Volunteers Provide a Reason to Give Thanks in Sandy-Savaged Rockaways

At one of the main volunteer centers in the Rockaways, workers are learning fast as they race against hunger and dropping temperatures, reports Matthew DeLuca.

11.22.12 9:45 AM ET

It won’t be an easy Thanksgiving in the Rockaways, where too many Queens families had their homes washed away in the surging tides of Hurricane Sandy. As the government has struggled to respond, amateurs have learned fast at the ad hoc Hurricane Sandy recovery center in the parking lot of St. Francis De Sales Parish of Rockaway Park. They have had to.

It started with neighborhood moms and dads who took in donations that were sent from as far away as Seattle, but volunteers quickly swelled the relief ranks as the waters receded and it became clear in the close-knit neighborhood of Irish-Catholic families that surrounds the parish that the damage spread far beyond their own streets.

The church and its adjacent school building sit on Beach 129th Street, about halfway down the spit of land that juts out below Brooklyn and ends in Breezy Point, where 100 homes were reduced to embers. The Belle Harbor parish seemed well-placed to collect supplies and then distribute them throughout the area. Nestled amongst homes where the ideal of service rings with the carefully preserved names of local firefighters and police officers who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the church has become one of several critical outposts of aid dotting the peninsula.

It’s the parking lot across the street from the church that’s developed its own congregation in the past three weeks—a raggle-taggle group of people from across the city and the country who have worked to get food, cleaning supplies, and clothes to some of the areas neediest residents.

The group is racing to expand its operation—a task easier said than done in neighborhoods where piles of discarded furniture and appliances still litter the streets, cars rendered useless by sea water remain where the water took them, and police officers directing traffic wear construction masks to keep out the dust every passing vehicle kicks up.

Governor Andrew Cuomo Tuesday announced a free temporary subway line, the H, running from Far Rockaway at the eastern end of the peninsula to Beach 90th Street, about halfway down its length. Getting volunteers to some of the hardest hit areas, and transporting supplies to the areas where residents are scrubbing encroaching mold from their walls with donated bleach, remain difficult tasks, volunteers at St. Francis de Sales said, and restoring some mass transportation may help add to their ranks.

Amanda Cole, 44, has been coming out every day from her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It can take her more than two hours to make the 15-mile trip on public transportation. A screenwriter by trade, Cole has dropped her pen and begun sorting garbage bags full of clothes. Temperatures are dropping, she said, and they do not have enough blankets and coats for elderly residents who cannot make it down the stairs of their high-rise buildings to get warm gear for themselves.

The people in the neighborhood around the church were able to load up on supplies first in the early days of the recovery, Cole says, when proximity gave them priority. People in the neighborhood still have a decided advantage when it comes to carting off some of the bounty being amassed at St. Francis—The Daily Beast watched one man tout away several boxes of starter logs, then come back for a second arm load. A family stopped by just to pick up a few pieces of fruit.

“A lot of people got a lot of shit,” Cole said. “A lot of people are fully loaded on this end of the island. And that is good. But now we have to get it to people out there.”

While many early volunteers had expected and hoped that the government would have effectively fired them by now, in the absence of a comprehensive response to keep track of the remaining residents in need of help—many of them elderly or infirm—the citizens have continued the grinding work of tracking needs and distributing supplies. A sign hanging from the front of a home about 15 blocks from St. Francis summed the problem up in terms the faithful would appreciate: “God Created Us in One Day. What’s Taking So Long?”

Most of the volunteers managing the distribution center are not from the Rockaways. A dancer (“which means I waitress,” she says), Charlotte Ghigliazza has left someone else to take orders at the Bryant Park Grill while she helps coordinate relief efforts at the church. The 24-year-old arrived a week and a half after the storm and has occasionally grabbed a hot shower and a few winks at the house of a fireman who lives down the block.

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Steve Anderson, 52, from Montauk, Long Island, stood eating a metal bowl of vegetable soup as he supervised volunteers sorting clothing for men, women, and children—which he would like to have arrive in separate, labeled heavy-duty trash bags, he says. The effort to distribute clothes gets bogged down in the menial work of separating pieces and sorting out some of the worthless garments some people send—even bikinis, Anderson said.

“We’re working now to become a dispensary for this whole area,” Anderson said. “We can’t do that if we’re doing this.”

There have been some bumps at St. Francis along the way. Parishioners were concerned early on as people from outside their church community became involved in the distribution center, which was first headquartered in the school building located behind the church, volunteer organizer Oscar Gubernati said. Zoe Bridgeman and Eric Levine, who host an online radio show and live in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn—and who are both black—said that they encountered a hostile environment when they came to the church a week ago. A man at the door to the church demanded identification.

“When we first came they were asking for our IDs and who we were,” Levine said. Bridgeman said that a line of black residents were made to wait outside the church. They were then told to take one plastic garbage bag full of supplies each and head home, she recalled.

“We don’t need that. We don’t need them,” was the response Bridgeman said she got when she first showed up at the church a week ago. There was “none of that” attitude remaining on Tuesday, she said.

Belts seem to have been tightened, ID checks discarded, and sleeves rolled up as more experienced volunteers took charge at the church. Gubernati, 42, is a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side who worked with J/P Haitian Relief Organization, the nonprofit founded by actor Sean Penn after a 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 316,000 people, and left 1 million Haitians without a home. He headed to St. Francis de Sales after a friend whose father lives in the neighborhood gave him a call.

“When we arrived here two or three days after the storm, it was a very chaotic situation,” said Gubernati, who is now the volunteers’ director of operations. He wore a camouflage vest on Tuesday with a walkie-talkie clipped to the lapel and seemed to never be without a hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers. He helped organize a daily assessment schedule, sending volunteers out in shifts to knock on every door in a neighborhood and check on residents. And he spoke at a mass a week ago to help quell parishioners’ worries that their facilities were going to be taken over indefinitely.

Gubernati said he had heard rumors about bias in how some supplies were distributed early on. He had not seen it himself, he said. “There were a lot of rumors but I don’t want to say because I didn’t see that. Since I got here everything has been smooth.”

“What I saw were a bunch of working moms who were really stepping up to the plate,” Gubernati said. “The community has been here for 100 years and they all know each other. Everyone wants to take care of their own home.”

With the operation at St. Francis de Sales now overstocked with crates of fruit, boxes of clothes, and truckloads of cleaning supplies, Gubernati said his next goal is to open another distribution center on Beach 95th Street, and then a third in Far Rockaway. The idea, he said, is to have warming tents, charging stations, and food supplies located within walking distance of every rattled community. 

Bridgeman, Levine, and their manager Rita Haywood loaded up a truck full of supplies on Tuesday to distribute along one block of Beach 47th Street, where they had gathered lists of needed items from residents in 30 homes. They piled crates of pineapples, bananas, and oranges, along with bottles of bleach and water, and boxes of construction gloves, face masks, and paper towels into a donated U-Haul truck driven by Mike Hughes, who said he learned something about New Yorkers helping each other when he found himself under the second World Trade Center tower as it came crashing down.

“We’re distributing to all the people that the city and government seem to have forgotten,” the 56-year-old resident of Astoria, Queens, said.

The supplies Levine, Bridgeman, and Haywood brought to Beach 47th Street went to people like Audrey Anderson, 48, who watched the ground floor of her house—like that of every other house on the block—fill with water. Anderson has been taking neighborhood children into her home after school while they wait for their parents to get back from work. Volunteers like those at St. Francis have been doing “awesome” work, she says—but even with power back, she can’t stop reliving the horror of watching the water keep rising, and rising, and rising.

“It’s going to have a mental toll on the population here,” Anderson said. “And that needs to be addressed now, before it kicks in.”

Mike Chanderdai, 40, recounted knocking out a section of wall on his ground floor after a tenant in a backroom apartment got trapped by the rising water. Chanderdai said he’s lived on Beach 47th for 27 years, and that he had never seen the street even get flooded before.

Two tiny dogs guard the apartment of Bernice Roberts, 76, who has been living without heat, light, or gas since the storm in the home she shares with her adult son. The Long Island Power Authority has set up a program by which people in the street can get their power flicked on more quickly if they get a licensed electrician to check the home. Some electricians have been asking $250 for the required inspection certificate, Robert said. Chanderdai said others went through the neighborhood demanding as much as $1,500.

That’s too much, said Roberts, who also has to find a way to foot the bill for a new boiler.

“If you have a couple dollars in the bank, you don’t want to spend it all,” the lifelong New Yorker said. The New York Daily News reported on Monday that 16,600 customers in the Rockaways remain without power not because it’s not available, but because they are waiting for their house to be inspected.

Everyone interviewed by The Daily Beast said they appreciate the volunteers who dole out food and find dry blankets. Sooner or later, though, life has to move beyond subsistence in the Rockaways.

Gubernati said it’s time for the recovery efforts to enter what he calls “Phase 2”—to shift the focus from keeping people fed and start helping them reassemble their lives.

“The turning point for this community is getting electricity and heat back,” Gubernati said. “The problem is the situation right now up to this week is a lot of unofficial sites opened up.” Gubernati said those groups are now trying to coordinate their efforts with the city—which has been painfully slow to pick up the slack that the volunteers have held for more than three weeks now.

“Every disaster area has lot of similarity,” said the man who’s now applying the lessons he learned in Haiti on American soil. “When you go to the Third World, it is a nonresourceful area. That’s not the problem here—this is a high-resource environment. Here the problem is coordinating.”