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Community Leads its Own Relief Efforts in the Rockaways

Rockaway residents get to know each other, show ingenuity while working in solidarity to provide relief from devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy and the apparent indifference/incompetence of state relief agencies.

Months before Sandy devastated the Rockaways, tragedy had already struck Rockaway resident Sharon Plummer. While bicycling home from the corner store, Plummer’s 18-year-old son Shawn was caught in crossfire on Beach 29 Street and Seagirt Avenue. He died before reaching the hospital.

“The community was there for me,” Plummer recalled in a phone interview with Truthout. Two days after Sandy, Plummer was there for her community. In the parking lot of a laundromat on Cedar Boulevard, she set up Rockaway Guardians In Memory of Shawn Plummer, a distribution center, giving out water, canned goods, toiletries and baby supplies to hundreds of people each day.

Other residents joined the effort. Rudolph McBeam lives a block from the laundromat. “I just walked over there,” he told Truthout. “There were two other persons. We set up some tables and began to give out things to the public.” Although he has lived in the area for 15 years and has helped set up music festivals on the beach, “This is my first time being involved with something like this,” said McBeam.

Residents have taken on leadership roles in other ways. The day after the storm, a man named “Sweet,” who has lived in the Rockaways for 27 years, walked into YANA (You Are Never Alone) and has been there ever since, coordinating the myriad services that YANA’s volunteers offer. “We clean, gut houses, carry the elderly downstairs, drive people to one of the medical units to assess their needs and, if needed, get them medical help off the peninsula,” he told Truthout.

Opened two weeks before the storm as a workers’ training center on Beach 113 and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, YANA’s mission was to help people create careers, not simply find jobs. “We were helping people get licensing contracts so they can get city contracts, not just construction jobs,” said Sal Lopizzo, Rockaway native and YANA founder. “For women who are homebound with kids, we were working with them to turn their homes into state-licensed daycares; they can hire two more people and become business owners instead of having to rely on social services to take care of their needs.”

During phone interviews with Truthout, Lopizzo pointed out that even before the storm, lack of resources plagued the Rockaways. “There were a lot of displaced people – coming out of institutions without health care, housing or any resources. Homeless people were in shelter after shelter and never ended up in a decent place. Some of the SROs [single-room occupancy hotels] had several hundred people in one building.”

Those who have homes lack other resources. Twelve years ago, Aria and Sam Doe, frustrated by the absence of programs in the local school system, founded the Action Center. “As my husband says, ‘You try to save the world, you’re going to lose everybody,’ ” Aria Doe told Truthout. “You have to take smaller bites of the elephant.” They focused their efforts on New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Ocean Bay complex, which houses 13,000 to 17,000 people. The Action Center offered programs and services from “birth to the grave,” Doe explained, including programs for pregnant women, GED classes, after-school programs, a night center for teenagers, classes for adults and services for senior citizens. “Even before Sandy, it’s like people were six feet under. We got them up one foot, so then they were five feet under. They’re still below the poverty line.”

Sandy worsened these problems. During the storm, transformers caught fire, causing a mass conflagration, burning down at least 15 homes. Other buildings experienced flooding, rendering units on lower floors uninhabitable. Two months after the storm, Doe said of the lower apartments: “It looks like the walls were painted black, it was so moldy.”

Residents have been expected to pay full rent: “Three days after the storm, NYCHA officials were running around telling people where they could pay their rent,” said Pretina Maddox, a nurse living in NYCHA’s Ocean Bay complex. “They didn’t ask how people were doing, if they had food or water.” NYCHA has promised to refund rent for the days spent without electricity, water or other services, but not until January. “In the meantime, they’re expecting full payments.”

When Rudolph McBeam talked with Truthout nearly two months after Sandy had struck, he was still without heat, hot water or electricity. “Everything in the basement was damaged by the 7½, 8 feet of water that flooded,” he said. “Supposedly, the new boiler will be hooked up tomorrow.” In the meantime, his cold, damp fourth-floor apartment has become mold-infested, and McBeam has been experiencing pains in his chest.

Mold is prevalent on the post-Sandy peninsula, but it’s not the only airborne problem. Residents have begun gutting their water-damaged homes. “People used lead and asbestos years ago,” Lopizzo pointed out. “Now it’s all coming out. There’s lead, asbestos and fiberglass insulation in the air. [In addition] everything’s covered with feces. There’s a lot of pinkeye and respiratory infections.”

Community Relief Efforts Fill Void

McBeam breaks the demographics of the peninsula into three categories: Belle Harbor is predominantly white; 116 Street and lower is a racially mixed area with more low-income people, with the exception of the gated communities; and the 70’s and lower (which is where Plummer’s distribution center operates) are the poorest part of the Rockaways. “Most of the [outside] help is going to 116 Street and above,” he stated. “People are sending stuff there. They’re forgetting the poor part of the Rockaways.”

“Nobody ever cared about this neighborhood in the first place,” agreed Sweet, who lives near YANA. “Above 116th Street is predominantly white. They don’t necessarily make more money than the people who are here, but it’s all one race there, so that’s where all the services went.” He recalled a recent community meeting on 129th Street. “No one past 116 Street knew about it ’till 4 p.m., and the meeting was at 7 p.m. At the meeting, they talked about Breezy Point and Belle Harbor, but what about the rest of us? A community is the whole peninsula, not just a few blocks.”

The day after the storm, the Action Center added relief work to the programs and services they provide. “Many of our employees were also hard-hit, but they’ve worked for 40 days straight. They come and give and give and give.” The center distributes hot meals, offers targeted seminars around mental health and provides a baby wellness room. It has garnered donations from outsiders and redistributed them to the community – space heaters, toddler beds, cribs, dehumidifiers and a washer/dryer for community use.

Maddox is now the coordinator of medical services at the Action Center. Like McBeam and Sweet, Maddox had never been involved in a community organizing project before. She learned that the Action Center needed medical volunteers and came to volunteer.

Maddox has seen people with respiratory issues, diabetes and high blood pressure; some come simply to get medical supplies. “It’s people who don’t have health insurance,” she noted. “Some have had poor eating habits, and they’re stressed, which raises their blood pressure levels and their sugar levels.” She points out that many residents suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes before the storm; the Meals Ready to Eat being distributed by government relief efforts aggravate their conditions. “They’re going to give us a stroke. You’re worried about how much soda we’re drinking, but not about how much sodium we’re taking in?”

As the center addresses residents’ immediate medical needs, Maddox has seen the number of walk-ins decrease. This doesn’t mean that all of their needs have been met: “Next month, when it’s time for them to get their medications, we’ll see the numbers go up,” she predicted.

In many instances, community efforts substitute for official disaster relief. “There was no FEMA, no Red Cross for nine days after the storm,” Sweet pointed out. “The only medical we’ve had since the storm is what we put up ourselves. We have different volunteers, different medical students coming out to help.”

Nearly two months later, many are still relying on community distribution centers to meet their needs: “FEMA is denying a lot of claims. When people do get something, they don’t get anything compared to what they lost,” observed Sharon Plummer. “A lot of families are still coming to the distribution center for supplies.” McBeam estimated that, nearly two months after Sandy, the distribution center continues to serve hundreds of people each day.

Community initiatives have been aided by outside volunteer efforts such as Occupy Sandy and People’s Medical Relief, a group of trained medics from across the country. Lopizzo recalled that, almost immediately, volunteers from Occupy Sandy organized to bring food and supplies out to the Rockaways, using YANA as a distribution center. They coordinate and train volunteers from outside the community. At a community meeting, Aria Doe pressed for a medical van for Ocean Bay. The next day, People’s Medical Relief set up a medical station inside the Action Center to address the residents’ health needs.

“The premise of the Action Center is that you don’t go into someone’s house and tell them what they need. You ask them and then you help them find solutions,” she stated. Thus, when the Action Center received a donation of 300 toddler beds and 1000 cribs, they paired up with People’s Medical Relief to conduct a needs assessment. People who came for a crib or bed spent fifteen minutes with a volunteer from People’s Medical Relief discussing their needs and concerns. Overwhelmingly, residents stated that they wanted the water tested; although NYCHA had stated that the water was safe to drink, official tests utilized samples from the water tanks rather than testing water after it had traveled through piping into residents’ faucets. In response, People’s Medical Relief organized several hundred volunteers to go door-to-door in 14 buildings with a questionnaire about water concerns. From that questionnaire, a water testing company pinpointed several buildings in which water quality could be an issue and took samples.

In contrast, Doe recalled a meeting with NYCHA officials on December 20 where Maddox asked about the safety of the water supply. NYCHA officials assured her – and the audience – that the water was safe to drink. “She challenged them to drink a glass,” she said and added, “Nobody did.”

When advocacy group Queens Congregations United for Action released a report about continuing conditions and the lack of administrative relief efforts in the Rockaways, it was picked up by The New York Daily News. The coverage accomplished what weeks of meetings between community members and city officials did not; NYCHA is preparing to temporarily relocate residents of mold-infested apartments while their homes undergo mold remediation. Concerned that once physically out of their apartments, longtime residents may not be allowed to return, the Action Center reached out to People’s Medical Relief to help residents navigate the legal paperwork. In response, People’s Medical Relief has connected residents with various legal organizations that are working with residents to ensure they are able to return to their homes once remediation and renovations are complete.

Building Community Through Disaster

Several residents noted that the disaster has brought community members together. “Before the storm, people didn’t really communicate with each other. You’d see your neighbors, but wouldn’t talk to them,” stated Sweet. “There weren’t racial tensions, but people just weren’t talking to each other. Now people are starting to get together, to speak to each other.”

McBeam agreed. “I hope there’s more of a community, that people continue to get together.”

Plummer said she hopes that Rockaway Guardians can help do that. On Sunday, December 16, the group held a Christmas party for the neighborhood’s children. In the future, she hopes to organize more events for community members.

Doe said she hopes to keep the much-needed services in the Rockaways long-term. “We want to keep the medical unit here. We want to keep legal services here. We just need two mobile units to keep these programs [at Ocean Bay].”

In the meantime, she said, “Now is the time for a massive focused response on the area. If we, as a country, can help in other countries, we can do it here. We just need the will. People are afraid to shine a light on how bad things are – and have been – here.”

So what can people do to help?

“Don’t forget us. This is a long-term problem,” said Doe. “Donate. Ten dollars to the Red Cross might make you feel good, but we’re the ones who are doing the work. Work with the local organizations. It doesn’t have to be us. And if you want to know where your money goes, come and volunteer for a day. Even if you don’t have anything to give, volunteer your time.”

Community-Led Organizations and Relief Efforts:

The Action Center

Occupy Sandy/You Are Never Alone

Rockaway Guardians

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