The storm didn’t impact us, save for the inconvenience of losing our internet and cable service. Our cell phones also experienced limited service, and so with nothing else to do we rode out the storm with our neighbors, padding back and forth across the hall to share wine, food, movies and stories. We relished the release from work and the hustle and bustle of life, enjoying a few days of relaxed and uninterrupted conversation over s’mores we’d made in the oven. When we were able to access 3G service on our phones, we huddled together, scrolling through images of flood-ravaged streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn on Instagram and Twitter, shocked at the wrath of nature and the sudden destruction of familiar and safe spaces.
And when we emerged the morning after the storm, everything was fine in our safe corner of Brooklyn, save for a few downed trees and continued communications disruption. It wasn’t until late Tuesday that we began to realize the magnitude of the storm, and how many of our neighbors were in dire need.
As we were getting word of the extent of flooding in the city, I immediately thought about my Young Life kids in Red Hook. I had been serving with Young Life for just under two years at that point, which meant I was spending time in Red Hook on a weekly basis. I knew the kids and their families and friends would be impacted—the neighborhood is low-lying, right on the waterfront, and a 14-foot storm surge had pushed through the neighborhood. Flooding destroyed homes and local businesses, and knocked out the power in the Red Hook Houses, the largest NYCHA (NYC Housing Authority) development in Brooklyn, which houses over 5,000 residents.
These families are already in need. Many are on some form of government assistance and rely on their children being fed both breakfast and lunch through the free meal program at school. There are a number of elderly and infirm living on higher floors of the buildings who, without power to service the elevators, could not get out. So when Sandy came, she didn’t just take the power and the hot water—she took everything we ever take for granted.
But what she could not take was the resident's ability and willingness to take care of one another. A grassroots movement sprung up immediately at The Red Hook Initiative, days before any government or relief agencies showed up. Without such response, a desperate situation might have become deadly.
The Red Hook Initiative became the first outpost of response, mobilizing volunteers to meet basic needs like food and water. Members of the Occupy movement were first to show up. Soon after, I, along with my dear friend Sarah Roorda and other members of Trinity Grace Park Slope as well as Apostles Church and Forefront Church, came to serve. Because the public transportation system was down, we walked 1-2 miles to and from Red Hook Houses each day. Many walked and rode bikes even farther.
The Red Hook Initiative space was quickly overwhelmed with volunteers, donations and residents seeking aid. Sarah and I knew we had to find a better base for operations, fast. So we set out on foot with some residents. After being turned away at many places which were busy dealing with their own flooded basements and messes, we found that the local community center had the lights on, but nobody home. We got on the phone. We took to Twitter to pressure NYCHA, assemblymen and city council women to open the Miccio Community Center. But we also sat and cried rivers of tears at the injustice and unfairness of it all. And we prayed. Simple pleading prayers: “God, help us.” We asked God to unbind red tape and open doors that we ourselves could not. Late Thursday afternoon we received the go-ahead to use Miccio to receive, sort and distribute goods as well as allow people to charge their phones and get legal aid.
And because of the generosity of friends and strangers alike, as well as an organization called Gleaning for the World, we were able to distribute food, water, cleaning supplies, toiletries, blankets, warm clothing, diapers and childcare items to every individual and family in need. Much-needed supplies like buckets, gloves, mops and brooms went to the businesses on Van Brunt Street that suffered flooding and needed to clean up quickly. We also sent more than a dozen cars and vans out with supplies to the Rockaways, Coney Island, Sea Gate, Breezy Point and the East Village (no small feat considering there was very little gas to be found anywhere.)
What we were able to accomplish was not because of our own skills and abilities—we were able to help because we came and saw there was a need, and we didn’t stop asking, seeking and knocking until the need was met. We saw many types of people work toward a common goal of loving our neighbor. Together, we crossed the divide of race, class, politics and faith to get help to those in need as quickly as possible.
My hope for us as a church is that we don't wait for a disaster for the chance to do good. We have opportunities everyday to seek the welfare of our neighbor, to consider others better than ourselves. Doing good isn't about rescuing people (though sometimes, rescue is desperately needed.) It's about opening our eyes to what's needed around us, every single day, and sacrificing our time, our talents and our resources on behalf of those in need.