When we first arrived in Red Hook, it was a water-soaked, shaking, clanking, screaming, foul-smelling madhouse. It was maybe two or three days after Hurricane Sandy and everything was wrong. Storefronts had been flooded, basements were still full of water, gas-powered pumps were rattling on the sidewalk and spewing their water into the street, people were moving their belongings out of wrecked stores, people were lined up to get water from the National Guard and crying on the street. It was a hurricaned version of what Yossarian must have seen as he was walking through Rome.
As I wrote the first time around, we weren’t even supposed to be in Red Hook that day. Fed up beyond belief with sitting around and doing nothing while New York floundered all around us, we stopped to get coffee and found an excuse to help. We walked the streets and handed out disaster assistance fliers, talked to volunteers and survivors and tried to provide whatever help we could. Our blue FEMA jackets were like magnets. We were the first FEMA people anyone there had seen, and some of them fastened onto us like we were there to fix everything. Disappointing them over and over, telling them that we couldn’t help right now, that there was very little we knew how to do and could you call this number for assistance please, was agony. They needed more than we knew how to give.
Two days ago, we went back to Red Hook for the first time since that nightmare November afternoon. The streets were mostly empty. The monster-pumps were gone from the sidewalks, replaced with shuttered windows. We drove by the spot where a fat man with long gray hair and tears in his eyes told me about his home and his restaurant, both flooded. We passed the side street where I talked to an old Iranian man who had been living in his son’s basement, who owned nothing right now but the clothes on his body, and not even all of those—someone had donated a long gray coat to help keep him warm. Here was the park where the National Guard line had stood, there was the storefront where scores of volunteers had congregated, now an empty sack of rooms. Here was a grocery store, miraculously open again and with dozens of cars in the lot; there was a wine store where we’d seen people carrying boxes out onto the street, now boarded up and shuttered.