“Jesus, Come Help Us!" What It's Like With No Power, No Running Water and Little Food Post-Sandy
Power remains out in at the Bay Towers apartment buildings in Rockaway Beach, forcing residents there to climb up to 14 flights of stairs carrying essentials like water, canned food, and toilet paper. On Sunday, November 4th, residents organized an ad hoc supply center in a communal space on the second floor, and a motley crew of Occupy Sandy activists, neighbors, and unaffiliated volunteers helped distribute goods throughout the two massive buildings.
Information in this predominantly black and Hispanic building is scarce, and word travels slowly. No one knows how many people are still in the buildings, and a sense of uncertainty leads some to ignore anyone knocking on their door. The hallways and stairwells are pitch-black and unsafe at night. “It's getting dangerous up in here,” said Chris, a young man who said the trouble was caused not by tenants, but by people who came in from other areas.
Hurricane Sandy flooded the first floor of the 14-story building and the parking lot. Now, the dozen or so first-floor apartments and close to one hundred automobiles are waterlogged and destroyed. Saida, who lives in the building and helped coordinate the relief effort, walked us through the hallway, often pointing at the waterline, which at one point was over 5 feet high. She paused, her flashlight half illuminating her face, and said “I know I'm smiling, but it's just what I have to do to keep going on.” Her daughter is in her first year at college, and has epilepsy. “If she was still here I'd be in even more of a panic mode,” she said as we walked through the flashlight-lit hall.
Okyro, a young woman who's studying medicine, was in the building when the storm hit. She said it was “traumatizing,” and described it as a “mini tsunami that came in.” She saw the water approach from the balcony of her 10th floor apartment. Later, she saw her neighbors across the street screaming for help on their roofs. “We tried to call during the storm, but of course no one could help them, so we just told them 'hold on tight'.” Her mom is on dialysis and didn't want to evacuate, but now they're staying at a hotel on Queens Boulevard.
Shelby Johnson, one of the buildings' many elderly residents, lives on the 7th floor of the building, and struggled to make it up to her place. She had to stop several times to catch her breath, often praying under her breath. We stood next to her, cases of water in hand, as she stopped on the final landing before getting to her floor. She looked up the twelve or thirteen steps she still had to climb, hung her head, and said, “Jesus, come help us.”
We dropped off the supplies and began walking back down the stairs, when we ran into another older couple carrying bags full of canned foods and helped them bring the bags up to their apartment. It seemed that every trek down the stairs would result in similar encounters, and that we might walk up and down the dark stairwell all afternoon.
Despite the sizable population of the two large public housing towers, and the near week they had spent in darkness, a sense of community was tangible in the hallways and courtyard. Saida, who lived on the 3rd floor and still had access to running water, told us that although she didn't know some of her neighbors, she used her sink to fill buckets of water for residents who lived on higher floors. In the makeshift supply room, one woman from the tower across the yard voiced concern about an elderly couple who had been in their first-floor apartment since the storm. They spoke Spanish, she said, and they were afraid to come out. A Spanish speaking resident volunteered to go check on them, and the couple soon appeared, smiling, to fill up a pushcart with supplies.
In the middle of the afternoon a man named Ron, a volunteer fire-fighter wearing his US Air Force uniform, said to grab a case of water and follow him to the 14th floor. After the long walk up, Darlene Martin, 57, welcomed us into her apartment. She suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and needed medication. Ron took a gas tank out of his bag, affixed a breathing mask to Darlene's face, and told her to inhale and exhale slowly. After several minutes, she said, “Oh, that feels a lot better.”
Ron then talked about his experience during Sandy, as a first responder in Broad Channel, and area that was hit particularly hard. “I was walking through water this deep,” he said, pointing at his chest. “I saw transformers exploding, and I thought to myself, 'OK, this is where I'm gonna die.'” He said he felt like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, who doesn't want to be pulled from battle. “I was thinking like that. If I'm gonna die, at least I'll die with honor,” he said, as we both watch Darlene exhale vapor through her mask.
During one mid-afternoon trip up the dark stairwells, two men in military fatigues and helmets emerged from the darkness, illuminated by our flashlights. It was the National Guard, they announced, here to deliver food and water. Six days after the storm, it was the first institutional disaster relief the towers had seen, and residents were excited about the substantial amount of water and nonperishable food they delivered. Still, the roughly 50 boxes of emergency meals were not enough for the residents of both buildings, and the organizers of the supply room planned to do their best to distribute the food evenly amongst the hundreds of people in need.
As the sun began to set, everyone hurried to return to their homes. The mother and daughter that had been organizing the supply room, Dee and Mia, encouraged us to leave before it got too dark. Two members of the Red Cross arrived to drop off a few boxes as people made their exhausted final trips up the stairwells. “I've got four kids, and I've been telling them ghost stories all week,” one mother told us. “I never knew I was so creative.”
Although many exhausted residents were smiling and laughing with one another throughout the day, there was a deeper anxiety just beneath the surface. Saida was concerned that if the city deems the buildings structurally damaged, hundreds of people will lose their homes. She emphasized that they were okay now, as long as they wouldn't be forced to leave.
Residents of the building constantly asked if we were coming back the next day. It was clear that the city isn't meeting their needs. The Red Cross delivered two boxes of perishable sandwiches to a building with no power. The National Guard delivered water and emergency rations late in the afternoon, but without a working elevator the tenants need assistance distributing the supplies. The building also needs more batteries, diapers, and cleaning supplies, though some have been supplied by activists, including people involved in Occupy Sandy efforts. Upon our arrival, a man in his 30s looked at us and said to his friend, “They're doing more for our building than the fucking city is.”