AFTER SANDY, the Peoples Relief Grows in Coneyby Williams Cole
Sandy’s aftermath brought with it many stories of how individuals organized spontaneous yet highly efficient relief efforts. I spoke to one person, Eric Moed, who has been helping organize the People’s Relief project in Coney Island since shortly after the storm hit at the end of October.
Williams Cole (Rail): Tell us how you got involved in the relief efforts.
Eric Moed: The Saturday after the storm I had the feeling things weren’t so hunky dory in parts of the city that Sandy hit so I took a bike ride out to the Rockaways. I’m an architect and had no experience in disaster relief and was shocked by what I saw. And many of the residents who lost everything were so shocked that they didn’t know how to start picking up the pieces either. Knowing that a more coordinated effort was necessary, I went back the next day to one of the main hubs of Occupy Sandy and immediately found something to do.
I wasn’t involved in Occupy Wall Street but felt it had an edge with communicating through social media, crowdsourcing, and mobilizing people. I’d actually never seen anything more organized than the 520 Clinton Avenue Occupy Sandy hub. You were immediately categorized according to the skill you came in with—technical, medical, communications, etc.—and in each area everyone took accountability for what they were part of. I loved the model they had set up, as it didn’t have any red tape. If there was a need, it was filled. Everyone was working toward a singular goal: giving people relief in a time of crisis.
The way I wound up in Coney Island was I got a yellow card with the name of Deborah Franklin-Reed, the tenant association president at the Coney Island Houses. She was instrumental in coming up with the idea to organize and turn the community rooms in the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings into supply hubs for the thousands of people living within these building complexes.
Rail: What was the situation like when you got to the Coney Island Houses?
Moed: At first it was frantic. Coney Island may not have initially seemed as devastated as places like the Rockaways. But the sea met the bay and flooded almost all of the basements and first floors within the public housing buildings at the Coney Island Houses and beyond. The buildings didn’t look so bad on the outside but when you opened the door you saw the consequences of what happened and saw what people needed. The stairwells were pitch black and smelled like urine and feces and the apartments had no heat, hot water, power, working elevators, or working septic systems. We just started going door to door with supplies and talking to people, asking them what the situation was and what they needed. We got there on November 4th and a few long days later we realized the mass needs as well as the imperative of creating something more organized—and so that’s how People’s Relief started.
Rail: How is People’s Relief organized?
Moed: We began to work on two initiatives: the canvassing efforts and the supply hubs. Canvassing entails both distributing supplies and also gathering information on the state of the residents and each building’s heat, elevator functionality, and power. We had teams going door to door with care packages of water, food, and supplies for approximately one to three days. We also had separate teams of People’s Medical Relief, where volunteers with medical training would go door-to-door assessing medical needs and providing prescriptions.
The other initiative was community building. My personal experiences with residents have been incredible. They are outgoing and appreciative that we are there. We get hugs and make friends, but we also need to recognize our privileged status. We get to go home while they live the disaster 24/7. The residents themselves are the ones that are often carrying water up 20 flights of stairs to their neighbors, and they are constantly showing their community spirit and helping each other. We are just supporting them, helping build a structure with them to help themselves.
As a group, People’s Relief doesn’t have a spokesperson or official job titles. Everyone has his or her own skill-set and jumps around from initiative to initiative as needed. There are about a dozen coordinators getting things done in real time based on the information we have acquired from being one of the only organizations on the ground. Over the last month we’ve had hundreds of volunteers come through, though there have been different amounts on different days based on the needs in the field.
Rail: What about FEMA, Office of Emergency Management (OEM), NYCHA, and organizations like the Red Cross?
Moed: What’s amazing to me is that when we got to that part of Coney Island we were the only ones going door-to-door asking people what the situation was and what they needed. Somehow these agencies and large-scale organizations didn’t seem to have a plan for needs assessment on that face-to-face level. That is my personal observation and experience—and the experience of other coordinators in Coney—but I’ve also heard the same from volunteers in Staten Island and other areas. People’s Relief and Occupy Sandy are not anti-authoritarian and are more than willing to work with established agencies. But they are bureaucratic and thus slower to mobilize.
At this point we’ve had meetings with many larger organizations and they have been willing to collaborate and welcome our ideas. At the outset, despite their many resources, these groups seemed to have little information regarding where to put their supplies and staff. The lack of basic info raises another important issue. City and state relief organizations in NYC and New Jersey, as well as FEMA and large private organizations like the Red Cross, don’t seem to have a system in place to communicate with each other. At points you had the city telling the National Guard, for example, not to come, even though they most likely would have been more proficient in this kind of disaster relief. It was up to volunteer organizations like ours to ask residents directly what they needed.
Rail: What about NYCHA?
Moed: I certainly don’t want people to think that public housing is a bad idea. Not at all. But, unfortunately, NYCHA as an organization is extremely inefficient. It seemed that they had no plan in place to take care of their residents aside from encouraging some to evacuate. Many residents, however, have nowhere else to go; it is either home or a homeless shelter. And NYCHA didn’t have people going door-to-door. The even crazier part is that NYCHA started demanding rent and even sending out eviction notices! Five weeks without heat or hot water, and that’s what they are doing. [Note: After outcry from residents and public officials, in late November, NYCHA agreed to a moratorium until February 1 on evictions at Sandy-affected locations.]
Rail: How can things change the next time disaster strikes?
Moed: Moving forward, the sharing of information is one of the biggest things. It’s shocking that the Red Cross has been around so long but can’t mobilize quickly, and does not have a mass door-to-door canvassing system. Simply setting up and parking a small food truck somewhere giving out meals—does not assess the needs of the community. In the future the model should be cutting through red tape and creating nodes for efficient relief efforts where volunteers with different skills can go. Many volunteers that work with us did in fact email and call larger volunteer organizations and were told that they would be notified in 7-10 business days. People in the larger city, state, federal, and private organizations need to be on the ground, not behind desks. Nothing can replace going up to someone who has just experienced a disaster and saying, “Hello, how are you?” and asking them what they and their communities need.