fact, been assigned to do this work.
This, then, is the character of the government relief effort. Bloomberg and other officials make a lot of announcements about relief initiatives, but actual relief is in short supply. The media shows images of people being fed and waiting in line at distribution centers, but these efforts are almost entirely staffed by volunteers. There are thousands of volunteers, but everything is makeshift, completely dependent on continued attention and donations, not fully coordinated and not nearly enough to meet the immense need.
There are army trucks and National Guard and police out there, but all they are doing is patrolling and sometimes assisting the volunteer relief effort. There is no independent government relief effort. And it's painfully clear what's needed.
The people who are most in need and who are willing to leave need to be evacuated into real housing with water, heat and power, and they need to be given money, food and other necessities. They need to be assigned social workers and health professionals to follow up with them and make sure they are okay.
If there are people who are staying, there needs to be a massive operation, with tents, generators to provide heat, a kitchen, cots/beds and a full, paid and stable staff of workers, cooks, childcare professionals, social workers, mental health professionals, nurse and doctors. There should be outreach teams sent systematically door to door to establish a database of need and then an effort to meet those needs.
And then, there needs to be many thousands more workers who are hired to clean the debris, work on restoring power, clean the buildings, drain the water from basements and get the area working as quickly as possible so people can move back home.
Instead, our government is leaving people to rot–literally. As I watch the news stories and press conferences showing a city returning to its feet, and balance that against what I saw, it becomes clear to me that this is the mechanism by which people are forgotten and left to suffer alone. This is a quite conscious and deliberate process.
But the massive volunteer operation shows that there are thousands of people who will not let that happen without a fight. More than that, many of these volunteers see themselves as part of a movement that began with Occupy Wall Street last year. Large numbers of union members–some mobilized by labor, others as individuals–have also dedicated their time and considerable talents to the people's relief efforts.
It is impossible to spend even an hour in the affected areas and not be overwhelmed by the scale of the need and horrified by the thorough inadequacy of the official response. The hope lies in our ability to translate the people's relief efforts into a political movement that can force the government to provide the resources and infrastructure that this crisis demands.