I don’t think I have ever been moved as much, in as short a period of time, as in my first two hours doing Community Relations work. I am not exaggerating.
We weren’t even supposed to be in the Red Hook neighborhood. On our way to help at a shelter, Summit Five stopped to get coffee and learned—in passing, from an old man tilling his garden—that there were what we call ‘critical needs’ in the Red Hook area: power still out, sanitation not working, gas and generators in short supply. So we trucked over to Red Hook, parked the van on an obliging sidewalk and set out to ascertain the truth of what he’d told us. What we found was unimaginable.
The first place I went was a newly formed volunteer center, Red Hook Recovery, which had a line of people forty or fifty strong stretching out the front door. Katrina and I spoke to the man running it, and it just blew me away. Here were these people, less than a week after Sandy blew through their city, lined up to get masks and gloves so they could help others get the drowned remains of their basements out into the street for pickup. The man—Carlos, I believe—was organizing all that and trying to get people registered for FEMA assistance as well. He pointed us to a place two blocks down the road, so we went down to leave some “How to Register” fliers.
Walking down the street in our blue FEMA windbreakers like Olympic torchbearers, we were stopped every few steps by people who desperately needed help. I will never forget some of those faces or stories—a pair of old women with volunteers carrying a Virgin Mary statue out of their ground floor, a man whose basement apartment had flooded and who now owned only the clothes on his back, a wavy-haired man with tears in his eyes who walked up to me on the street and told me his house had been declared unlivable and he didn’t know what to do. We did what we could for each person, as much as we could do or remember from our training: handed out stacks of yellow fliers, spoke about what benefits they might be eligible for, repeated “1-800-621-3362” until we were blue in the face as well as the clothing. It was gut-wrenching, but we had no time to stop and be sad. The number of people who needed help defied comprehension.
And yet there were reasons for hope, endlessly, everywhere you looked. The massive group of volunteers was only one. Another woman had opened up her art gallery, equipped with wi-fi, for people to get online and register with FEMA. AT&T had set up a station in Coffey Park for people to come and charge their phones, essential when you’re trying to register. National Guardsmen, NYPD officers and good Samaritans had formed a human chain, unloading 24-packs of water from a pair of National Guard trucks, as a line of thirsty, freezing people waited patiently for their turn. People’s entire lives were sitting on the side of the road, pictures and books and clothing and pressboard, furniture and lamps and ruined electronics. And nearly every house had sump pumps chugging away and volunteers hauling what we have to call ‘debris’ to stay sane out of strangers’ houses. Heart and grit and pure hardworking saintliness were everywhere in that place.
We left fliers at all of those places, passed them out into scores of hungry hands, told people what FEMA did and didn’t, could and couldn’t do. There were some tears and angry looks, but they were far outweighed by just a waterfall of thank-yous—heartfelt, hopeful, accompanied by handshakes and warmth and just pure gratitude. Two hours flew by as Summit 5 scattered all over the neighborhood, then re-formed at the van (a couple of hundred fliers lighter) and wheeled away.