Sandy Cripples The East Coast

11.06.12

Red Hook Still Crying Out for Relief in Sandy’s Wake

Days after Sandy swept through, the Brooklyn neighborhood remains a shambles, with some residents going without food and shelter, small and big businesses alike closed down, the Red Hook Initiative in the unfamiliar role of disaster relief—and many decrying an inadequate FEMA response.

Alisa Pizarro and her 21-year-old daughter climb 14 flights of pitch-dark stairs, with flashlights and pepper spray, at 80 Dwight St.

“In case anybody tries to attack us,” Pizarro says. “It’s been too long already without lights.”

They sleep as still as rails, with three blankets each. And they’re lucky to have them. Many Red Hook residents go without, like homeless Vietnam veteran Daniel Rodriguez, who has been in the neighborhood all his life, but now lives in his car. Today, rent was due, but Pizarro hasn’t paid, and she suspects many others in Brooklyn’s largest housing project won’t either. “I don’t want to,” she says. “They’re not giving me the necessities I need. I’m not going to pay.” She misses her 2-year-old grandson, who is staying with his father in Gowanus, because the man has heat.

In some windows of the Red Hook Houses, lights could be seen, but Red Hook Initiative Director Sandy Brockwell assured me that even in those homes, there isn’t gas or water. Official estimates of residents run from 5,000 to 6,000, but locals guess the actual number could be upwards of 10,000. RHI facilitates programs for local youth, but now finds itself in the murky work of emergency management.

“I don’t think we ever imagined ourselves getting into the business of disaster relief,” says Brockwell. Their building, which sits inland on Hicks Street, sustained no water damage, and retained electricity. Just after the storm, Brockwell says, “people just started showing up.”

The office is packed—cops, mayor’s office flacks, medical staff, lawyers, and volunteers, helping the displaced with injuries, prescriptions, FEMA forms or food stamps. Some are eating from plastic containers of homemade pasta salad or soup. The overflow go to the neighboring church after dark outside, where a nine-piece brass band is playing jolly music in the cold for an audience of three or four. Donation boxes strewn with clothes and shoes are toppled over in the street.

“You can already feel the tension,” Brockwell says. “People are starting to feel abandoned and they don’t feel safe for obvious reasons. They need something to look forward to.”

In the five minutes I’m speaking with Brockwell, she is approached by four different staff members—one man shows her a photo of the 180 Home Depot heaters RHI has purchased and needs to pick up and ferry to the Red Hook Houses, but such assets will need police escorts. “We can’t send volunteers in there alone for safety reasons,” she says. Some 3,700 volunteers worked blackout zones today, NPR reported.

RHI’s good work is the talk of the water-surrounded neighborhood whose streets and docks were the settings of On the Waterfront and a recent Spike Lee film, Red Hook Summer. While the 1990s brought drugs and violence to the area—which is isolated from the MTA subway system—including the death of a school principal who caught a stray bullet, the waterfront has been revitalized first by artists and small businesses, and then by major retailers Fairway grocery and IKEA. Both initially were unpopular with neighbors, and Fairway admits on its website that opening a store there was “just plain nuts.”

“People are starting to feel abandoned and they don’t feel safe for obvious reasons. They need something to look forward to.”

Sandy’s waters, which business owners say swelled between five and six feet in some places, wiped out Fairway’s 52,000 square-foot store, which features a restaurant, condos on top and Statue of Liberty views. Their wide parking lot looked like the store turned inside out—piles of forest green shelving askew, shopping carts crashed into each other, refrigerators crusted with food residue, and buffets overturned. The spoiled food had already been removed, and now a giant dryer the size of a few trucks stood in front of the automatic doors of a completely barren store, blasting in hot air through yellow ducts.

Workers wearing paper jumpers, yellow rubber gloves, and boots picked apart shelves, salvaging what they could and junking the rest. One worker stood inside a giant garbage container to make the job easier.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Fairway Vice President Jim Walters, on the scene in a windbreaker and hardhat, both emblazoned with the sunny Fairway logo. Walters is from Connecticut, but said he rode out Hurricane Bob in Montauk back in 1991. Though he wouldn’t say when the store would operate again, locals at a community meeting said they had heard it will be between 30 and 60 days, hopefully in time for holiday stocking up. Walters denied rumors that the store would close its doors for good, guaranteeing, “We’ll be back.”

Fairway’s big box neighbor suffered little damage to its facility and wares. IKEA’s low-lying parking lot was flooded and covered in ocean debris, and benches were torn from bolts and carried away. The assemble-your-own furniture store operates on a different power system than the rest of the neighborhood, so while their elevators are not working, they do have lights and are open for shoppers, though the floors have been eerily vacant.

Many on the streets of Red Hook today were unsure whether their big-business neighbors were helping the relief effort or not. “I believe they’re helping, but if they aren’t I’m going to be really pissed off,” said Ray Hall, who manages the Beard Street Warehouses, adjacent to Fairway and home to businesses as diverse as a glass-blowing studio, a production company, and a storage space for packaged foods for planes flying out of Newark and JFK.

“If we could funnel energy out into the neighborhood we definitely would,” says IKEA Marketing Manager Lorna Montalvo. “We’re not really used to it being so quiet here.”

A few meager power strips were strewn about for shoppers to charge phones. Montalvo said the franchise has given some 33,000 products to the Red Cross nationally for Sandy relief, but that locally the store is delivering quilts, candles, flashlights, and meal vouchers to RHI to distribute. Next week they’ll host two days of job fairs aimed at hiring the area’s unemployed (including Fairway workers) for $10 an hour, temporarily or long-term. Fairway will donate a few hundred pounds of meat to a couple of local business partners who plan to open a restaurant in the spring, but who are using their smoker to char nearly 1,000 pounds of free barbecue for locals in the next two days.

Nearby, at the Beard Street Warehouses, Pier Glass was nearly washed away. Mary Ellen Buxton-Kutch and her husband Kevin have owned the glass-blowing studio since 1994, and estimate half a million dollars in damage to their wares—perpetrated by flood waters that boiled in her 1,200-degree glass furnace, cooking her whole shop. “We thought FEMA was going to help us,” says Buxton-Kutch. “All they’re doing is offering us loans a lot of people can’t afford.” She feels Manhattan has been the restoration priority. Meantime, FEMA is deciding whether to set up shop on a neighborhood artery, Van Brunt Street, or in the IKEA parking lot. Buxton-Kutch extols the small neighborhood’s sense of community and post-storm gumption.

“Small businesses risked everything to be here,” she says. “There isn’t going to be a business that’s not struggling.”

The National Guard’s 258 field artillery personnel based in Queens canvassed Red Hook today, removing trash and handing out essentials like diapers, water, and blankets, which went quickly. Another item they distributed? Also dolled out were bright orange ponchos boasting, “I ran the New York City marathon” left over from the canceled race and warming some in the neighborhood.