Last week was a busy time for me, personally. On Saturday, I moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Brooklyn, New York. On Sunday, instead of apartment hunting as I planned, I prepared for Hurricane Sandy. And the next few days were spent bracing for and dealing with the impact of the storm. Needless to say, it was not the best timing for a smooth transition to a new city, but as far as being given an opportunity to experience and learn from a new environment, I'm not sure I could have asked for a better circumstance.
To be honest, I knew nothing of The Rockaways prior to a couple days ago. I didn't even know if I should call them the Rockaways, The Rockaways, just Rockaways or Rockaway Beach or something else entirely. (It's "The Rockaways.") But while I'm still learning about the area, I've already learned so much from the New Yorkers that live there and the many that visit and love this beach community.
With news finally spreading about the vast devastation that occurred there due to the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, I decided to volunteer to help on Sunday and I want to share with you some of what I saw and learned while there.
Brooklyn Cyclists Ride Relief into the Rockaways
On Saturday night, a friend texted me to say he'd heard of a group bicycle ride from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to The Rockaways being organized by a shop called Affinity Cycles and that they needed supplies and riders to volunteer some manpower. I don't have my bike here yet, but I knew I could donate some supplies and maybe borrow a bike to participate.
The Rockaways were on my radar as an area that really needed help due to what I had been seeing in social media and the news. Earlier in the day, I saw Jonny Lam share this note on Instagram, so I saved a copy to my phone and used it as a shopping list in my neighborhood hardware store. The clerk could tell I was buying relief supplies and mentioned that when he opened that morning, he had a line of 10 people waiting to buy the same things I was getting: contractor bags, flashlights, batteries, candles and so forth.
When I heard about the group ride, I was expecting 20 or 30 or so bicyclists, but was surprised to find the crowd closer to a hundred. As we waited to depart, cars arrived with piles of donated supplies. The cycle shop had rented some large vans to carry shovels, buckets and bulky supplies, but a good deal of the gear was packed into panniers, backpacks and bike trailers.
The riders carried packs loaded with water, food, diapers, tools and all sorts of other relief supplies. With a 16 mile ride in each direction, they were volunteering not just for a long ride in cold, windy conditions, but also for a day of undetermined manual labor. Though many had seen pictures in the news, we didn't know what to expect and the plan was quite loose. We'd travel to The Rockaways, rendezvous with the Rockaway Beach Surf Club to deliver the supplies and then just go where help was needed.
I had heard it looked like a war zone in The Rockaways and it did. Block after block after block for miles looked like this. Every house looked like it had vomited its contents onto the curb. Ripped sheetrock lay next to children's toys, splintered wood atop muddy sofas.
Some streets were scattered with wrecked cars and boats. Others were completely covered in feet of sand. Every block was lined with what looked like giant snow banks of wreckage. Some discarded from flooded homes, other parts left from the powerful storm surge.
Rockaway Beach Surf Club Serves Local Community
When we finally arrived, supplies were delivered to the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which had been turned into a relief center for the community.
Cyclists Help Spread Word About Surf Club Relief Center
Because power and phone lines were still down in the area, despite having hundreds of volunteers in and out of the Surf Club, mobility and awareness were still in short supply, so the cyclists were a big help in networking with the community. Cyclists from what we ended up calling the #affinityride rode throughout the Rockaways and went door to door checking on residents to ask if they needed help and let them know the Rockaway Beach Surf Club was a relief center. Thankfully, I heard that many residents were okay and declined help, but many were appreciative and requested assistance in the form of supplies or manpower. If people had specific requests, like a fresh set of batteries or some cleaning supplies, the cyclist would make note of it and return to the Surf Club to retrieve the necessary goods. This saved the already tired residents an extra walk down to Beach 87th.
Cleaning supplies staging area. The sign says: Cleaning Crew Supplies - 5 pair latex gloves, 2 pair work gloves, 10 contractor bags, bleach, shovel or mop - per 2 person team.
Incredibly, it wasn't just supplies that were distributed. If a resident requested manpower to move wreckage or shovel mud out of a basement, the cyclist would return to the Surf Club to recruit a cleaning crew, gather supplies and return to help. The volunteers shoveled out basements, tore out wet insulation, carried destroyed furniture to the curb and all sorts of intense manual labor.
I had never personally experienced a disaster of this magnitude, so I wasn't familiar with how a relief center would operate, so it took a few minutes to take in the organized chaos. At first glance, the scene looked like a ton of people bouncing around with piles of supplies scattered everywhere. After getting my bearings of what was going on, I could not have been more impressed by what was taking place.
How the Rockaway Beach Surf Club Relief Center Works
The Surf Club is surrounded by a fence, with two gates. The front gate was where residents queued up to request assistance, while the side gate was for making donations. Volunteers and donators would carry in boxes of food, bags of clothes or cases of bottled water and other supplies, which were roughly sorted and stacked outside of the Club House in large piles. Inside the club house, a makeshift "store" was set up with shelves and tables filled with food and dry goods. Out front, residents that needed assistance queued up to talk with a woman sitting at a table. They would tell her what items they needed and she would write up a "shopping list" which would go to one of the volunteers who would then go into the club house to "shop" for that resident, getting everything they had requested. This ensured people that needed baby food or diapers got the right types and sizes, for example. It was remarkably efficient.
When there weren't specific order to fill, general relief kits were created, which contained a variety of canned vegetables and protein, boxed rice, juice boxes, fruit, candy, a toiletry kit containing soap, toothpaste, feminine products, toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, trash bags, etc.
Dozens of people were queued up to make relief kits, but I didn't keep track of how many were made and distributed. It had to have been hundreds. Every so often, someone would pause the creation of relief kits and would restock the store bringing in whatever new donations had come in recently. This kept the staging area from getting too crowded and made room for new donations.
Many Hands - And Good Systems - Make Light Work
What was also remarkable about the center was how no one person was really in charge. When I arrived, I asked a guy named Anthony who looked to know what was going on what I should do or how the system worked and he told me how to make the relief kits. But moments later someone new arrived and asked me what to do and I just relayed what I'd learned. Later, I realized Anthony had been just as clueless as I was, but because the Surf Club had established a sensible flow of incoming and outgoing aid anyone could step in and direct traffic to new people coming in to volunteer or drop off donations.
When things settled down a bit, I talked to Brandon d'leo who helps run the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. The organization and efficiency of their operation was and is truly mind-boggling, so I asked what happened first to get this started and he said, "Well first, we had to clean the surf club." He then showed me the water line I had until then failed to notice. Realizing this impressive relief center was just a few days before nearly 6 foot deep in muddy, sandy floodwater made what they have accomplished that much more incredible.
Since I knew I wanted to write about this, I tried to really find out were the other main people in charge and get a few quotes, but whether I was talking with Brandon or Tommy or Davina from the Surf Club or Jason or Stephen from the Affinity Cycles ride, I was struck by the fact that they all made a point to first clarify that this whole operation was a group effort. It very much reminded me of what you'd hear talking to anyone involved with the Occupy movement. Sure, there were people providing more help or organizing strategy than others, but it was a group effort and wouldn't work without the participation of everyone involved. That selflessness of not wanting to take credit or be recognized is a testament to the spirit that made this operation such a success. It was chaotic and streamlined. It just worked.
It is going to be a long time before The Rockaways are back to some sort of normal. At this point, they still don't have power and no one knows how long it will be out. To make matters worse, New York is anticipating a serious Nor'easter to come through in the next day or two, so the residents that are already suffering in the sub-freezing temperatures at night, will have a deluge of rain or possible snow to add another challenge to their already difficult lives. No matter what obstacles are thrown their way, however, one thing I can now say with confidence is that the surfing, skate and cycling communities are willing and able to help, as the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and Affinity Cycles helped demonstrate so successfully. And if there's this much passion and care being shown in a time of such frustration and challenge, I'm certain there will be even more energy put into helping this area rebuild once again.