An Open Letter to My Parents, Who Still Don’t Believe I Survived Hurricane Sandy

By Kiera Feldman

Dear Mom and Dad,

Thank you for your continued concern about my wellbeing during and after Hurricane Sandy. To reiterate: I’m fine. You’ve got to stop calling to ask if I’m in the dark, in the cold, underwater, or dead. Please redirect your worry to those who actually deserve it. As I’ve said repeatedly, the lights in my apartment merely flickered during the hurricane. Roommate Max had to evacuate his bedroom when the downstairs neighbors started having loud sex. But otherwise, what was for many people the beginning of a full-scale humanitarian disaster—one that’s still unfolding nearly three weeks after the storm hit—I experienced as an embarrassment of worldly comforts. I baked a cake to pass the time. Even Mr. Melon, my Brooklyn neighborhood’s beloved 24-hour Asian grocery, remained open during the hurricane. With sidewalk produce. 


Photo: Annie Ling

In the days leading up to the storm, the order came from on high to evacuate low-lying areas of New York. Those with money simply went to hotels. For those in public housing, the City decreed that the heat and elevators would be preemptively shut off. This was father-knows-best Mayor Bloomberg showing his brand of tough love to over 45,000 residents of the projects, a fine gesture from a billionaire to the poor, in a city in which the top fifth earns forty times more income than the bottom fifth.

Throughout New York and New Jersey, many people didn’t evacuate: some were too sick or too old to comply. But the predominant sentiment was disbelief. Last year, Hurricane Irene did not turn out to be so bad. Surely the much-hyped Hurricane Sandy was mostly hype.

The people were weary. And who could blame them? The past 18 months—election season in America—meant living at the mercy of a perpetual frenzy machine. On the eve of the election, perhaps in some way, to say no to a new frenzy was an act of defiance, a vote of confidence against all spectacles, whatever they are: enough. So we laughed at the Frankenstorm, as loudly and publicly as possible. Me, I went to MoMA in the hours before the scheduled shutdown of the subways.

I was wrong, of course. But I happen to live on high ground.

Regardless, I stockpiled potable water like everyone else—not out of fear but out of a love of the ritual of disaster preparation. Rarely does city life offer such an opportunity for in-it-togetherness.


Photo: Annie Ling

As the storm hit on Monday, in Providence, Rhode Island, a student at my alma mater, Brown University, pranked a hapless local NBC television reporter. 

Student: I mean, I wake up. People say, ‘There’s a hurricane.’ And I’m still pretty skeptical.

Reporter: Do you feel safe out here right now?

Student: I do. I don’t really believe there is a hurricane.

Reporter: Oh, there is.

Student: Well, I mean, I know the government wants us to think that. But think about it—the earth rotates very quickly—

Reporter: —And the wind has really picked up and the rain is coming down. So—

Student: (motioning with his hands in circles)—maybe it’s spinning faster. 

Undeterred by ironic detachment, the floodwaters began rising Monday afternoon. In New York, NYU Langone Medical Center lost power, and back-up generators failed. Staff performed a harrowing emergency evacuation in the dark, which included four NICU babies that had to be hand-ventilated with bags down 9 flights of stairs.

Holed up in my apartment in the aptly named Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, at first the hurricane seemed fun. The dangling crane! The building in Chelsea that lost its facade! These were gifts, like Clint Eastwood’s chair. My friend got interviewed by Geraldo!

Meanwhile, in Kensington, Brooklyn, Deanna Zandt had a dilemma. She made this helpful diagram: 

The lid to the rooftop hatch in her closet was blowing off. So Deanna held down the roof with her bare hands...


Photo: Deanna Zandt

...until eventually the whole roof lid blew away for good. Deanna made do with some nailed-down boards until the winds subsided. Meanwhile, up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my friend Nicole Greenfield’s street was underwater.


Photo: Nicole Greenfield

Yes, among those I know personally, we all had the luxury of treating the hurricane like a grand adventure or, at worst, a major inconvenience. There was no reconciling with the stories emerging from what some began calling “the other New York”: the hundred homes that burned to the ground in Breezy Point, the westernmost tip of southern Queens, where many cops and firefighters live; the Queens father who watched his wife bleed to death from a deep gash on her arm because ambulances couldn’t reach them through the flooded streets; the 23-and-24-year-old best friends in Ditmas Park who were killed by a falling tree while walking the dog (the dog survived). I keep thinking about one survivor, a retired firefighter on Staten Island who listened to his neighbor’s cries for help as she drowned. He was helpless to help, knowing that leaving his house would’ve meant that he, too, would’ve been carried off in the surging waters. In New York City, the hurricane-related death toll is now at least 43.

But others experienced the storm as an extended snow day, with mass transit down and work canceled. We followed the news of destruction like a sporting event, it seemed, silently chanting, sucks to be them, a perverse pleasure of the safe and sound. We were not, it turned out, in this together.

In Red Hook, the tourists arrived from other neighborhoods and began snapping pictures. A beached motorboat on a cobblestone street half a block away from IKEA proved popular. One group of disaster pornographers even honked at emergency vehicles for blocking their shot. “It’s disgusting,” a resident told a reporter. “If you’re going to come down here, then help.”


Photo: Ann Neumann

And much help was needed. Every basement was flooded, at the very least. ”Red Hook hums with pumps,” Ann Neumann, a local friend, reported back. With the neighborhood stinking of diesel and assorted unidentified industrial fumes, the Bait & Tackle, a Red Hook bar, served as a port in the aftermath of the storm. The water line went up to the nose of the pink mouse, Ann noted.  


Photo: Ann Neumann

Red Cross, FEMA, and National Guard sightings have been few and far between this hurricane. For the first time in its 40-year history, the international disaster relief organization Doctors Without Borders set up shop in the United States—in Far Rockaway, Queens. In New York City’s public housing developments, from Red Hook to Chinatown, from Coney Island to the Rockaways, volunteers were (and still are) the ones providing basic services to residents who went weeks without heat, electricity, or water. For the Red Hook projects, the National Guard simply dumped food and water in a nearby park, which was no help for the sick, elderly, or disabled who were trapped on high floors with the elevators out of commission. Volunteers knocked on doors to see who needed food, water, prescription refills, or medical attention. They cooked and delivered hot meals. They fanned across the city helping people gut and clean their flood-damages homes.

The morning after the storm, it took just a few hours for this entire mutual aid operation to get up and running. This was Occupy Sandy in action. It harnessed the networks and organizational skills that activists developed through Occupy Wall Street, rapidly mobilizing an ad-hoc relief effort.  

“It’s not been the government, and that needs to be understood,” New York congressman Michael Grimm told the Guardian. 

The two main Occupy volunteer hubs are Church of St Luke & St Matthew in Clinton Hill and Sunset Park’s Jacobi church, both in Brooklyn. The Occupy text message loop constantly buzzes with activity: ”Need volunteers to assist bringing 27 seniors from their apartments downstairs to evacuate…*URGENT* Sunset Park needs: C, D batteries; flashlights; candles; matches; lighters; work gloves; masks. FOOD!!!…10 volunteers for CLEAN-UP/CONSTRUCTION in Rockaway…Sunset Park needs supplies for diabetic patients & our medic teams—AccuCheck strips, MaxGlucose strips, thermometers, glucometers.” 

I first stopped by the Clinton Hill Occupy Sandy site on Monday of last week, intending to merely drop off some comforters. But two dudes with a big, white unmarked moving truck had an extra seat, and who could say no? So we barreled through Brooklyn on a collections run, stopping at a bar in Bushwick that had a basement full of goods from a donations drive. Next stop: a nearby arts collective, where a woman came down off a trapeze to direct us to a mountain of donations. The dudes turned out to be art movers who decided to put their truck to better use that day by skipping out on a corporate client: Bank of America. I learn from the dudes that Bank of America employees receive a score that corresponds to their position on the corporate hierarchy, which determines the caliber of wall art they get to display. Employees at the lowest tier receive a poster. 

Sarah Jaffe explains the relationship between Sandy relief and the Occupy movement:

“Just after Thomas Frank declared Occupy dead, killed by its own fascination with process and language, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park Friday and saw so many familiar faces from Zuccotti, not sitting around debating how to talk about the revolution, but doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed and clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the Superstorm…Occupy was a response to a disaster itself, a slow-moving financial hurricane that destroyed homes as surely as the storm. So it shouldn’t be surprising that after Sandy moved through, the first people to jump into action were the same ones who had made things run in the park.”

***

In the days after the hurricane, Mayor Bloomberg steadfastly refused to cancel the 2012 New York City marathon, which was scheduled to traverse all five boroughs the following Sunday, November 4th. Evacuees showed up at hotels, only to be turned away: over 40,000 marathoners were descending upon the City, and their reservations had been made months ago. Sanitation workers complained to their union about being assigned to marathon duty, wishing instead to contribute to recovery efforts in hard-hit neighborhoods. I found myself in the awkward position of denouncing the uncanceled marathon while hosting a marathoner who’d flown in from London, an impossibly nice and impeccably mannered friend of a friend. “Of course, our hearts go out to them,” the houseguest told me in his charming accent. It was to be his first marathon.

I kept quiet. I’ve run two marathons and felt myself a uniquely qualified hater. (Hartford ‘07 and Boston ‘08 in marathon lingo.) It’s one thing to tell someone that, beneath the pleasantries, their moral compass is irrevocably fucked. It’s another thing entirely to do so while that someone is making you oatmeal and doing all the dishes because they’re really and truly the lovely kind of houseguest. Besides, this was Bloomberg’s fuck-up; individuals should not have been put in such a moral quandary. Do I or do I not divert public services for my leisure activity? Do I or do I not parade my health and happiness past those who are suffering?

I understand the endless hours of training; I understand that marathons often play an outsized role in some inner emotional drama, perhaps a stand-in for some deep malaise that has nothing to do with running; I understand the colossal feats of self-involvement that go into monitoring one’s daily distance, diet, and bowels. (A big part of preparing to run 26.2 miles is just figuring out how to not poop yourself.) I understand it all and can say that when you think about it, it’s kind of a bullshit hobby. Really, there’s no better way than a marathon to see so much of a city with so little civic engagement. In New York, the marathoners planned to take an epic journey of self-improvement with a humanitarian crisis as backdrop.

When public outcry over the marathon reached a fever pitch, Mayor Bloomberg announced a last-minute cancellation, less than 48 hours before the starting gun was to go off. Our very nice British houseguest arrived home that Friday night with a sadpuppy face.

“You could volunteer?” I suggested. Would-be marathoners were organizing a “marathon of service” on Staten Island, and I was heartened by the prospect of 40,000-odd runners making themselves useful in a time of need. Our houseguest looked dubious. “But there’s no racing?” he asked, sounding all the more disappointed. This was apparently a common sentiment, because only around 1,000 runners participated on Sunday.

As the British marathoner houseguest mulled his lot, our mutual friend declared Bloomberg mistaken in canceling the race. “It would’ve been good PR for the relief effort,” said the friend. As if the failure of a government to meet the basic needs of its citizens in crisis was a problem of image and not physical realities. So great is the disconnect between normal New York and disaster zone New York that smart people can actually arrive at such thoughts.


I did, however, find out what happened to the 2012 New York City marathon swagbags. The Powerbars are headed for hurricane relief. I came across the swagbags while back at the Clinton Hill volunteer hub on Wednesday, November 7th, while sorting donations. 


Someone had donated beer, which happened to get placed next to the MREs (also donated). “Whiskey would’ve been more like it,” remarked a woman sorting nearby. A friend volunteering at a donation site in Red Hook told me they received Chardonnay.

Starting Wednesday around midday, truck after truck after truck began arriving with Amazon.com boxes: the Sandy relief wedding registry, which has since brought in over $650,000 of donated supplies. (No gift wrap, please.) Soon, the snow was falling rapidly. The Noreaster had arrived. Another 200,000 people would lose power in the night. On Wednesday, in some of the most hard-hit areas of Staten Island, the Rockaways, and Coney Island, people showed up at FEMA sites for food and heat and found them closed. “FEMA Center Closed Due to Weather,” the signs read.

Wednesday afternoon, FEMA tweeted helpfully, “Some Disaster Recovery Centers are temp. closed for public safety during the #noreaster. Shelters are open http://www.redcross.org/find-help/shelter.”


No wonder nobody’s seen any Red Cross workers anywhere. There’s only a single Red Cross shelter on all of Staten Island, and none in Brooklyn. And on the Rockaways? The closest Red Cross shelter is on the north side of Long Island. But don’t worry if you’re without heat or electricity, because you can just drive 25 or 30 miles in the car you can’t get gas for or no longer runs after it was flooded by seawater. And you can find the location for that Red Cross shelter on the phone you don’t get reception on.

***

“You always see things like this on the news and think it won’t happen to me,” a man told me on the first Saturday after Sandy’s onslaught, “until it happens to you, and you’re living it.” He stood in what amounted to a bread line outside of a firehouse on the eastern end of the Rockaways, a peninsula off southern Queens and Brooklyn. The firefighters and police officers live on the other end of the peninsula, and the projects are on this end.

An NYPD officer manned the gate, letting people in a few at a time. Confused, the crowd began to form a slight crush. The officer motioned me inside: In a mostly non-white area, I stood out as an outsider—a volunteer. The Doctors Without Borders site was just down the road.

Out here, during the hurricane, the floodwaters came into the first floor of the projects. Then, the waters receded, leaving the smell of a public restroom in the entryways. My volunteer group went door to door with bottles of water and bags of food and a mixed assortment of sundries like soap, tampons, condoms, toothpaste, and toilet paper. No heat, temperature dropping, stranded without a gas station or an open grocery store for miles, in the dark, no sign of the Red Cross or FEMA, temperature dropping. And the most common thing people said when we were going door to door? “Other people have it worse. My heart goes out to them.”   

Mayor Bloomberg, meanwhile, pushes forward with a plan to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel on the floodplains of Staten Island. “Sure, I’ve fallen down, like a number of people have, over the years,” Ferris wheel developer and fired Bear Stearns banker Rich Marin told the Huffington Post at a public meeting about the project held on Tuesday night. “But I’ve done a lot of good things.” If completed, the Bloomberg-backed Ferris wheel will be 625 towering feet of fun.


Artist rendering: Office of the Mayor of New York City

Within a matter of days after Hurricane Sandy, Manhattanites got their power back, and life returned to normal. As of Thursday, about 14,600 people living in public housing were still without heat and hot water, and many said elevators remained broken.

Lady Gaga—remember she’s the singer who made that dress out of meat and you guys think her music is too repetitive?—pledged to donate $1 million to the Red Cross. But if you’re feeling deep-pocketed, I’d give to Occupy. 

Love,

Kiera

 

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