I traveled to Hurricane Sandy six weeks after it decimated the east coast and one week after my Mom passed away. I was doing some contract work for a new start up called Yiftee. The founders and I were convinced their technology could help those affected by the storm, allowing people to donate immediately through local stores and help rebuild their communities. As I traveled through the hard hit areas, Mom's memorial card was in my right rear pocket. I was convinced that she would have wanted me to go help.
It took me over a month to get to New York. After weeks of watching my frustrations with unresponsive leaders, my husband, sent me a link to a site called "Sandy Sucks." I reached out to the blogger and met the amazing Katie Benner. She is a "twentysomething," which rarely get talked about in the media. We hear about the privileged, FOMO groups who live at home, addicted to social media and themselves. She is part of another subset that are passionate, committed activist who don't whine. They are also adept at grassroots organizing because they have lost trust in our system. It was through her graciousness that I got so much done in New York.
Six weeks after the storm, wreckage from broken lives was still scattered everywhere. The areas that had been ignored: Red Hook, Rockaway, Staten Island, Coney Island, Brighton -- all of these communities were overwhelmed by damage from the storm. Even today some of these communities do not have the most basic necessities. Many of these areas have lower income housing projects. Despite the endless proclamations of success by FEMA and the Red Cross, walk these areas, talk to people, and you will discover the true heroes of Sandy were members of the communities that banded together to create their own relief. These people stories conjure up images of a modern day Robin Hood and his band of do-gooders.
My favorite was "The Brown Cross" a group made up of blue-collar men and women, police and firefighters and construction workers that teamed up to help their neighbors.
I met Danny DeSario, one of the founding members, outside of Toto's bar and restaurant, a local landmark decimated by the storm.
D: The heart and soul behind it, the guy who put it all together was Frank Recce. The night after the storm, he stopped by a good friend Danny Belmo's house. Frank was saying he was going to get a few of his friends together and help people out. We had been cleaning up the yard, and he came by to see his father who was a friend of Danny's. We talked for a while. The next day we were cleaning Danny's basement out and the same guys came by and helped us finish. After that, we just went as a group helping other families out.
M: How did you assess what each house needed?
It was a constantly evolving process. When it started, we were mostly clearing waterlogged furniture out of houses, pumping out basements, clearing debris. Basically anything in the house that was wet needed to come out before the mold started to grow. But it was always a race against the mold.
M: Do you remember the most volunteers you had in a day?
The most we had was a little better than 800. When we started counting, we had worked on 523 houses. Our operation evolved pretty quickly. From a rag tag group of us with duct tape on our arms -- to signify that we weren't looters -- the community got to recognize that pretty quick-Because during the first few weeks, looting was a massive problem.
M: Was your home affected by the storm ?
D: My basement was completely flooded. We lost power, hot water, and heat. I had my brothers van; I managed to get that out of harm's way. During the hurricane this neighborhood looked like a James bond scene. We thought that the water would come from in front, but it snuck up from the marshlands behind us. By the time we realized where the water was coming from, we were surrounded by it. If you tried to get your car out, you're driving against the waves, water coming from all different directions. You would turn down a street and have to back out quickly and try another way. It was a mess. A very intense situation.
M: Did people expect the Red Cross and FEMA to come in and help?
D: There were mixed expectations. I didn't expect much help. As much as I like to be right, this was one of those times I didn't want to be. A lot of people expected FEMA to come in and help, and that the National Guard and The Red Cross would help too. A lot of people were sorely disappointed, because, speaking for myself, (not the Brown Cross), these organizations were absolutely worthless.
M: They couldn't pick up garbage?
D: No. We did all that. As far as I understand, FEMA is the organization that handles this type of situation. At least help rebuild. But everyone's just fighting with FEMA, fighting with insurance companies. Nobody wants to ante up. FEMA would say, "If your insurance doesn't cover this, maybe we can cover something." But they try and give people $5,000... that doesn't even put a heating system in the house. I don't know what their official capacity is, but I haven't seen them help anyone really.
It took 8 days until I saw a single Red Cross truck. And the food- I took some of the food from the Red Cross one day. It was an apple... I don't know how to describe it. It looked like some genetically modified Monsanto apple. I couldn't bring myself to bite it. A bag of Lays potato chips, from a multi pack with the expiration date from 2 years ago! A BBQ-chicken sandwich.... I took one bite, spit it out, and put it down. The Red Cross people came to eat at our tent.
M: I was in a house yesterday-this family's house was hard hit, full of mold. I could see the mold with my naked eye. Some city workers came in and stood right next to me and said, "There's no mold here".
Pastor Mike Leahy, from Liquid Church, who had been kind enough to take me around Staten Island that day-we looked at each other in disbelief. The same worker said, "We are going to lay plywood down on the first floor of the house." This was so the electrical team could come in and evaluate the house. Once the electricians left, they would pull up all of the plywood and throw it away. What a waste!
D: A lot of this work has been awarded to large, out of state, conglomerate construction companies. They come in; they undercut the local guys with out of state supplies. They are handed the work by the city. They charge the city for the wood, and then throw it out, and charge again. While there are good people showing their best in this situation, there are just as many vultures showing their worst. Many of these local companies got washed out in the storm. The salt water destroyed their tools, the garages got flooded, and that was it.
I want to start seeing local guys get back to work, rebuilding their own communities.
M: At Rockaway Beach people are still without basic necessities. No heat, hot water or power.
D: My neighbor still doesn't have power or heat. He's fighting with insurance companies; FEMA is dragging their feet. Your insurance is negated from floodwater in the house, your flood insurance is negated cause there is sewage in the house, your homeowner policy only covers wind damage. The wind was what blew the Atlantic Ocean through your house! If that's not wind damage, what is? All these agencies are dragging their feet, playing there little game, looking at the bottom line, giving out as little as they can.
The fact of the matter is, the people that are supposed to come and help, the ones funded with taxpayer money, or those who benefit from the millions of dollars donated-they have not helped.
The Marines came and they kicked some serious ass. They jumped in; they worked side by side with us since we knew the neighborhood. We gave them intelligence on where they needed to be, and they cleared houses like machines.
National Guard? They handed out some bottles of water, never offered to help. They even parked vans that blocked the road.
The city came through and did rapid repair. The cheap stuff workers put in has already started to breakdown. Water heaters, boilers -- they fail right away. Cheapest possible ones, sub-standard products I would not put in a house as a contractor because of the liability. Garbage. Chinese garbage.
Why can't we at least buy American? Why can't we give back to ourselves, so to speak? It's bad enough that it's garbage, but then our tax dollars are going overseas. It's a sad situation. I've seen the best in people. And I've seen the worst in people. I got to say, I wish that people making big calls would have more balls and do the right thing.
As our conversation ended I reached out to give this gentle giant a hug. He stopped me. "No, No, I am dirty." I hugged him still. What's a bit of dirt when you're hugging a hero?