Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Personal Post: Red Hook - A Week After Sandy

I don't usually write posts of a personal nature on this blog, but I wrote an email to my family in Australia about the week we've had here in Red Hook, and I thought some others might like to read about our experience through Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.

(I edited it a little to make it more suitable for this blog)

It's been a tumultuous week. After the initial shock of the flood - and finding out that our house's garden apartment had been submerged to the ceiling - the first days after Hurricane Sandy had taken its terrible toll on our neighborhood were both euphoric and sadly surreal.

The first morning after the hurricane, all we could do was walk down to the neighborhood and survey the damage that had been inflicted on our house. Through the debris strewn streets, passing by cars lifted and dumped by the floodwaters, left parked at weird angles in strange places, stepping over the broken branches and tree limbs lying in Coffey Park, we walked to our street - Pioneer Street. The roadway was covered in a thick blanket of leaves - presumably originating from the park - carried with a river of refuse into Pioneer Street by the massive storm surge. Our garden apartment was still flooded, filled with a few feet of water which was slowly going down. Looking through the open broken door - lock smashed open by the force of the water - every surface of the apartment was coated in muck - a mixture of dirt, oil, potting mix from the plants and large planters washed inside - and the place was scattered with destroyed furniture. A jumble of shelves, mattresses, various unidentifiable household objects floated in dark, stinking water. Ceilings, walls and appliances were coated in the mucky dirt, and the refrigerator lay on its side, resting between the stove top and a kitchen counter, lifted and placed there as if it was a giant Jenga block. The back door was blown open, too. Our yard in the back was strewn with furniture, plants wilting from the soaking of brackish water. Neighbors came by, home and shop owners, all shell-shocked in disbelief that the damage had been so bad and the waters had risen so high - to waist height in the middle of the street. So many of our Red Hook neighbors in the same situation as we were. Houses wrecked and lives upended.

The next day was spent cleaning out all of the muck in our house. We had no electricity, but we had lots of help - friends, friends of friends, and our tenant (now ex-tenant) who had been renting the flood-wrecked apartment. He had a lot of people over cleaning up stuff - furnishings, kitchen stuff, beds, etc - and either trying to salvage them or throw them out on the street. The day proceeded well and by the end of the day we had pretty much cleaned the apartment out - hosed out, with all of the weird refuse - including crazy amounts of leaves mixed with other stinky muck, plants, garbage bins, furniture from who knows where - all removed. Everyone on the street was staying positive, helping each other out and talking about cleaning up, rebuilding, and how our little neighborhood of Red Hook would get through all of this - and come out the other side even stronger.

During the day the street had accumulated growing piles of stuff, all up and down - furniture, clothes, electronics - piled on the footpaths in huge mounds and spilling on to the street. This was the scene throughout Red Hook.

We finished the day feeling like we'd got a lot done, and when we came back to our friends' place, where we had been staying since evacuating (which is only a 10 minute walk away in the area called Carroll Gardens) it was another world - tranquil, neat, beautiful houses, windows glowing with warm lights -  seemingly cocooned from the chaos and disaster that is Red Hook.

On the next day, school cancelled, the city in virtual shut-down with no subway, tunnels flooded, etc., and leaving the kids with friends, my wife and I went back to the neighborhood. At that stage we felt like we had done enough to clean out our house (at least for the time being), so we went to friends and neighbors on our street who were struggling - not only with the clean out, but with the enormity of the event and its ramifications. Some were paralyzed, refusing to let anyone help or remove any prized, damaged possessions. Back yards were littered with the detritus of the storm, concrete block fences collapsed and trees washed onto their sides. One friend had lost his entire life's work as a film maker, one had his collection of movie memorabilia and models lying in stinking sludge, another young woman - recently moved in -  had lost all of her belongings. It was sad. We did our best to help whoever we could - cleaning kitchens out, cutting up furniture so it could be removed, running errands. It was tough, but at the very least we felt like things were moving forward. Many friends and volunteers came down and helped - organized by local groups. Store and restaurant owners were getting stuff cleaned up as best they could - still without electricity - but were still finding the energy to set up barbecues to feed people and making free coffee for all. It was very inspiring. Again, we returned to our cozy temporary home to chat about elections, have a nice meal and collapse in bed - exhausted.

On Friday, my wife had to go to an appointment so she rode her bike into Manhattan as the subways were still not operating, and the bridges were requiring 3 people minimum in a car to cross. She went off early, and after breakfast I took my 9 year old son down to Red Hook to see what we could do - help friends, etc. When we got to the house there was a pretty bad smell upstairs - in the "unaffected" part of our house, where our family lives. My son didn't want to stay or even enter as it smelled so bad. We went down to the lower floor and saw that the ceiling was looking black in spots and the whole place generally looking pretty bad - ceiling and walls saggy and funky. At that point I knew I had to pull everything out of the ceiling - at least. The water - and whatever else was in  it - had risen above the ceiling in the flood, and now I realized that the sheetrock and insulation above it was still soaking and filled with the floodwater. I took my son back to our friends to stay with our 15 year old daughter - and I picked up some tools and went back to the house, knowing I had to pull everything out of the ceiling. Coming back to the block I could see heavy moving equipment, sent in by the City, shoveling all of the refuse on the street into garbage trucks and trying to clear the debris-strewn street and sidewalks. I spent the day pulling all of the ceiling and insulation - all dripping wet - out and onto the street. Despite some lovely friends coming by with a hot pot of chili, sharing it with anyone on the street who was cold and hungry - it was a pretty miserable day. I checked in on a few neighbors and everyone was feeling pretty low - some teary, and all depressed at the prospect of dealing with the aftermath of the flood. We were hearing the stories of some of our favorite local stores devastated by the flooding. The Fairway supermarket had to throw out its entire contents - piles of food and produce spoilt. It will be closed for months. Home/Made, the Good Fork, and other local restaurants had been flooded over their table tops and needed to rip everything out and start again - who knows when they'll open. The same with local liquor stores, winemakers, furniture makers, delicatessens, lobster vendors, bakers, record distributors, artists, etc. It was rough. Frustratingly, there was no electricity and some still had water in their basements. We had a meeting - packed with residents - where FEMA came to talk to us about disaster assistance. It was reassuring, but unclear exactly how much we could expect. The stories also came - tales of escapes up stairs as windows were broken and water started filling houses, people trapped in cars with kids trying to escape, wading waist deep in storm water, storm surge coming from all directions. The frantic efforts to move stuff to higher floors, as the water rose 8 feet in 15 minutes. Scary. Our friend had been in Staten Island and had woken up to water at her chest, only just being able to escape through a window. She lost everything - car, clothes, furniture, TV - everything. There were the horrific stories from Rockaway, Breezy Point, Coney Island and the Jersey Shore and all up and down the coast . The whole picture - in Red Hook, New York and elsewhere - was shocking and depressing. I was about to head home and then spotted the National Guard in their many military vehicles lined up in the next street. They were there to deliver food and water to the thousands of people in public houses - many who had also been without water, food, heat and electricity - some trapped in their high-rise buildings with no working elevators. There was a line of hundreds of people waiting for help - it was a nice thing to see. The most positive thing that happened that day.

Saturday was a better day. While my wife took my son to football - the city parks had finally reopened so kids activities were resuming - I went down to the house and arrived to find friends already waiting to help. The day unfolded in the same way - many different friends - from mums and dads from our school to total strangers - turning up and asking what they could do. I had made the decision to try to strip most of the apartment of sheetrock as, again, it was still soaking and getting funkier by the day. There was still some insulation that was behind some of the walls and that was holding lots of water, so we all pitched in and got it done. I had brought gloves and masks, and some people turned up with shovels and crowbars and other tools, and we basically gutted the place. We pulled out most of the kitchen and lots of wood trim which was holding water. By the end of the day the apartment was mostly down to the studs. Neighbors bought food and shared it - people went and grabbed coffee and suplies - garbage bags, etc. and everyone pulled together. It was great - I was so grateful for the immense help these people offered so willingly. A FEMA inspector came by during the day and assessed the damage.  He told me that they would help with a new boiler and hot water system - all which had been under water entirely - and a new electric panel too. He said they will work with our flood insurance company (whose adjustor was to come the following day) and they will see what they can do together - so hopefully we will get some help from both. It's still not entirely clear where we will be financially after all of this, but we can also get low interest loans from FEMA and help form the city as well, so hopefully we'll just be able to work it out as we go along.

Sunday, five days and many, many person-hours later - much of it supplied by volunteers - our apartment looked like a shell - like it was 10 years ago when we first started renovating it - and we are talking about better ways to flood proof (or at least protect) it. We have people, again, offering help with rebuilding and at least we are some way towards getting things back in order. We still need electricity and a boiler to heat the place - it's getting cold - so we still can't move back into out house. But we feel like we're on our way. It's a good feeling and one that a number of us a sharing.

 The neighborhood, however, is still reeling. Businesses are going to need lots of help and support for a long time. A group of business owners have started an organization to aid the local stores, etc, -  restoreredhook.org Some neighbors are still struggling to get it together - organizationally and emotionally. Despite daily Sanitation Department clean ups, at the end of each day the street is again piled with debris - as are many streets. People are pulling more and more ruined stuff out of their houses and stores. It's a mess. People in public housing are probably doing it the toughest, confined in small apartments without heat, electricity, water or flushing toilets - and, as I said, no elevators in high rise buildings - so it's pretty bad. The great thing is there are many organizations that are stepping in to help, and apparently on Saturday we had 700 people volunteering in Red Hook - many of them helping people in public housing - so that's reassuring. There were many on Sunday too. People just walking down the street asking of we need help, supplies, food water, etc. - it's very comforting. Our local representatives have been regular visitors, and organizations such as the Red Hook Initiative, PortSide New York and the Visitation Church are coordinating volunteers and distributing food, supplies and clothes - even generators. It's been an amazing effort.

 On Monday - today - the kids went back to school. They're definitely feeling the effects of our dislocation - getting a bit emotional and missing their home - but also keeping up brave faces and, like my wife and I, grateful for the compassion and hospitality that our friends and neighbors have offered us, especially the dear friends who have given us somewhere to stay. We spent the day getting back to some regular work while also trying to co-ordinate contractors and tradesmen who will - hopefully - start replacing boilers and electric circuits so we can get back home ... that is as soon as the power comes on.

Even though Red Hook still has no power, most of Manhattan has electricity now, and the subways are getting back on line. Things seem to be getting back to some kind of normal. But we are very aware that there are still many places that won't recover for a long time. Red Hook had flooding - terrible, destructive flooding - but in other neighborhoods and towns people's homes were washed away, or burnt down, or were reduced to a pile of rubble. People died .... so we're not feeling too bad.

I think that's the case for most of Red Hook.

At this exact time a week ago, the night of Sandy, my friend and I battled through the waning, yet still barreling winds of the hurricane, over to the streets of Red Hook, trying to get to the house to see if the horror stories that we had been hearing, via Twitter and Facebook, from our friends who had remained in Red Hook through the storm were true. As we approached Coffey Park at Columbia Street, even though the waters were subsiding, we couldn't get any further. We were blocks away, but the water was still feet high - looking down the flooded street towards the harbor all I could see was water. It was an ominous sign.

There's much to contemplate this week, after such an event as Hurricane Sandy. It's impact and aftermath should inspire a torrent of questions, many which have direct relationship to the issues that I've written about on this blog - the negative effects of pollution and greenhouse gasses; the importance of thoughtful waterfront planning; the issues of environmental justice; the urgency to move our economy towards the use of green energy.

Those discussions will have to wait for another day - hopefully, very soon.

But for now, all I can think is ... what an incredible, tumultuous week it's been - for my family, for Red Hook, for our city and for our country.

Be safe, everyone.