Coney Island, Nov.9, 2012, 12 days after Sandy hit.
Arrive down there and find the nyc medical command center for medical/health issues in a trailer in MCU parking lot. Hey, I say to the man in the trailer, I’m medic trained, mass casualty/crisis training, wildland firefighter, worked Irene and Sandy for Office of Emergency management, I have all my certifications, can I be of some help down here? No we’re good, don’t need any volunteers.
Nothing I say, you need absolutely no help at all, everybody and everything is ok, I’m willing to do anything?
No we got it, everything is fine, we have all the resources we need, everything is fine, sorry you came all the way down here?
You sure, no help at all, you guys completely got this?
I so doubt this from experience so I start walking into the neighborhood. Within 10 minutes I was working, almost everybody I encountered or asked needed some kind of help. I had a back pack of gear and phone numbers for connections and I the night before I hit NYCHA (the agency that manages nyc public housing projects) where they had a list of projects and which ones were without power, electric, ect.) so I just worked.
O’Dwyer Gardens, a project complex with 6 large buildings, 572 units, with over a 1,000 residents. Dead, no service at all. I was doing outreach around there and some guy who turns out to be a CVS delivery man with a bag full of prescription medications and asks me for help. He’s been sent over to one of these buildings and he’s scared, worried about danger and doesn’t have a flashlight to go up. I look at the meds and see the DOB and the patient is 73 years old, he’s trapped up in this hell hole 13 floors up; yeah of course I’ll go, he probably needs a lot of help. Delivery guy calls the pharmacist, it wasn’t the patient’s his regular pharmacy because his regular one was destroyed, but pharmacist said great. So I went in. Hell hole, damage, pitch black, walked up 13 floors, get up there, shining light on every door and there’s no 13 N, the address on the script, only A-F. What the hell. I Walk down, double check the address, call the patient’s number, dead. Call the pharmacy, does he have an emergency contact on file, no, she’s no help.
Talk to two different cops, one nothing, one tries, calls somebody he knows who might be able to run this name but we wait and the person never calls back, he says they’re screwed up down there in general that precinct or whoever he called. He says it might be a set-up for you, if it’s psychiatric medicine and you go up there you could be attacked. Though he doesn’t offer to escort e up there. I think I can handle it, I say, thanks for your concern. Any ideas how to find this guy I ask him, databases you guys have access to No. Maybe go up other buildings 13 floors see if you can find an N he suggests. Then he’s radioed away.
I finally track down the NYCHA manager for the units, Scott. I explain ask him, he said computers are down, no power. I say I ‘ve got a small generator in my bag can he just log on using that, no, it’s not like that he says, no access. I’m calling everybody I can think of , manager comes by 30 minutes later, apologizes, says there’s nothing he can do everything is down, no computers. Isn’t there a central database in Manhattan or on a generator or someplace that you can check. He says no.
I start asking around the projects, most helpful two Latino women who were NYCHA maintenance workers raking, cleaning up amid the huge downed trees that fell in the project common areas. They tell me there’s a NYCHA command center, another trailer, try there, they tell me where it is. I go in and explain what’s going on. They were very nice, but they called and called all these different places, they couldn’t get through or couldn’t get the info. Finally, they called the manager, he’ll be able to help you out. They offered me food, water, were real nice but I was there for almost an hour. One guy said, the resident probably evacuated. Another said leave the meds here, we’ll get it to him– I said I can’t do it. Finally, I said, “Wait is the manager that I’m waiting for named Scott?” Yeah, they tell me. I said I talked to him twice he can’t help. One worker there, a decent young black man, I’ll call him out by name, Kevin Norman, said call “global,” which turned out to be NYCHA’s (ESD) Emergency Services Department. Another worker called, someone actually picked up, they gave the residents name, I said tell him to run it through any public housing in that park of Brooklyn. Finally got it. The address was completely wrong on the prescription, turns out the database showed he lived in a different housing project 12 blocks away. I shook all their hands, Kevin Norman gave me his cell number and said call if you need any help with him or any other residents — I said are you serious. Another worker, Louis, I believes said, “Yeah, they’re our tenants to take care of.” We thanked each other and while I was thanking them manager Scott walked into the trailer, looking a little abashed. Went to the other project and delivered the man his medicine. Maybe 2 hours this whole thing took.
I talked to another project resident, said she hadn’t had a hot shower in 12 days, she said FEMA hooked her up with a hotel room. I was surprised and said that’s good. Yeah, but she said that FEMA just called and said all the rooms are booked up. So she’s hoping and waiting.
I was there all day I didn’t see anybody going door to door in the projects, or even in the projects except utility workers and a bunch of volunteers from the Brooklyn Presbyterian Church/Brooklyn Jubilee (Pastor Brian Steadman in charge, the volunteer I talked to down there was a very decent cat named Steve). The were busting their ass going up in those dark dangerous buildings knocking on every door — that’s all I saw.
Cops were everywhere, but has been pointed out in other places, they are primarily guarding not assisting. At almost ever corner is an unmarked police car with cops inside and a siren flashing. For food people were lined up at soup kitchen distribution sites set up at schools, churches. This is a small thing but I passed by a patrol car with 4, 5 cops standing around eating slices of pizza on paper plates. It’s nothing really but damn, just from a sensitivity, public relations, community relations angle — at least eat it in your car. There’s so much resentment already toward the cops in that neighborhood — for broken down residents carrying donated charity food past them munch on slices (no idea where they got it, most stores are destroyed, and I didn’t see any pizzeria open) you know they’ve got to feel something. Red Cross, I saw two rinky dink trucks, not trailers, parked by the relief centers handing out something to residents, soup or coffee and a little something else. You all can’t go door to door guys, e-mail me, give me a bunch of supplies and I’ll do it. I’m serious. Work outside of the box, be creative – email@example.com — unless you guys got it under control or you’re going to try and tell me that National Guard (I saw none on Friday), OEM (I saw them nowhere), FEMA, city agencies etc. got it under control. I was there and they don’t. Good people all I’m sure, but nobody is hustling, coordinating, doing real outreach — maybe they’re too tied down by their organizations bureaucracy — no insurance or protection for someone to go into abandoned, messed up, dangerous dark buildings in a high crime area.
On more outreach, just walking around, asking what’s your situation — batteries, I gave out all the batteries I had with me, flashlights, I gave out all the flashlights I had with me. You need advil or alleve — god yes they said, so many people cupped their hands and I dumped pills into their hand, that they pocketed. Found an Latino man sick with cirrhosis and his wife living in a small side street that had nothing. You cold I asked. Yes. I said I have two winter coats in my pack, they were so appreciative, one for her, one for him.
Two young black girls were pushing this huge sofa down the street on some sort of makeshift dolly, they couldn’t get it up the curb. I offered to help and carried the thing, me on one side, the girls on the other. Their project elevator worked. Isn’t there a cargo elevator in this building for big things. Super said no, that’s only in Manhattan buildings. Worked like hell to somehow squeeze that thing in the passenger elevator and out into their apartment. Russian woman comes up to me saying FEMA, FEMA, water where FEMA, I hooked her up with the cop I bonded with and they directed her.
And here’s who’s looting legally, pawn shops, we sell gold shops, all open for business, doing well — the whole community is now plastered with these signs, ” we buy pawn tickets, we pawn things” with a number to call on the flyer. And on every slightly damaged or seemingly abandoned car or car of a now broke hurricane resident someone went around putting signs on them “we buy flood cars, call this number” and they listed their phone number on the sticker — make that money.
All the residents were grateful as hell, everybody tried to help me with directions, answered my questions — no hostility, just kindness and appreciation. I know it’s a high crime area but if you come correct, you’re coming to do the right thing — they were beautiful decent good people, the woman I gave the coat to when i shook her hand she was worried that my hands were cold and told me to wear gloves.
Was getting late, not much more supplies to give, tired so I headed home. Last man I met on the walk to the subway at Stillman Avenue was this grizzled tough looking scrawny white man, maybe 75 years old standing outside his small home with a flashlight. How you doing sir? “This, this is nothing, I’ve lived here 50 years, I’ve been through so many disasters, fires,” and he started listing the history of all the disasters that have hit Coney Island. He had it all under control, jerry rigged something, was all prepared, just waiting for his lights, heat, electricity, hot water to come on. He was fine, you need some batteries or anything I said. No, no I’m fine. I said I admired his strength. Wished him well . Hit the subway by the boarded up with wood McDonald’s and got on the long empty train ride back home, feeling, I’m not quite sure why, but feeling like shit.