Despite the slow and steady progress made by residents, volunteers, FEMA, The Red Cross, and the City of New York to improve conditions in the Rockaways, volunteer manpower—a precious resource in the Hurricane Sandy recovery—continues to be misdirected or squandered by those in charge of official relief efforts. "The city hasn't reached out to us at all," said Matt Calender, a Rockaway resident who helps direct a bustling relief effort from a house on Beach 96th Street. "The Red Cross gave us 500 blankets the other day. FEMA talked to us. But that's it. We station volunteers here, but we also send people downtown, where there is immense need. If people come here we can actually give them something to do."
Yesterday afternoon, approximately 50 volunteers in pristine white Red Cross t-shirts disembarked from buses on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between Beach 105th and Beach 108th and milled about, watching LIPA employees work. Alongside a strip mall parking lot on Beach 88th Street, a double-decker tour bus unloaded another 20 volunteers brought to the area in a joint effort by the New York City Council and New York Cares. When the bus arrived, some wandered away. Others wondered aloud what the plan was.
Some time later, Torrence Allen, an aide to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, announced that he would check with a local church to see if they needed help, and see if a shipment of water from FEMA needed to be unloaded. Otherwise, he said, "We're going to head back because there's no reason for us to just stand here."
Thirty minutes later, volunteers ended up unloading the water, along with the help of a cadre of NYPD officers. "Do we really need 12 cops to help unload water?" asked one of the volunteers, a nurse at NYU Langone Medical Center who asked to be quoted anonymously. "Plus they're complaining that they're hungry." Mike Zimney, a veteran who served a tour in Iraq in 2006, had brought a shovel to help clean debris. "A lot of people probably had the day off today," he said. "So they could have done a better job about getting the word out."
Zimney, who came all the way from Inwood, stood waiting for instructions from the aide, then finally decided to text a number that would give him updates on what Occupy Sandy was doing in the area. "I'm gonna see if these guys know what they're doing. If they don't, I'll find something else to do myself." He promptly received a text message telling him to head to the house on Beach 96th Street, and left the group to help.
A representative from the Mayor's Office stationed in the strip mall parking lot stated that they weren't allowed to speak to us, and instead referred us to the administration's press office. Later, a spokesperson listened to our questions regarding the volunteer and relief efforts in the Rockaways, but we've yet to receive a response. (Among other things, we asked what the city is doing to improve its allocation of volunteers and how much is the city coordinating with independent relief efforts to help fill volunteer needs.)
To be sure, conditions in the Rockaways have improved in the two weeks since Hurricane Sandy made it one of the most devastated communities in New York City. Food and clothing distribution centers are more plentiful. Sanitation trucks and backhoes are slowly making a dent in the streets piled high with refuse and wreckage. Volunteers and their cars carrying goods have pour in on the weekends. And both a bus-to-train connection and a ferry serve to make the area less isolated from the rest of the city. Yet few Rockaway residents we spoke with seemed to know about the $2 ferry to Manhattan at all. Yesterday, no more than six people boarded the 4:30 p.m. ferry bound for Pier 11, and just five people got off the ferry when it arrived at the Rockaways.
"It's hard to get information to people without power," Calender said. "Google donated iPads, which we're going to use to make an information hub where people can give FEMA claims-related stuff, and Occupy distributes a newspaper that has great info too, but it's tough." He pointed to a single piece of paper hung on the porch. "LIPA distributed that info sheet at a meeting last night, which was good. But people need to know to keep some water running when it dips below freezing so their pipes don't burst, or where they can get immediate medical attention. Stuff like that."
Occupy Sandy is providing basic medical care and delivering prescriptions to the elderly and infirm from its clinic on Beach 113th. "There's just so much red tape," Nastaran Mohit, the self-described "defacto medical coordinator" said, describing their efforts to coordinate visits to residents in high-rise apartments with FEMA so they don't overlap. "We've started to trip over each other—which is good, but we could cover more ground if we coordinated. The DOH is also impossible to get in touch with. We're operating in a disaster zone, and they need to treat this as a crisis."
The clinic, staffed with doctors from NYU and Mount Sinai, operates out of the back of a furrier's office; mink coats hang next to medicines. When asked what the clinic needs most, Mohit replied, "We need to better coordinate with those who have resources, ambulances, mobile medical clinics," adding that some residents suffer from severe pain or psychiatric issues that they cannot write prescriptions for. Showers are also scarce: "Residents are coming to us with ailments directly related to uncleanliness," she said. "People need to be calling their electeds—their assembly members, their council members, to ask them why we're not making access to medical care a priority."
There is also no shortage of rumors. At around 10:30 a.m., a line of 40 or so residents had formed next to a Verizon charging station on Beach 94th. "Somebody told me that FEMA was handing out debit cards worth $300," lifetime Rockaway resident Aileen Andre said. "But it's probably a rumor." Another woman chimed in: "Not FEMA. I heard that it's a Buddhist group or something was handing them out." An hour and a half later, the line had dwindled to five people.
Andre, who had spent two weeks in her new furnished apartment before it was ruined by floodwaters, spent most of last week with friends in the Bronx so she could make it to her job at Macy's in Midtown. Her mother's house was also ruined, and her brother's house was too full. "My job is the only sense of normalcy I have. I've been picking up extra shifts just so I don't have to deal with all this." She proudly displayed the mud-splattered copy of her lease that she found in her wrecked apartment. "Now FEMA will pay my rent for awhile. I went down to the beach and drank some Twisted Tea to celebrate."
While waiting in line for the FEMA credit cards that never materialized, Andre recognized Lillian Gerson, who uses her relatively unscathed kitchen with her girlfriend to cook soup and deliver them to people in need. Gerson admitted that she hadn't lived in Rockaway a year, but already "loved" the neighborhood. "A lot of us locals who were like, 'Ugh, who are these transplants' or hipsters or whatever,' " Andre said. "Well look, they've been a huge help. And I love this place too."