“Are you from OEM? Or FEMA?”
“No, we’re from Brooklyn.”
That was the exchange when, after nearly six hours, the volunteer group I spent Sunday with finally managed to deliver supplies— flashlights, blankets, winter jackets, baby supplies, and pet food—to Staten Islanders who’d been rocked by Hurricane Sandy.
On television, New York City is resiliently recovering from Sandy—Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg even fought hard against canceling the ING marathon, giving in only when its sponsors caved. The mayor has maximized his television time with frequent updates in carefully staged settings, with members of the Obama administration standing behind him and his hypnotic sign-language interpreter Lydia Callis beside him. It's a swell sales job, part of his business-friendly, socially-liberal, post-partisan persona, that (with the help of his vast media empire), has helped him maintain his national reputation even as New Yorkers have soured on him.
But his one unscripted moment was far more telling: an unannounced trip to the devastated Rockaways on Saturday that happened to be caught by a camera crew with local news stations NY1. A local woman, part of a furious crowd of people who felt abandoned by the city, was held back by the mayor’s security detail, as she yelled at him: “Where’s the help? Where’s the fucking help?” (Azi Paybarah of Capital New York has raw video of the confrontation, and the backstory here.)
On my first day off since Sandy hit, I headed to Staten Island as part of a relief effort to do my bit after a can-do business owner in my corner of Brooklyn put out an email, asking for supplies, arms, and vehicles with gas: “I think this can be easy, no receipts, no tax deductions, no cameras, no politicians, no news.”
If only. After fruitless attempts to reach out to the city to determine what supplies were most needed and where, our caravan of two donated-for-the-day minibuses and three cars—led by an off-duty police officer who lives and works on the Island—set out.
We drove across the Verrazano Bridge into heavy traffic, with lights out and police manning the intersections and also handling the miles-long lines of cars waiting for gas, along roads lined with drywall, fixtures, past girls handing out brownies roadside and people picking through bags of donated clothes left unattended in a mall parking lot, past totaled houses and overturned cars on our way to the Midland Beach Distribution center. No one there seemed to be in charge, but a group was working to load excess supplies, mostly clothing, into a trailer to go no one knew where, but that would at least keep all the extra clothes and supplies dry before the nor’easter hits Tuesday.
“It’s not great,” a nurse there told us. “Listen, it’s good for right here. But they can’t grasp that people can’t walk like a mile away for food.” She told us that she’d been hearing reports about looters, and unrecovered bodies.
After talking with city and Office of Emergency Management officials, each of whom had a different answer to what was needed and where—and if anyone was in charge, no one knew who it was, or at least they weren’t telling the Islanders and volunteers asking for answers—we headed down the road to the next relief station, where the rough consensus was that our supplies would be better put to use. En route, “our” cop stopped to talk with several colleagues he knows—none of whom knew what was happening beyond their sight lines.
At the second stop, there were no public officials to be found—just bags and strewn clothing, cleaning supplies, and an excellent food line with little girls giving out brownies that lent a touch of Mayberry to the scene, and after talking to some cops and the man leading the effort, whom we realized after was Theo Rossi (Juice Ortiz on the FX show Sons of Anarchy), it seemed they too weren’t interested in more supplies. At least some of the people we saw at both places were openly picking through the clothing like shoppers, rather than people in need—though there were certainly plenty of those.
Despite the second rejection (they did take our flashlights and batteries), our cop—who asked not to be named in this story since he was giving personal opinions rather than departmental views—was determined not just dump the resources people had donated: “We want to make sure it gets to the right people…. Somebody on the ground to say this is the stuff and this is going to go here. That's the point.”
But “it’s complicated” was the refrain we kept hearing from dispirited city officials (Cops just said “I don’t know,” or “maybe try over there.”), followed by a litany about how hard it is to work out the repairs, urgent needs, and so on—an implicit admission, also conveyed in nods and raised eyebrows, that things were not working the way they should.
Of course, the city didn’t cause the storm, and responding to it is complicated. And none of this is to fault the selfless first responders, city workers, and volunteers (like police guiding supply caravans on their day off) who’ve worked tirelessly to help—only to say that they’ve been too often left to their own devices, without a clear or effective communications or command structure.
An hour later, slogging through the heavy traffic, we were pushed away a third time, from Oakwood Beach, just three miles south of Midland. There, one person suggested we drive a few blocks away, where she said help was needed. So we took our buses there and went door to door, bringing supplies to several families with no power, and who in a few cases had no access to cars. While everyone had winter clothes, everything else—cleaning supplies, baby diapers and wipes, pet food, batteries, and flashlights went quickly. Power wasn’t expected back, we heard at every door, for another three weeks.
Finally, we inched back to Midland with our remaining bags of winter clothing, and on the drive, again bumper to bumper, the cop and another rider, who’s recently returned from Afghanistan, lapsed into military jargon to gripe about the city’s operation:
“Where’s the common operational picture? How can you get timely and accurate reporting without it?”
“You need a fucking reporting chain, that’s what you need. You need a platoon to tell a company this is the situation, this is what we need. The company gets that same report from all of its platoons then gives the picture to the battalion. The battalion then sends that same report from all of its companies, which accounts for all of its platoons. That’s how you push shit dynamically to the people who need it at that moment.”
The OEM, created by Mayor Rudy Giuliani was intended to do just that, said a former Giuliani administration official, who asked not to be named criticizing the current mayor. “The real question is why OEM—which was built to manage the battle of the badges in a disaster, that’s why it exists—doesn’t have an evident lead role” in the Sandy response, the former official said. He speculated that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who served under Mayor David Dinkins before returning when Bloomberg took office, “never accepted the legitimacy of OEM,” which was created by the mayor who’d effectively let him go.
A senior administration official asked for comment late Sunday evening contested the Giuliani official’s categorization, but was unable to immediately explain what OEM’s role in the post-Sandy response operation was, or how exactly the chain of command between various city and outside agencies, like FEMA, was constructed.
(In any event, we had only two FEMA sightings over the day while driving over much of the island—a phone number for them written in marker on the back of an OEM trailer at Midland, and eight people wearing FEMA Corps light blue jackets huddled outside a Hess Express, seeming oblivious to or disinterested in the huge line of cars on the road beside them.)
The bottom line: Bloomberg, who’s now spent seven years in office working out his next move once he leaves, decided to use his Sandy-expanded national profile to give a last-minute endorsement to Barack Obama (and, of course, up his political profile in the process), was simply unprepared for the impact of climate change on his own city—despite his credit-taking for righting New York after 9/11, despite his disastrous response to the 2010 blizzard, and despite Irene’s near-miss last year.
The mayor whose city is made up of three islands, along with The Bronx, has spent much of his term trying to encourage residents and businesses to migrate to the edge of the waterfront in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some visionary.
Saturday night, Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer were, idiotically, claiming that Sandy was Obama’s Katrina. It’s an altogether bogus line—Fox’s paranoid version of the reasonable complaint that the media’s coverage would have been different if it had been an incumbent Republican handling the response to the storm a week before the election—but Sunday, Bloomberg offered the same comparison, albeit in a way intended to flatter Obama.
He said storm damage, power outages and dropping temperatures might mean as many as 40,000 New Yorkers would need to be relocated—a number he incorrectly compared to Katrina, which forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. But it’s a politically smart comparison: given how badly local, state, and federal officials botched the preparation for and response to that storm, it sets a low bar for New York’s response.
Officials were working hard, Bloomberg said, but didn’t have a plan in place yet. "We don't have a lot of empty housing in this city," he said. "We are not going to let anybody go sleeping in the streets. We're not going to let anybody go without blankets, food and water, but it's a challenge and we're working on that."
When I asked the senior administration official about the high number of people the mayor said have been displaced, and the lack of a plan for them, he asked me back: Was I saying that there wouldn’t have been 40,000 people displaced if the city was better prepared, or was I saying that the city should have found housing for them? He then dismissed both of his own straw-man questions as “unfair,” which they are, before signing out of our conversation.
What I am asking—and will happily update if the official or anyone else in the Bloomberg administration cares to respond—is how the man who’s now painting himself as a global-warming visionary (an issue where my sympathies and beliefs are with him, incidentally), who’s compared climate change to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, failed to mention or plan for even the prospect of such an event over 11 years in office.
Heck of a job, Bloomberg.