A Day in the Rockaways

So you’re looking to volunteer, huh? Well have we got an opportunity for you! Put on your dirty clothes and lets get to work in the Rockaways. We’ve been called a veritable “Volunteer Delta Force,” so lets explore why.

Days begin with a volunteer muster at our working nerve center and Tool Hub on Beach Channel drive. Just arriving here and meeting the pastor of the small warehouse-like church is a reward in itself. Pastor Dennis Locke has been an incredible partner of fortune for us, and any conversation with this master of metaphor is rife with both heartfelt wisdom and lighthearted humor. Once everyone has arrived and begun meeting one another we hold a short briefing on general safety, basic techniques, and what to expect in the community. Then our coordinators form teams of volunteers, all headed by an experienced and trained Team Leader, to be outfitted with tools and dispatched to work-sites. These sites are homes whose owners have been identified and prioritized by our crack assessment team.

Once out in the field the real work begins. Physical work on a scale that individual homeowners couldn’t really begin to approach on their own, and a subtler emotional support that is really the backbone of any community based volunteer effort. Out in the field volunteers work intimately with residents, picking through flood damaged belongings and gutting out flood damaged residences. It’s people helping people to pick up the pieces of a life, and with each person working, each couch thrown away, each wall pulled down, a little more healing, peace, friendship and light enters the world.

Our teams currently take water-logged basements and ground levels all the way from the initial untouched horror of a post flood disaster, to the clean and relatively manageable bare studs and exterior walls that is a gutted and sterilized home. To begin, we immediately remove large sources of mold and other foul substances from the home by hauling all the water-logged contents out to the curb. This also opens up workspace and airflow. Armed with hammers and crowbars and shovels and wheelbarrows our next step is to pull apart all the trim, drywall, flooring, insulation, and general building materials that got soaked by the storm surge that dark night. By exposing the bare framing of the house we let it begin to dry out naturally. Once the house is gutted, a mold team will return to physically scrape off the mold, chemically treat the bones of the house, and finally paint the same in order to seal out further potential toxic growth. From there the way forward is much more clear and bright to everyone.

The whole process is enriching for all involved. The beauty of strangers helping eachother, asking for nothing, is obvious to anyone who spends even a moment down here. At day’s end there is nothing but smiling faces and glowing anecdotes, phone numbers exchanged and hugs around. It is truly an inspiring sight that should be shared with as many people as possible. Few experiences can compare. So sign up, spread the word, and most of all – VOLUNTEER!

So much to be thankful for

This holiday season has given us so much to be thankful for, it’s almost overwhelming. All of us have friends and families to thank, for both supporting our work and supporting our well-being in so many ways.

There have also been those who have surprised us: strangers who offered in-kind donations both to us and Occupy Sandy. Some have heard about our work, both strangers and friends, and have helped contribute monetary support to keep us going. Some have come by our job sites with bagged lunches to keep our volunteers well-fed while in the field. Some have offered up spaces in their living rooms to store tools until we could get them down to our work sites in affected areas. Some have donated tech skills and help with coordinating our databases. Some have held fundraisers or passed hats so we could get the supplies we needed as soon as we needed them. Pastor Dennis, who opened up his church to us to use as a staging ground for dispatching volunteers. Sal Lopizzo from Yana who has provided us with space, rides home, encouragement, and reminds us that we are never alone. (He also is great at hugging.)

We also would like to thank the great people at Liberty Bar in Seattle who let some ex-New Yorker friends there hold a benefit to support our work, and also the fine folks at Jimmy’s Diner who have helped keep us fed (and so well!) on long days when we have no time to fend for ourselves.

A special thanks this weekend to Edge Auto Rental who donated use of a 15 passenger rental van to Respond and Rebuild for 10 days, which helped us to make the most of the hundreds of volunteers who have been coming out for this holiday weekend. Without support like this, we’d have a much more difficult time effectively coordinating the enormous amount of volunteer motivation we’ve seen in the Rockaways.

One more big thanks goes out to our friends at All Hands Volunteers for inviting us out to their project site in Staten Island for Thanksgiving dinner. It was great to see old friends, hear about all the great work they’re doing in the community, and wish everyone luck on their new project starting up soon in Long Beach. Hugs to all we missed when we were out there.

Phew. That’s quite the thank you list, and it’s not nearly complete. We’re thinking of you all as we continue with the relief efforts in the Rockaways and beyond, and as we brainstorm about the best, most sustainable, inclusive, productive ways to move forward to rebuilding Sandy-affected communities in NYC.

Lots of love to you all.

Respond & Rebuild gets some Great Press

In “Hurricane Sandy is New York’s Katrina,” Village Voice reporter Nick Pinto details the enormous scope of the community response to Sandy-affected areas on New York City in the first days after the storm. It’s a must read for anyone who wants an accurate picture of those days. Our favorite except about us is:

“On 112th Street, Terri Bennett is coordinating 10 crews equipped with gas-powered pumps to empty the water still standing in most of the basements nearby. Bennett is here with a handful of friends she met doing recovery work in Haiti after the earthquake. Calling themselves Respond and Rebuild, they’ve continued to work together on logistical relief in subsequent disasters, and compared with the wide-eyed tenderfoots flooding the Rockaways today, they constitute a sort of volunteer Delta Force.”

Of course those numbers are dated at this point, since on weekends we’re now coordinating up to 15 crews at a time and we’ve become enough of a fixture in the neighborhoods of the Rockaways that we rarely have to go door-to-door these days for more work orders. But we’re thrilled that we, our friends at Occupy Sandy, and all those neighbors helping neighbors got some much deserved praise.

Read the article in it’s entirety here

Oh! And if you’re into radio shows, we’ve got one of those for you, too! On November 21st, our own Terri Bennett was featured on WBAI’s OWS radio in a 6 person panel on the grassroots response in Sandy’s worst hit NYC neighborhoods. Listen to personal stories from the ground, what needs are still not being met, and the experiences of our community members left most vulnerable by the storm here.

Update from Terri, Day 21

The early days of the mobile pumping unit, or People’s Pump.

Lately, I’ve been spending a few minutes in the morning zoning out and looking out my window on to our busy street in Brooklyn. I get a cold blast of air to wake me up and a few minutes of alone time before opening up my bedroom door and heading to the kitchen for coffee.

My little one bedroom apartment has been transformed into the home of 6 disaster relief volunteers as well as the staging ground for Respond & Rebuild’s relief efforts. “Headquarters” is a loosely organized mess of air mattresses, a much used kitchen-cum-conference table, and storage space for our new fashion accessories: head lamps, N95 dust masks, mud boots, and safety vests, not to mention 6 computers and various smart phones in constant use for all the behind the scene work that makes this operation possible.

I love all the people who sleep on my floor, but it’s nice to say good morning after the pillow marks have faded and I have at least one eye open. Coffee time usually doubles as a quick meeting, so there’s no time to waste being groggy while we coordinate who is going where, when the volunteers will arrive, what cars can fit what people and supplies, and what we have to bring to make sure our day goes (relatively) smoothly.

My morning retreat at that window is always a surreal one. I see Fort Greeners walking their dogs, grabbing their bagels, taking their buses, and in general going about their normal daily routine. People chat, sip hot coffee that comes exactly the way they like it. They scurry around looking good, as New Yorkers often do. A month ago, this all seemed normal to me. These days it makes me feel like I’ve been transported to another world.

For the first 12 days or so after Hurricane Sandy I was in the field everyday. The first day I arrived, smoke still plumed from a recent fire on Rockaway Beach Blvd. Debris and destroyed furniture lined every street, reminding me of the omnipresent rubble from my days in post-earthquake Haiti. With destroyed homes and no power, hundreds of people lined up for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or boxes of lukewarm Dunkin Donuts coffee, imported from Brooklyn. Grabbing willing volunteers and community members, we pumped out families’ basements with a thrown together mobile pumping unit in our big yellow cargo van. At first we just had a giant blue and white sign that screamed “We Have Pumps!” Soon we realized we had to edit it to say “FREE!” since Rockaways residents were already being bombarded by price gougers who were charging more than my monthly rent for a pump out.

Things have started to change in the Rockaways. A lot of this stuff is still happening, but more people have gotten their hands on generators, many of them free of cost from Occupy Sandy’s Amazon gift registry. Water has receded and I’ve heard rumors of a few people even having power, though I haven’t seen it yet. We are no longer the only ones helping people out there, as it seemed in the first days after the disaster. There are bucket loaders transferring refuse from the mixed commercial and residential strip that burnt completely, and where 3 weeks ago entire families swam together, away from the encroaching flames, toward what they weren’t sure, in a deluge of contaminated flood waters.

But it’s still a disaster zone. And it’s still where I prefer spending my time.

Respond & Rebuild has been more successful than I ever imagined. We have seemingly limitless requests for our services, and we’ve had to acquire two new phones just to field those calls. Some days we’ve had so many volunteers interested we’ve had to turn some away, because we can only take as many volunteers as we have tools and supplies for them to work with. (Don’t let this discourage you, we still need you to come out and work with us!) We’ve taken on a full time volunteer coordinator, particularly to organize groups like the Americorps volunteers who call, or like the AT&T group of 200 who wanted to show up and help. This week we had a group of 30 Howard University students who took a bus from Washington DC at 3am to come and meet us at 9, work for 8 hours, and return the same day. (And we’ve been fielding calls from families they worked with, because they were so great the families want all the same students back for the next steps!) We’ve had to put out emergency calls for help answering emails because we can hardly keep up with those either.

All of this amazing, inspiring, heartwarming interest in helping means more of us are needed at our computers everyday so we can coordinate all this motivation in the most effective way. And of course, this is the whole point. But on the days I stay in Fort Greene to work from home or from our Occupy Hub office, it’s hard to process all the normalcy around me. I know we are only increasing our capacity to help those still in need and who are still being told to wait when they contact inundated groups like FEMA and National Grid or LIPA. And I know this is a good thing.

Still, at 7am, while I stare out my window and wipe sleep from my eyes, gazing at Brooklynites going about their daily lives, it’s hard not to picture the places we’re working and the families who are counting on us to stick it through the rebuilding process. And when I go into my kitchen and caffeinate myself for the day with our team, I can see the big picture. We all have our roles in this process, and even if I’m going back and forth between the office and the field, we are actually moving forward.

Respond and Rebuild was on the ground responding to the greatest needs of communities most affected by Hurricane Sandy from Day One. Your support sustains our efforts as we move from immediate relief to ongoing recovery.