Who’s Really Looting Who- To be poor in a hood in Hurricane Sandy/Coney Island (acting nothing like your idea of the poor in the hoods)

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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?

Yes.

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.

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The real disaster of bureaucracy during Hurricane Sandy; an insider’s glimpse

On Monday during Sandy I worked a 19 hour shift for OEM (medic like stuff) at the evacuation shelter for medical needs at John Jay College west side in the 50s – didn’t handle many many people but there were so so many supplies, tons and tons of everything – food, water, med supplies, personal hygiene stuff, blankets, everything, pallets and pallets of the stuff.

And some school shelters serving as evac centers turned into and remain real homeless shelters for a real hardcore dysfunctional homeless population; same problem I wrote about last year during Irene   no-seinfeldian-glee-temporary-storm-shelter-john-jay?page=all  (okay I suck at a lot but I’m  good at a few things, this being one, so I single handedly was able to  clear the whole homeless population from Norman Thomas high school last year so it could open the next day).  That’s not a policy, that’s one guy with street charisma on a mini martyr trip who happened to be volunteering.   And non homeless folk are not going to want to share evac shelters with serious homeless people during a future disaster, even on just simple hygiene issue problems.  Evacuees  were faking illness this year to move into the nicer med evac center area rather than stay in general population.

On Thursday I went to the Lower East Side/Chinatown on my own, by Jacob Riss school, Catherine Street, near the East river (supposed to be an evac center but it never happened, not sure why, no Tues it’s still closed, presumably because of damage).

Insane – hundreds and hundreds of people lined up (Chinese and black and Latino folk from the nearby Smith projects) for promises of food and water for hours and hours, holding buckets and pots for water– they had nothing, little children and old people filling up and drinking out of fire hydrants, small children half naked using the streets as a toilet, old Chinese women burning newspapers in large flaming cans in the streets — absolutely no one there (volunteers, OEM, FEMA, city – FEMA had one big truck elsewhere in Chinatown, all they had was a power strip to charge phones for people) — nobody there to give them anything or tell them anything, know one knew anything – only a huge police presence at the distribution center and one man from the Salvation Army doing nothing (all those supplies from John Jay and likely the same supplies at many other evac shelters in upper Manhattan that didn’t need them – they could have easily been positioned or sent down there to LES/Chinatown if there was any proper or good coordination).

Up by blacked out 1st ave and the 20s in Manhattan where I live here was a one legged man in a wheelchair seemingly disoriented in a traffic. Turns out he was three days without the heavy methadone dose he takes daily (think he said 150 mgs) and also Xanax – withdrawing, weak, freaking out, crowds of people he couldn’t navigate through. He said he needed to get to Bellevue for the methadone; I pushed him like 12 blocks hard to even push him through all that chaos and when we got to Bellevue he saw the people who run the program in the lobby – they told him the program was shut. What do I do he asked? Um, I think you have to go up to Metropolitan hospital (in Harlem) and I think their meth program is working, they said. 100 blocks and many avenues. How am I going to get there? He asked. The clinic people, health care professionals said, “Um maybe you can find someone who’s going and get a ride with them.” Yeah, right. No handicap transport van, no transport ambulance offered, The guy was screwed so bad. I asked him if he wanted money for a cab and he said no that’s alright and I left him there as he was talking to them about how anguished he was and how much he hated himself.

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Grace Amid Chaos and Desperation: Medic Inside A NYC Hurricane Shelter

I spent 41 hours over three days working for the city during Hurricane Irene.  I wrote about it for Capital New York.

This is what it was like:

http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/culture/2011/09/3212810/no-seinfeldian-glee-temporary-storm-shelter-john-jay

heldman hurricane photo

Response to hurricane article; on that special type of doubt that nags the aid worker and the journalist

There was a response to an article I wrote recently – – I spent three days working in NYC hurricane evacuation centers and shelters as an emergency responder and as a journalist during Hurricane Irene. Article is here

A blog, Aftershock Action Alliance, linked to the piece,”NYC’s Response to Irene Not Picture Perfect” quoted it and praised it, saying “Without these on the ground observations there is little chance the city will be better prepared next time when we might really need it.”

I thanked them, and I commented that with some of these things, when you’re involved in work like that (and I have been a lot), you’re never entirely sure whether you’re playing save-the-day hero and writing the equivalent of diary entries or you gave real useful emergency aid and did real useful journalism.

Enough validation comes your way and you can stop showing off to yourself and you can concentrate on properly serving the cause, the material. The latter part of that thought is a paraphrase of, I swear to you, George Clooney talking to Charlie Rose about acting. Now if I was a real hustler and go getter I would put Clooney and Rose in my tags to get this post read more widely, but, G-d help me, I barely understand what the hell a tag is and, honestly, I don’t know if all of three of my Facebook friends are reading what I write here or if it’s reaching the favelas of Brazil, the living rooms of Short Hills, New Jersey, the advisory board of The Dart Center. Them I’ll tag.

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