Waiting, Watching, Helping: Post-Hurricane Life in Brooklyn

Last year, I wrote about experiencing a minor earthquake. This is the much less lighthearted second part in a series about how to cope with natural disasters that shouldn’t happen in New York City.

First of all, my fiancé and I have been incredibly lucky. We never lost power, never lost heat, never faced a hardship beyond being housebound in a warm, safe, dry apartment with power and running water for 48 hours and having to take a long bus ride to work. It goes without saying that thousands of people had things much, much worse.

For people who haven’t been through a hurricane before, they’re pretty much either boring or terrifying—and you definitely want them to be boring. Hurricanes, pardon the comparison, are the marathons of natural disasters. You’re housebound for a good 18 hours on either end of the peak of the storm, during which time you do whatever it is you do when you’re somewhat nervous—for me, that means sweeping compulsively, watching TV news, drinking some beer and baking stuff. It’s a long enough period of time for you to go through several cycles of minor anxiety.

As the wind picked up last Sunday night a loud, ambiguous pounding from the stairwell felt terrifying. Then later I heard my neighbor’s daughter and dog playing in the hallway and thought, “Oh, there’s a toddler and a beagle running around the hallway…how bad can anything be?” Then the fiancé called me over to the window to look at something and I watched as the window glass bulged in toward his face with every big gust and said, “You know, that’s okay. I’m fine over here.”

Further, I decided hey, why don’t we pack “go bags,” like the mayor said. I’ll just grab a few outfits and toiletries, and hey, it couldn’t hurt to have a flashlight and several dozen batteries, and, you know, I can’t think of a good reason not to throw in water purification drops and a pocket knife and this rosary from my first communion. And do you think we’ll need this bear spray?

We had the news on for almost the duration of the storm, but the magnitude of what was happening became clear when friends’ pictures started showing up in my news feed. We ended up more or less ignoring the news and refreshing Facebook.

Via Facebook pictures, we watched the water creeping up the sidewalk towards the front door of a friend near the beach in Queens, watched a roiling mass of water flood the street just a block from another friend’s building on the edge of Manhattan, saw FDR Drive—blocks from a third friend’s apartment—under water that was reaching the guardrails. Scary as that was, I was relieved that it seemed no one I had any connection to got hurt. A week would pass before I’d learn that an ex-girlfriend of someone I know was one of the casualties in the city.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday trying to work from home but mostly staring in amazement at the TV. I didn’t try to go to work until Thursday, on the Manhattan-bound shuttle bus leaving from the brand new Barclays Center, which was supposed to host the inaugural Nets game last week but instead functioned as an impromptu shuttle stop.

That night we ended up taking in four high school friends of my fiancé’s, who had the enormous good luck to get a flight into the city for the marathon only to find their New Jersey hotel was closed and then have the race cancelled the next day. On Friday the power still hadn’t been restored to much of Manhattan and the three-hour shuttle home back to my now-six-occupant, one-bedroom apartment was partially dark except for the police flares on the curbs.

I’m originally from Minnesota and weirdly, last week, maybe for the first time ever, I felt like New York was my city. Not because I was here when the city faced this, as though living through a natural disaster in an unaffected neighborhood gives me any kind of cred. New York is a place I never have felt I really belonged in, but last week New York was my city because I live here, and because there were only two groups of New Yorkers any more: those in need and those who had something to give.

On Saturday, along with half the city, it seems like, I was volunteering. It almost didn’t seem like an option. Of course we were volunteering. What else could you do? My fiance and I biked south to Coney Island to help the United Way assess needs and help bring FEMA food packs and info to powerless housing projects.

Five days after the storm, down there it looked like cleanup and recovery had barely begun. Sand was gathered like snowdrifts five blocks away from the beach. Downed tree limbs sat where they’d fallen, except that they’d had been pushed off the roads. The buildings without power were also without heat, and the United Way and NYC Housing Authority were nervous enough about the situation to send a National Guardsman with us when we went up into the pitch black hallways.

The only people we found were elderly Russians and families with small children and a couple of 20-somethings who wanted the free food we were handing out but seemed really nervous about the United Way and the National Guard finding out they were smoking pot in their apartment. All of whom I’m thinking of now, as temperatures start dropping below 40 at night.

When the United Way work was done we milled around the meeting point watching more NYPD trucks come in with FEMA food and more people line up around the block to pick it up. Another man who appeared to be affiliated with a nearby senior center eventually asked for help loading up FEMA food to take back with him. The location head of FEMA was pissed they were taking it, but eventually threw up his hands since the van was already being loaded. So a group of unoccupied volunteers followed the van to the building.

After canvassing the senior building we had at least a dozen boxes of food left and around 15 very zealous volunteers who weren’t ready to give up helping and who strongly felt that as long as we had food left we had more to do. We were volunteers gone rogue—not working for FEMA or the United Way anymore. Just volunteers with boxes of food that felt it was their job to keep giving the food out as long as there was food left to give.

We ended up following the crowd with boxes of government aid food into random empty buildings until some of us who’d been advocating returning the supplies prevailed and we brought the boxes back to the distribution station. We put them back in the pile, shook hands with fellow volunteers, and said, “Great working with you.” After that there wasn’t anything else to do but go home.

Insane is the word for what happened here. Unreal. There isn’t really another way to describe it. And it’s ongoing. Biking home from Coney Island this weekend, I saw lines of 50 cars or more leading to gas stations patrolled by the National Guard. Just today I heard on the news that the thing Staten Island residents need most is hot meals, since they have enough clothes, but the temperature is dropping.

And apparently there’s also a Nor’easter headed our way tomorrow.  The Red Cross is still taking donations, if you’re interested.

Linnea Goderstad