They told us to leave. Mayor Bloomberg, the weather people, the news crews, the police who dropped off evacuation orders to the patrons drinking at Bait and Tackle Sunday night—they told us.
People with children left, just like they did during Irene, but just like during Irene, a lot of us stayed. Many who lived in Red Hook’s expansive public housing development were forced to leave in yellow school buses. I watched them go from my fourth floor loft in the Luggage Factory.
This perch was new—for the past four years, I’d lived two blocks from the water on Coffey St. in a duplex that had a bedroom in the basement. My boyfriend and I gave up the apartment in May because we broke up and I was going to China for the summer. One of the many mutual frustrations that broke our relationship was how we handled Irene. He wanted to evacuate because he was thought we weren’t safe; I didn’t because I hated the idea of our bedroom being underwater while I helplessly paced whatever friend’s apartment we ended up in, but also because Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm and I didn’t want to sleep on someone’s couch for no good reason. Eventually, I gave in and said we should go, both to be a compromising adult and because I finally got a bit nervous, but by that point he was so annoyed that he refused to leave, I guess so I’d learn my lesson when the water came. The water did come, in drips from the ceiling, probably not more than a hundred. During Sandy, it came again, but this time our old bedroom was filled with four feet of harbor water and sewage. When I walked over two days later, the landlords were already renovating it, and the sidewalks were piled with everyone’s ruined belongings. Waterlogged mattresses, warped Ikea bookshelves and bed frames, wavy books, mangled toys, and the flimsy, stained towels people used to try to keep the water out. My old neighbor Michael texted, “We’re flooded, lost everything downstairs.” My ex-boyfriend texted, “Thank god we broke up!”
I knew the water came because I saw it from my new apartment, where the lights never went out, not once. I spent the beginning of the storm trying to work while my roommates watched movies. The wind was thumping our rickety windows enough for me to move away from them, but I felt safe. “I love a good storm!” I thought, and I do. I also thought I was going to get a lot of work done. I didn’t.
At one point there was a lot of wind, and then there was a swirling commotion that reached me on the fourth floor—megaphoned voices, announcements, banging—and I looked out the window and I saw rivers, multiples rivers, all rushing into each other. Everyone in the building ran down to the entrance and watched the water slip into the foyer. I don’t think it ever got deeper than an inch. We took pictures and posted them to Instagram. People’s cars were floating like carrots in soup. The emergency responders were outside, helping the people who lived across the street evacuate their ground floor apartments which had just become swamps. Some people jumped into their cars and tried to save them, but only the lights turned on. If the water wasn’t moving them, they weren’t moving. Like most cars in the neighborhood, the next time they moved was with the help of a tow truck.
Here’s what you heard in Red Hook during the following days: the buzz and hum of generators, the concerned voices of your neighbors, and the sad sounds of cars coughing and whimpering as their owners tried and tried and tried to start them. And here’s what you saw: people dumping their living rooms out onto the street, people pumping water out of their basements, people wandering around dazed and disoriented, and people showing up from all over the city to help strangers out.
Why didn’t I leave? I thought I’d be safe—I figured that if the water came up to the fourth floor we’d all be so fucked that it wouldn’t matter where I was. Also, I love Red Hook, and I wanted to be there if something happened to it. People always talk about its incredible community, how it’s a village, and all that’s true. But it’s not like I know everyone there, go out all the time, or am on a first name basis with the old guard, or even the new one. I’m no shut in, but that level of exposure makes me shy. But I’ve always recognized what it is and knew I was living in the best neighborhood in New York City and was surrounded by the best neighbors. Red Hook was the only place I wanted to live, even though, or precisely because, it’s kind of a pain-in-the-ass to live there.
Now it’s really pain-in-the-ass to live there, but it’s no longer because the B61 is too scarce, or too crowded when it’s around. As I write this, twelve days after Sandy, many people in Red Hook still don’t have heat or power, and many of them live in public housing and are old, infirm, scared, or just don’t have anywhere to go.
I remained calm during Sandy, probably because I thought that it would be bad. I didn’t think I was being lied to—I saw the water creeping up Van Brunt way before the storm technically hit. Lots of people did. What I didn’t think would be so bad was its aftermath, and that’s what’s terrifying me. I don’t believe that the city is doing everything it can to help the people who really need it. Even if they are, which they clearly are not, it wouldn’t change the fact that many people’s lives have been seriously and permanently disarranged. Small business owners lost their equipment and supplies. Artists lost their work. People lost their homes. Kids are feeling a cold they will remember. Many people who had some sort of faith in the government, even those who would probably say they didn’t, lost that too.
Whether you left or not isn’t relevant, at least not in Red Hook, not anymore. Now the only thing that matters is if and how you can stay. Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Initiative were immediately there to help out, as were people from all over the city. Now the National Guard’s here too, complete with a fleet of Hummers, and everyone who can is trying to prop up the neighborhood, its residents, and businesses, which includes those who would probably leave if they could, and those who don’t want to leave at all.
Everyone keeps saying that Red Hook is going to change now, that it can’t not change, or that it’s already changed profoundly in ways we don’t yet understand. I hope that’s not true. I hope things change, but not Red Hook. Never Red Hook.
It was as though New York had two different storms. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, some trees fell down. A satellite dish flew off a neighbor’s roof. A scaffold collapsed. Sandy looked a lot like Irene. Initially ecstatic about school cancellation, my daughters were getting stir-crazy by Wednesday, and we decided to bike along Ocean Parkway to Brighton Beach. Around Avenue X we smelled water—not rainwater or seawater, but the rancid kind. The entire area smelled like a flooded basement. And suddenly, we were in a different world. The traffic lights were out. The streets, buried under mounds of sand, looked like an extension of the beach. Cars were scattered at odd angles, straddling signs and parking meters. We watched a mud-clogged SUV being pulled out of the underground garage. We saw the entire contents of doctors’ offices, children’s bedrooms, and rec rooms piled on the sidewalks outside row houses. The beach itself was littered with toys, furniture, boats, and wood staircases. The police acted businesslike, but the civilians appeared shell-shocked. I asked a clerk at a deli across the street from the lifeless Coney Island Hospital how high the water had come in his store. Setting down a box of lighters he’d salvaged, he gestured—counter-high.
Later, my daughters trick-or-treated in Park Slope. Hordes of children approached tree-clogged streets as entertaining obstacle courses. Families in thematically matching, highly inventive costumes took pictures with upended root systems. That night, at a hipster bar, I drank artisanal beer and played pinball with a couple dressed as a slab of bacon and a banana. I kept thinking of the look in the eyes of the deli clerk, and I felt as if I’d been a disaster tourist in my own city, only a few miles from this bar, earlier that day.
I wasn’t really sure what to do about this. What could I, a person with no relevant training, no special strength, and limited people skills, do about this scope of destruction? How could I be anything other than a tourist out there? I was a charity case as a new immigrant, and I remember the two distinct types of charity providers: the no-nonsense kind who gave our family what we actually needed, and the people who came over with some old clothes, essentially to gape at us. I didn’t want to be this second type. I worried about the ratio of philanthropic self-gratification to usefulness. But when I got an email from a local community organization asking for drivers to bring supplies to the Far Rockaways, I liked how straightforward the task seemed. I had a full tank of gas, and I could drive. Once I got to the site, Councilman James Sanders’s office, there was suddenly a lot to do. Clothing donations needed to be sorted by type. A line began forming out the door—of people looking for food—and food donations had to be separated into small bags, to be given to individuals and families. Then I drove what remained to the community room of an apartment complex, where residents were coordinating canvassing and food delivery. For the rest of the day, armed with a flashlight, I walked up and down dark staircases and hallways and knocked on doors, asking people who had no electricity, heat, or running water what they needed to get through the night, and then bringing it to them. I proceeded to do variations on this work for a week, in Coney Island and the Far Rockaways, hooking up with various organizations depending on the need. I worked with an amazing library manager in the Rockaways who turned her library into a food pantry. The line of people looking for food, candles, and toilet paper stretched around the corner. All day we sorted diapers, opened packages, and distributed meals. I worked with street medics from Occupy in Coney Island, who wanted me to ensure the well-being of a Russian granny stranded on the twelth floor of a NYCHA building.
It’s true that the people out in Coney Island and Red Hook and the Rockaways were asked to leave before the storm but chose to stay. A Jewish charity worker taking care of about thirty grannies at the Park Slope Armory, told me that they had come from a building of seven hundred people—most had refused to leave. As we were talking, I overheard some of the grannies plotting, in Russian, how they were going to escape and make their way back home. It would be fine, they were saying. A neighbor had confirmed that they now had cold water, and though there was no heat, they could keep their ovens on for warmth. Anything but the shelter. And even though the Park Slope Armory, a newly renovated, clean sports complex, seemed pretty nice as far as shelters went, I could understand these grannies.
So OK, I’m going to say it. For the price of one flight of a Predator drone, the government could put up a family at a luxury hotel for a week. For the price of one flight of the Global Hawk the family could be put up in the Plaza Hotel. And honestly, the only people who have a right to call me childish for saying this are those hundreds of disoriented old people, stranded on cots in an enormous gymnasium.
Unfortunately, too much of the post-storm work was left to the volunteers. It was as if some crazy Republican idea of self-reliance suddenly came into reality. Organized mostly word by mouth, via social media and texts, these efforts had different degrees of effectiveness and organizational styles. A friend, who was mostly working with Occupy, complained on Facebook that she felt unhelpful. But in these weeks after the storm the difference between “inefficient” and “unhelpful” is critical, and can be the difference between life or death.