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!

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.