Cleaning Up Sandy’s Mess: Volunteering in Red Hook

It’s been a while since I updated this blog. Many things have happened in between… Voting for a new president. A snowstorm hitting New York… It’s been some time but Sandy is not yet forgotten. Some people are still without electricity in parts of the City, New Jersey, and New York State. Such as Brooklyn. Trains have partially picked up service but Williamsburg is still pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. Literally! No gas, no trains, and the only way to get a hold of someone is either by phone or foot.

Despite all the misery, or rather, because of it all, many people felt like helping out others who were not in need. So did I, as on Sunday I got to volunteer for the very first time in my life! I would have never imagined it to be right after a hurricane hit this city. But the weekend was long and the more I did nothing, the more I felt I finally wanted to do something about this miserable feeling of helplessness. Luckily, my roommate told me about volunteer opportunities that were close by and easily accessible for us since we were in Brooklyn. “People in Red Hook still don’t have electricity,” she explained on Friday. “It’s insane how much is going on there; the church definitely needs some help this weekend!”

So early in the afternoon my friend and I took a train and a bus over to the formerly flooded part. While we were passed on at the community center, we walked down to the Red Hook Initiative. “Sure, we can always use a helping hand!” a guy exclaimed as soon as we got there. A line of homeless-looking people had gathered around hot food supplies that were handed out to the less fortunate. However, my friend had brought with her own gallon of water and canned food, so we wanted to get rid of her donations first.
“Yes, non-prepared foods will have to be donated elsewhere… Just go down three blocks and there should be a church on your left,” the guy told us while turning to a helpless resident asking for blankets.

Donating food with a friend at a church in Red Hook

“This volunteer stuff is not really super-organized,” is all we thought and then we went down to the church. A mass of people was trying to get rid of all the stuff they brought. “Blankets and flashlights across the street please, water to your left and canned food to your right,” a woman cried out. My friend and I were a tiny bit confused and started to become annoyed with how complicated donating had become. “Here, I’ll take that from you. Of course not for me, for the church,” a guy said and carried our donations up the church steps after noticing how helpless we looked. Done deal!

We then went back to the Initiative and joined a group of approximately 40 people, all eager to help out. We were asked to form groups of 6 people and then the assignment was explained to us: We were to enter the projects and take on two buildings per group. Since every floor had about 5 apartments and every building had 6 floors, we were good to go for the next two hours or so. Our task was to knock on people’s doors, ask them if they needed medical assistance, and jot down what they had to say in case it seemed like an emergency situation. Which really none of us would have known how to react had it come down to a true emergency situation, to tell you the truth.

Volunteering in Red Hook

We trotted off to so-called buildings 19 and 20. Our group all of a sudden had 9 people instead of 6, but no one really cared anymore. The people hanging outside of the projects eyed us suspiciously but let us pass without further comments. I was pretty happy it was broad daylight and I was somewhat protected by 8 more white people by my side.

A group of teenagers had huddled underneath the stairways, since an outlet had been put there to charge phones and other electronic devices. Three of us took on the fifth floor. Out of all those five apartments, one person answered and assured us that she was fine. Then an elderly lady came wheezing up the stairs as we were about to go to floor 2. She had a hard time climbing up the steps so we asked her if everything was okay. She said she needed an asthma pump soon since she had lost hers. For some reason, she kept running up and down the stairs, though, and we saw her again outside as we left the building. A few of the other emergencies were lack of insulin for diabetics and then of course some more asthma cases.

As we entered the second building, a strong smell of feces struck our noses. We had decided to take on one building with four people only just to not give the people a heart attack when having too many volunteers banging on their doors. Nothing too special here. In the third house we actually ran into another group of volunteers who had mistaken this complex for their project. But whatever, no one really had a plan by now anyways. I rang the bell of an old Polish couple – they were probably around 70 years old. They didn’t speak English but their apartment smelt strongly like gas. Such as so many other apartments we had seen.

Volunteering in the Projects

Over 80 percent of the apartments in the projects had no electricity and it seemed that only arbitrary ones had power for whatever reason. So in order to keep warm, especially the elderly had decided to just turn their oven up a notch and run the risk of inhaling poison in exchange for any kind of heat. After one and a half hours we were done. We then saw another group of volunteers, possibly with a different organization, going from building to building and handing out foods and other supplies. We felt that this was not really the sense of having us bothered the people first, since both the food and the medical examination could have all been done at once.

When we got back and reported to the Initiative with our notes in our hands, we didn’t feel like we had accomplished much. And the odd vibes we got when entering the area made us feel bad for the people who had to endure living there without power, especially during night time. There might be many harmless people in the projects but all it takes is one bad person to turn your night into a true night mare, were our thoughts as we parted.

It felt good to get out there and do something and many other people had the same ideas on that particular weekend. However, it could have been a bit more organized by the organizations, as to not randomly bother people for 10 different things in one single day. My friend in Williamsburg loaded trucks with care packages to be sent to destroyed areas. Another friend actually drove down to the Rockaways. How she managed to get gas in a fuel-impoverished city is a mystery to me. The picture below shows a washed-away boardwalk on what used to be my favorite beach this summer. It’s incredible things like these that make me understand how strong this storm really was…

A truly sad sight at Far Rockaway…. The wooden stems are what is left of the “boardwalk”
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3 thoughts on “Cleaning Up Sandy’s Mess: Volunteering in Red Hook

  1. If I could be in NYC right now, I’d have been right there with you. Volunteering is a major, major soul-filling experience. An opportunity to widen our horizons, meet new people, and be educated on what life is like for others – perhaps a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, if only for a minute. Usually, my experience has been that volunteering is quite organized. However, after a natural disaster (or some other kind of disaster), it tends to be a little unorganized and crazy.

    Thanks so much for sharing your weekend experiences! I’m sitting over here in Sweden, thinking about everyone in NYC and NJ so much, wishing I could do something, be on the ground, and actively involved. But, I’m experiencing vicariously through you!

    Hope you’re week is going well & that you’re keeping warm. xo

    • Awww, thanks Liz, your thoughts and comments are so very much appreciated! I have never volunteered before but have become interested in doing it more often from now on. As long as it is not some peculiar rooftop coating, which always gets cancelled very last minute for whatever reason … Errr, anyhow, I am sure you’ll be able to help out New York whenever you make it over here. This is already the second hurricane in two years. Oh, and don’ forget their snow storms – vicious little creatures.

      My week is going ok, I wish I could meet up with more friends. But everyone is just so darn lame in getting to and fro the city, it’s not even funny anymore. Luckily, I am off Veteran’s Day – for the first time in my life!

  2. Sorry your first volunteer experience was so disorganized, but I guess that’s kind of to be expected in a natural disaster. With day to day volunteering, it’s a little easier for organizations to be more organized in their efforts.

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