Joe Nocera for The New York Times: No Heat Till Christmas?

November 9th, 2012

The New York Times
November 9, 2012



On Friday morning, I drove out to the Rockaways with Nan Shipley, a 48-year-old real estate broker and mother of three. Though we barely know each other, she had been sending me e-mails all week, updating me about the problems facing residents of the Rockaways, the thin peninsula on the southern edge of Queens that had been decimated by Hurricane Sandy.

Shipley, who lives in Manhattan, had been going out there every day since last Saturday, volunteering in the hard-hit enclave of Belle Harbor, where a Roman Catholic church, St. Francis de Sales, had essentially been taken over by relief workers. She had expected to help out for a day or two, assuming that the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or state and city workers would quickly take over.

But that hadn’t happened. As one day bled into the next, the volunteers had organized themselves. Leaders emerged who, with no prior experience, figured out how to help people in a disaster. They found restaurants willing to donate hot meals, rented buses to truck in more volunteers and brought in supplies to help residents battle the cold weather.

By Friday, when I arrived in Belle Harbor with Shipley, the church had been transformed into a model of efficient distribution. A volunteer disaster relief organization, Team Rubicon, made up of military veterans, had parachuted in and organized it to a fare-thee-well: meals given out on this side, diapers and baby food over there. To the extent that there was a government presence, it consisted mainly of a Medicare truck parked outside.

Near the church, I could see homes that had burned down. Most of the other houses were uninhabitable. Cars were sometimes strewed up on sidewalks. Nobody had power. “Things have gotten a lot better,” Shipley said, as I looked at the scene in amazement. “The Sanitation Department has done a great job of cleaning up the debris.”

We drove farther east to Far Rockaway, a much poorer area. There were long lines at various churches that were serving as distribution centers. Although there were police officers everywhere, the hard work of getting Far Rockaway residents help had, once again, fallen to volunteers.

At the Church of the Nazarene in Far Rockaway, however, I did see a FEMA presence; I was told that FEMA had arrived on Thursday. You would think that FEMA, with all its expertise, would be coordinating the relief effort. But you would be wrong. When I asked one FEMA official what his workers were doing, he said they were mainly trying to make sure that residents applied for assistance. That is not insignificant, of course, but it’s not exactly leading the charge.

In a nearby building, the office of the local city councilman, James Sanders Jr., had been transformed into a mini-disaster-relief headquarters. Sanders sounded deeply frustrated. “It is getting cold out here,” he said.

He had just come from a meeting with the Long Island Power Authority, where he had been informed that no one would get power until an electrician had inspected the homes. “I told them that was impossible,” he said. “People aren’t going to have heat until Christmas.”

When I called Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to ask why so much of the relief effort had been left to volunteers, I got immense pushback. Cas Holloway, one of Bloomberg’s deputy mayors, told me that the city had handed out two million meals. The city was coordinating with the Salvation Army, he said, and was a big presence in the Rockaways. It had set up five distribution centers there. It was paying food trucks to give out free food.

Be that as it may, I can tell you that that is not the experience of many volunteers — or residents — of the Rockaways. Before the storm hit, Mayor Bloomberg said that New York City didn’t need FEMA’s help because the city had “everything under control.” You don’t have to spend much time in Queens to realize that New York City needs all the help it can get. It is extremely fortunate that it is getting so much help from volunteers.

Before we left the Rockaways, Shipley and I met a man who had come into Sanders’s office looking for help. He had two children, he said, including a 2-month-old baby who had had bronchitis and had just gotten out of the hospital. “Our house is too cold,” he kept saying, wiping tears from his eyes. “The baby will get sick again. We need a place to stay.”

After talking to the man, Shipley walked back to the Church of the Nazarene to see if one of the FEMA officials could do something.

A few minutes later, she came back frowning. “He said to call 911,” she said.

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