In the Far Rockaways, there is no Red Cross relief, no FEMA, no National Guard shuttling in supplies for the elderly Polish and Russian Jews living in high rises without power or heat. There is no relief for the poor black and Latino families living in low-income housing. The lights haven’t come on, and for many the water hasn’t started to flow. There is no heat, and basic necessities like water and food are scarce. Life may be starting to look a bit like normal in parts of Manhattan, but here in the marginal communities of the Far Rockaways, there are only volunteers, mainly coordinated by Occupy Hurricane Sandy Relief. On Monday morning, when many people headed back to work, I decided to go back to Far Rockaway. We rented a van, donated by a wonderful rabbi’s grassroots fundraising, and picked up volunteers, both strangers and friends. Our motley crew drove to the Occupy Hub in Sunset Park to collect more supplies and make our way to Far Rockaway.
The stark contrast of the normalcy of Brooklyn and the utter devastation of the Rockaways is still shocking. Seagulls hover over the continuously growing trash heap in Riis Beach Parking lot, comprised mostly of soggy debris mucked out of homes flooded by Hurricane Sandy.
In the high 100s it looks like relief is on the way. The streetlights aren’t on yet, but on Monday LIPA trucks lined the streets and stations run by ATT allowed people to charge their phones and connect with loved ones. It looks hopeful, which is a relief to many weary Rockaway Beach residents.
If you, like me, spent any time this weekend in the areas of New York City that were ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, or if you even spent time just reading about these folks’ plight, it may be a difficult and frustrating task to turn your thoughts back to the endless media noise around the election. The disconnect is huge — but at the same time, the need to vote has never been more important.
Here’s my own frustration: I know the weather-battered residents in the most impoverished, neglected parts of The Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island, for instance, may languish no matter who is elected. After all, this is a national political climate where no one ever mentions the word “poor;” instead, the rhetoric focuses on the catch-all middle class. Meanwhile, one side is viciously attacking the other with a coded racial dog whistle for supporting government “handouts” — you know, those relief and assistance programs that save people’s lives and keep them from going hungry. And that’s all on top of a local political environment where our Mayor’s idea of helping lower-income folks is restricting their soda use and frisking their sons.
Meanwhile, it looks like ad hoc community groups in cooperation with Occupy Sandy, may be doing a better job than government or large agencies at getting aid where it’s needed after Sandy — without red tape and with on-the-ground knowledge.
When the tree crashed against the house and spilled its leafy branches across the driveway, it came to a crunching stop on top of my car, taking down power lines along the way. I couldn’t get very close in the dark confusion of the storm, but the next day, after a man with a chain saw cleared me a path to the driver’s side door, I removed all my belongings in preparation for the inevitable towing and demolition of the vehicle.
I leaned carefully onto the seat — the interior was strewn with broken glass — and unwound from the rear-view mirror the little Traveler’s Prayer that I’d hung there years ago when the car was still new.
In preparation for Storm Sandy, I’d gone to my parents’ house, about 75 miles away from where I live on the same Connecticut coastline, so I could help them in the powerless days we knew would follow. Now we were trapped — literally, by the fallen trees and wires — in their house, and I was unable to help anyone, even myself. We could only wait.
When we finally got out, we found a very New England scene, with wrecked suburban yards and people in puffy vests standing on line at Dunkin Donuts for hot coffee. But inside my family’s house it seemed that, along with our unwilling regression to a less complicated way of life, we had somehow become more Jewish.