Interview with Respond and Rebuild volunteer
Interviewee: male, 30, staff volunteer at Respond and Rebuild
Interviewer: Tom Corcoran
Interviewer: So to start, begin by telling me briefly about your experience of Sandy.
Man: So, I actually wasn’t here for the storm. I was in California. And I was working on this little organic farm out there. And the only radio station I had was an NPR affiliate. And they were just–they were reporting pretty…pretty heavily about what was going on in New York regarding Sandy. You know, the news is always worst case scenario, how they tried to play it up. So it sounded pretty bad. You know, I’m from the D.C. area. And I have plenty of friends and some family up here. So you know, naturally I was pretty concerned. And I guess a couple of weeks later–so meanwhile these guys were here. You know, Terri and Gabby. Ian was here too. Shana flew in not long after. And so these guys were all here during the first response. You got to talk to Terri and Gabby, Ian, Shana about first response.
Interviewer: Okay, sure.
Man: So I can’t really speak as to anything–
Interviewer: So you came later?
Man: I came about a month later, yeah.
Interviewer: Alright. So up to this point–because you said you came a little bit after–what are some of the problems that are arising right now?
Man: Right now?
Interviewer: Or…or I guess even in the aftermath of when you came, you know, how long did you come? Or how long after the storm was it that you arrived?
Man: About a month after the storm, so a little over a month. I got here right at the beginning of December. And as–can get more specific regarding problems?
Interviewer: I guess, you know, as far as many problems with the recovery efforts that you saw, specifically the area that you were working in.
Man: Well problems like organizationally or–?
Interviewer: Yeah, let’s start with organizational problems that maybe you experienced.
Man: Well, let me see. Organizational problems–well yeah, one thing that– One fundamental problem that we kept running into in responding was, you know, often we– So we would have huge numbers of volunteers, like a hundred…hundred volunteers easy in the early days but not as many qualified personnel to, you know, train them and put them to work and have them go on efficiently and safety. So that’s kind of one of the reasons why I was brought on board as well as, you know, a few other friends who have since taken off. But, yeah so I would say that was a fundamental problem. Let’s see. Other problems organizationally, internally, no, just finding a place to…finding a place to live so we could all do it kind of full-time was really tricky. We were all crammed into Terri and Gabby’s apartment for a period of time. Like there were more than ten people in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. You know, we were commuting back and forth, which was a nightmare.
Interviewer: How did you commute, because there was no transportation to this area?
Man: We would drive.
Interviewer: So you were drive?
Man: Yeah, yeah.
Man: Yeah, we had a fifteen-passenger van generally. So we would often bring up volunteers in Brooklyn and would drive down to the Rockaways.
Interviewer: What areas did you start to work in in the Rockaways.
Interviewer: Was that the first area that you came to?
Man: Well, I…I think we did a lot of work, like, in Rockaway Park, which is where we are right now. And we definitely did some work out in Bell Harbor, Arverne. And then, you know, we kind of honed in on Arverne because we got up with Reverend Dennis Loncke at the Arverne Pilgrim Church, where we operate from. And you know, we did a lot of work there. And he let us start staging operations out of there. So kind of by default, we started working at Arverne and continued to work there, you know, just because it was kind of–it seemed to be a really underserved part of the Rockaways in terms of relief work. You know, there didn’t see a really large emphasis placed on, you know, Bell Harbor, Rockaway Park, which is, you know, the wealthier, whiter part of the area. And you know, we didn’t see nearly as many relief organizations down in Arverne. And then, you know, you have Bell Harbor and you got Rockaway Park, which is where we are now. Then you we get down to Arverne. And then past Arverne we have probably about eight blocks of public housing and then, you know, there’s more residential neighborhoods. And then you have Far Rockaway. So we do work pretty much between–we don’t do– I guess these days it’s changed. We work all the way from Far Rockaway all the way to Bell Harbor. But we do try to–having been trying to concentrate it in Arverne, yeah.
Interviewer: Okay. How did you form the contact with the church?
Man: Oh, the church? Again, this would be a good one for Terri, for Gabby. But I believe the way it went was we were, you know, literally out on the street talking to homeowners. And I think it was Terri, Gabby, one of those guys–
Man: This guy will know.
Man: Gabby! Hey Gabby!
Man: How did…how did we get up with Reverend Loncke?
Gabby: What do you mean?
Man: Exactly. How did the relationship between us and–?
Gabby: Matt Engel fuckin’ was walking the Rockaways looking for a place for us. Engel walked over there from up here. He was literally just walking the Rockaways looking for a space for us to working out of.
Interviewer: And he just stumbled upon this specific area.
Gabby: Well no, we were working…we were working here. So one of the guys that was working with us at the time just went walking around to look into, like, what was around.
Gabby: There was limited gas and vehicles at that time. So walking was really the way to go.
Gabby: So he walked all the way down there. And yeah.
Interviewer: Really? So he tried in other areas or try other neighborhoods?
Gabby: Yeah, we were looking–we were–originally, we were looking, like right here. But nothing around here was really working out for us.
Gabby: So just in our searches, like, came upon–
Interviewer: Alright. Great. We’ll have to set up an interviewer, and then you can…you then you can tell me more about that.
Gabby: Sure. Yeah, yeah.
Interviewer: Okay. Thanks Gabby. So let’s see. How do you think your experience was similar to or different from others in the recovery work that you performed?
Man: Well, let’s see. Others–you know, others in a similar position, you mean, or just in general recovery worker?
Interviewer: Yeah, we can take it, I guess, as a recovery working, you know, volunteer worker.
Man: I mean I was definitely logging like, a good seven days a week towards the beginning. So I don’t think that’s really typical for every volunteer. I kind of also had the opportunity to kind of form policy within Respond and Rebuild. For example, safety’s really important to me. So the cool thing about our organization is we all have the opportunity to kind of shape it to the, you know, in the manner that we kind of see necessary. So you know, when I’ve done relief work in the past, sometimes safety really hasn’t been addressed very much. And it’s, in my opinion, extremely vital that everybody wears protective, you know, gloves, masks, goggles, whatever, and knows how to do the work properly. You know, you just throw a bunch of people in a house and, you know, nobody knows what they’re doing, like things are–things can get bad. So I guess my experience has been different in that I, you know, kind of had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with a brand new organization with my friends and, yeah, I’ve had quite a lot of say in how we can do things, which is pretty cool. I don’t think a lot of people get the opportunity to come into such a…such a flexible and effective situation. Otherwise, how has been experience been different here? I’m not from New York, you know. I’ve definitely spent plenty of time in New York. I’ve never been to–I don’t think I’ve ever even been to Queens before coming here, you know, other than flying into JFK a bunch of times, which is–is that Queens or Brooklyn?
Interviewer: Queens and Brooklyn?
Man: No, is JFK in Queens or Brooklyn?
Interviewer: I think that’s Queens actually.
Interviewer: It shares a border with some parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s Queens.
Man: So yeah, different from other people. But yeah, working a hell of a lot more. And I don’t know. My rule has kind of evolved through time with Respond and Rebuild. First I was kind of field coordinator, right, where I supervised and trained different teams of volunteers. And then as things kind of got along, I took over–I don’t know. I still do that sort of thing but then started doing more damage assessments. So yeah, so really a dynamic…dynamic role that I’ve come into.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How has the storm or the aftermath of the storm caused you to see, think or, or experience New York City in a new way?
Man: It’s…it’s difficult for me to say because I never even spent any significant time here outside of being a tourist. I guess I realize how…how huge–well for one, how huge of a city it is. And that might seem kind of obvious to somebody who’s from here. But you know, coming from previously just a tourist experience, there really–you realize the size of the city or, you know, the–you see New York in a different way. Yeah, I mean before it was like, you know, popular areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan is what I experienced. And then, you know, being here in the Rockaways really showed me a different…different side of the city. Yeah, I mean down here in the Rockaways, it’s about as much different from anywhere else that I’ve been in the city, which has really shown me the diversity and the size of the city, I guess, and, you know, also the spirit of the people. It’s, you know, not to sound cliché–and I kind of hate it when people talk about how resilient a place is but it’s a pretty resilient place. You know, the fact that we still have pretty strong volunteer interests nearly six months after the storm. Just spontaneous volunteers says something about the nature of the folks here. People want to…people want to help out.
Interviewer: How about in the areas that you’ve working in, you see any differences in–across the neighborhoods that you worked in as far as, you know, the resilient–you mentioned the resilience of the people? Have you seen anything that’s kind of distinct between parts of the Rockaways that you worked in?
Man: In terms of how things are kind of coming along or just the nature of the folks?
Interviewer: Yeah, you could say how things are coming along.
Man: Yeah, slowly things are getting better. It’s definitely much different from when I arrived back in December. You know, in terms of the people, it’s been really interesting seeing how different people…how different people kind of react to…to the storm, you know, to having their entire home or most of their home destroyed. Some people are just crushed. Other people are like, alright, well what do I have to do to make it better? And you know, a lot of people–they just got to carry on. You know, it’s interesting, you know, now in April versus December when I first arrived. You know, people kind of–people are slowly getting back to normal, often still live upstairs in a moldy home. But–what was the question exactly?
Interviewer: Yeah, just any of the differences, I guess, you’ve seen in some of the areas that you worked and how the people affected, you know, experiencing the storm.
Man: A lot of people just didn’t know what to do and still don’t know what to do. You know, like hell, I don’t know what to do. But I can at least try to, you know–Respond and Rebuild–we can give them some help somewhere. And that’s–that actually goes a pretty far way. You know, we worked for this lady a couple of weeks ago who–you know, she lost her husband recently before the storm. And their house was destroyed. And she had no idea what to do. You know, we had talked to her on the phone. And she’d be–you know, she’d start crying if we–you know, if we just were on the phone with her for more than a couple of minutes. She just didn’t know how to deal with it. And then we sent a team over and we cleaned out her house and, you know, scrubbed out all the mold. And it was like night and day, really–yeah, it helped her kind of–she’s still in a messy situation. Your house is destroyed but at least it’s clean and, you know, the mold’s gone and–
Man: I don’t know. I think it’s–that’s just one of the fulfilling parts of this job, is you help give people piece of mind.
Interviewer: Some people are talking about–or making the connection rather to the aftermath of the storm and inequality. What do you think about that?
Man: The aftermath of the storm and inequality–you mean socioeconomic inequality or–?
Interviewer: Yeah, along those lines. You know, how people–are there differences in how people recover based on inequality.
Man: Yeah, I mean if you want to talk in sheer terms of U.S. dollars, it’s cost quite a lot of money. So say you can’t have any volunteer labor and you can’t do any of the work yourself. Then you’re going to be paying out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars to have all this stuff hauled out of your house, to get the mold cleaned, rip your house apart, rebuild it. That’s a lot of money. So if the insurance company doesn’t pay it out and if you don’t have, you know, serious income or significant personal savings or some knowledge of building, then you’re screwed as far as I see it. And you know, these insurance companies really aren’t helping a whole hell of a lot often. You know, they say okay, we only cover exterior damage; we’re not going to–we don’t cover flood. It’s an act of god or they just kind of dress it up as a different worry. So yeah, in terms of inequality, it does often I think come down to do you have enough money to pay for this? Yes, okay fine. If no, then sorry, you have no recourse. You know, you’re going to be living still upstairs above some gross debris and some molding framing, you know. It does often kind of come down to the sheer amount of how much money you got, what are you willing to pay and what are you able to pay.
Interviewer: Do you think this is due to race and class?
Man: I don’t know. I suppose so. You know, it’s all kind of tied in there. In terms of–I don’t really…I don’t really know the exact socioeconomic demographic of the Rockaways. And I do–doing damage assessments, we focus mostly down in Arverne, which is, you know, pretty solid middle-class, more black than say up here in Rockaway Park and Bell Harbor. And certainly everybody was affected. You know, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, you’re poor, or black and white. I guess it stems from–you know, we’re just–I mean that’s a bigger question, isn’t it? Like where does the socioeconomic divide come from, race and class? I mean yeah, it definitely–in general I guess, you see more rich white people– So I don’t know. I couldn’t really say.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Man: I mean that’s a tricky one. I feel like that’s a whole different…a whole different area.
Interviewer: Right. You could say it is. It’s a very loaded topic. You know, it is certainly.
Man: And I mean in terms of, you know, is it easier for you to recover from the storm if you’re white or if you’re black? I don’t know.
Man: I don’t know.
Man: It does seem like there–you know, that this part of the Rockaways is in a further stage of recovery than that part of the Rockaways, you know.
Interviewer: In reference to that part.
Man: This part being, like, the wealthier white part versus the poorer black part.
Man: But you know, I don’t go in every single house. I just kind of–
Interviewer: Okay. What do you think that’s related to? Or what would you say? What would you kind of pin it to?
Man: I don’t know. It seems like…it seems like the relief effort really has been– It does kind of seem like there’s the more money put up into Bell Harbor or Rockaway Park, the whiter part. I’ve seen–I want to be careful here too because I can’t speak to– I just kind of go off with what I was seeing but yeah, there’s quite a lot of work being done up here, a lot of different volunteer groups up here. And I would see less done in Far Rockaway, Arverne.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How about gender? How has gender, from your experiences of doing the volunteer work in this area, how have you seen gender is being a deterrent to the way people experience the storm in the aftermath?
Man: In terms of someone affected by the storm or a relief worker?
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah, or say someone affected by the storm.
Man: I couldn’t say if there’ s any difference. I mean yeah, male or female, if you lose your whole house, you lose your whole house. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge factor. I would say I kind of deal equally with men and women.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright. So we’ll shift gears just a little bit. In your opinion, why did the storm happen?
Man: Well, as you know, a freak occurrence, it was what, the combination of the nor’easter and a really huge hurricane, wasn’t it?
Man: So in terms of weather patterns, I mean I’m no meteorologist but it does seem like these big hurricanes have been happening with more and more frequency in the last few years. So I guess, you know, you can point to Global Warming. Yeah, you know, these big storms weren’t hitting the northeast before. And maybe it’s the change–it’s definitely a shift in weather patterns. You want to call it Global Warming–if you want to call it the sort of natural cycles of the Earth–yeah, it’s a shift in weather patterns certainly. And then the crazy, crazy nor’easter and even the crazy hurricane–that’s what caused the storm.
Interviewer: Okay. Why do you think it was so bad?
Man: New York was just unprepared, you know. I feel like maybe last year people overreacted to Irene and under-reacted to Sandy. Why was it so bad? Yeah, it was also a unique situation where this huge storm hit–what is it? Is New York the largest metropolitan area in the United States probably?
Interviewer: I think it’d probably be safe to say so, yeah.
Man: Yeah, sure. Between the five bureaus and Long Island, Jersey, it was just an unprecedented population density affected.
Man: And kind of coupled with–you know, for example, in Virginia, where I come from, we get these storms. You know, we’re at the tail end of the hurricane path. So we kind of know what to expect up there. And it’s not…it’s not out of the ordinary for a huge, crazy storm to come through. People still do freak out, but at the end of the day, people kind of know what to expect, whereas here, this sort of thing never happens, or it has never really happened in the past. It’s lack of experience.
Interviewer: Do you think we’re likely to see more storms like this occur in the future?
Man: Yeah, I would say so. I would say so. You know, if you had Irene last year and Sandy this year–yeah, I do think so. I don’t think it’s…I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility, unfortunately.
Interviewer: Why do you say that? Why do you think?
Man: It’s–the world has changed and I don’t think–and you know, it was Irene with Sandy. And I wasn’t even on the East Coast for the last couple of years. But what were the [Inaudible 26:07] storms? I don’t know if they were affecting the New York area but, I mean, they definitely were battering Virginia.
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Man: And I’d never seen that before. You know, it’s just crazy changing weather patterns. It does…it does seem like that sort of thing is going to be happening with more frequency. Why–you know, like I said, I don’t really– I don’t know the nuts and bolts of the water systems, but call it a gut feeling, just the way the–you know, the weather has just been getting more and more extreme, you know, colder winters or hotter summers.
Man: Yeah, you get a freak snow storm in–yeah, just unpredictable weather systems. It’s kind of how it’s been turning out.
Interviewer: Okay. So some people have been attributing the storm–think the storm was caused by climate change. What do you think about that?
Man: Climate change, yeah sure. I’d say so.
Man: I mean climate change–I mean when you break it down, climate change is–climate, what is that? It’s the average temperatures and sea levels. And I mean quantifiably speaking, the climate has been changing. And in my opinion, if you know, the climate had been–that’s, you know, more drastic fluctuations in temperatures and different, you know, more extreme weather patterns. That’s climate change, in my opinion. I mean if you have higher sea level, that’s climate change. And you know, like I said, I’m no–I ain’t no big city meteorologist but, you know, that’s the largest variable factor, right, in my opinion.
Interviewer: So what do you think going forward, we can do to make sure this thing doesn’t continue to happen?
Man: Don’t live on a tiny, little barrier island in a densely populated area, you know. Move to the mountains. Yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t buy a house here.
Interviewer: Something to do with the physical vulnerability, just the geography?
Man: Yeah, I’d say so.
Man: I don’t really think that there’s anything that human beings can really do to prevent these huge storms from happening. You know, if you want to attribute it to climate change, then we’ve already opened a Pandora’s Box. We’re not going to get the world to cool back down. Pragmatically speaking, we’re not going to stop burning fossil fuels and destroying the ozone layer. Humans are going–we’re going to use it until it’s all gone. And then who knows what’s going to happen?
Man: So yeah, we’re not going to really–I don’t think we can stop these storms from happening. We’re going to be more prepared. You know, we can–in terms of–so if you want to– How do we avoid such a crazy…a crazy situation like we’ve seen here in the Sandy-affected areas in New York City, I think in terms of just preparedness, yeah, we–just get that information into people’s hands. What do you do? Okay, say the storm comes in and floods your house. What you’ve got to do is you got to rip out all–everything that got flooded, just tear out your walls. Get all your moldy possessions out. Get all the wet stuff out. Dry out the home immediately. And if you see mold, then scrub it out. Vacuum it up. Wipe it down. Make sure it’s dry. And that’s–if people had–if that information was out there, you know, day one after the storm, I think everything would be much different right now. Yeah, easier said than done. Easier said than done. Like nobody really–it’s tough to do that work yourself.
Man: But I think, you know, the knowledge of what you do after a storm–and even, like, with this mold thing, nobody knew what to do with this mold. Everybody–there’s just a whole variety of information out there. There’s like, oh, you can spray some bleach on it and that’s good. Well that’s not really the case. But I think just information and a really, really good first response is the key because what you do within the first, say, week after something like this does kind of magnify it in the coming months. Like for example, if, you know, there’s this house that we gutted a few weeks ago that had been untouched since the storm. It was nasty in there. Everything was completely ruined, whereas if you get to that place right after the storm then, you know, it’s not that bad. The longer…the longer these places sit, the worse it gets.
Interviewer: So how do you think that information is best distributed? Or what’s your ideal approach to how you would distribute that information amongst residents?
Man: Well it depends on your audience. You know, with social media these days, you really are able to reach thousands, millions of people immediately. That being said, I don’t–I think that it’s a little…it’s a little different when you’re working with an older population. You know, so I don’t know. Social media and just boots on the ground, flyering and knocking on the door, you know. We do hold these homeowner mold remediation training sessions throughout the city. And those are sponsored through the Mayor’s Fund. So the city’s actually training. We’re having four of the six of us responding have been contracted to hold, you know, a lecture and then a question and answer session. So I think that’s quite valuable as well. Yeah, through any means possible, depending on your audience. It all depends on the audience, you know.
Interviewer: Okay. How do you think something like that, information like that–it’s distribution, I’m referring to–could vary, you know, from place to place or neighborhood to neighborhood? Do you think that there could be some variance in how information like that is relayed?
Man: Yeah, sure. I mean I would have guessed that the majority of the homeowners that we’re dealing with in Arverne don’t use Twitter, for example. Like I don’t use Twitter. Whereas, I don’t know. What’s an area–in a younger area with a younger demographic, like you can just get on–you know, back to social media. It’s the best way to do it.
Man: So yeah, some people are old school and want to see a piece of paper with some information, some official-looking stuff and other people who just take information however it gets to them. And honestly, I do think that kind of talking with somebody is–does seem to be–in my opinion, it’s really the most effective way to kind of describe something. If you got any questions, just ask the questions and hopefully they get answered.
Interviewer: Yeah. So when you started your initial process of doing the mold removal in Arverne, how did you go about distributing that information?
Man: Well, a lot of it–some information from that, yeah you know, really would– What I started doing–doing assessments was, I would– We have this mold removal guide that’s geared towards homeowners. We wrote it up specifically with homeowners in mind. You know, like if somebody was able to do the work themselves, this is how you do it and this is what you need. So I would have a copy of that in my clipboard, and by the end of the damage assessments, said alright, this is how we do mold. If you’re able to do it yourself, this is how you do it. And I would walk through, step by step, probably spend a good ten minutes per home–
Man: –going over that. And you know, it’s not the fastest way to do it but I feel like it’s pretty–it’s thorough.
Man: And I think in most cases, people probably didn’t even wind up doing it themselves, but you know, it kind of goes back to what I was saying about people just wanting to hear some information, just get some good information that makes sense. And I will say, at the end of the–when I finished talking about how we do mold, people were like, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s just people–just nobody had any idea about this, you know, mold epidemic. You could call it something like that.
Man: It’s this crazy overwhelming thing where all of a sudden your whole basement is covered in this, you know, green gray black carpet. And like all of a sudden you have asthma, it seems like. How do you get rid of it? It’s like well, it’s actually–it takes a lot of work but it’s–it’s nothing that you haven’t heard before. You know, it doesn’t require crazy chemicals or anything like that. So yeah, talking that through really, I think, helps explain the process and help them make sense, and put people at ease. You know, now actually doing it is another–a whole other thing.
Interviewer: How would you gage your knowledge regarding mold removal from a hurricane or storm rather like Sandy?
Man: So we all of our information largely from–so it was based on–initially it was based on this–the [Inaudible 36:46] Study, which was a seven-year study post-Katrina from Biloxi, Mississippi for, I believe they compared several different, or three or four different molding techniques to– I think it was a housing project in Biloxi. So it was a situation where they could, you know, compare side by side different techniques in more or less the same, you know, the same environment. The one we chose was the most effective and, you know, fairly low cost but lots of work. And then we–and again, this is a good question for Terri, Gabby, Ian, the guys that were here in November because, you know, they started moving on it immediately.
Man: And you know, from them, we kind of collaborated with a public health professor and, you know, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, just asked, you know, medicine people and just asked them loads of questions, really annoying, detailed questions about, well, do we need…do we need a biocide? Do we need just a regular, you know, a low-end disinfectant like vinegar or bleach or do we need this–do we need chemicals? What do we need? What’s the best way to do it? And just by asking a bunch of people really. Research. Ask people. I didn’t know anything about killing mold.
Man: Oh, no.
Interviewer: Before the storm?
Man: No, not at all.
Interviewer: So you hadn’t worked…you hadn’t worked on any other mold removal projects previously?
Man: No. It’s just–it’s really heavy duty cleaning and hard work. You know, that’s where–you know, I have skills in kind of delegating…delegating work and supervising people and I’m pretty detail-oriented as well. So I mean those are all things that will come into play. And then it’s just a matter of learning a whole new skill set. It’s not that complicated doing these mold jobs. You just have to be really meticulous.
Man: Yeah. I mean none of us really knew anything about removing mold. And it was just a really steep learning curve, but you know, once we got all that information, it was pretty straight forward actually.
Interviewer: Well, I’m going to, again, shift gears a little bit. Speak a little bit more about asking some more questions about your experience as a volunteer, volunteer responder. So we’d already gone over how you got involved. What did you expect before you started to volunteer?
Man: Pretty much what I got, you know, hard, manual labor. I knew–I was asked to come out to help supervise and lead teams. And that’s what I expected and that’s what I got. I–yeah, I knew that there were huge numbers of people coming out to work. But yeah, I’d done flood relief before, so I kind of knew–
Interviewer: You did do flood relief before?
Man: Yeah, yeah. More on the demolition and gutting side of things, not so much the mold.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright.
Man: Yeah, the mold. I didn’t anticipate doing the mold removal.
Interviewer: No, you didn’t anticipate doing it.
Interviewer: So that was–how was–so that was a little bit different from what you expected to get involved in before you came?
Man: Uh huh. Yeah, but I didn’t really–I kind of came into this with a fairly…fairly open mind. You know, disaster response is a really–it’s always a dynamic situation. Nothing’s ever set in stone. No situation is perfect. No situation is–you know, every single place that you go is different from the previous one.
Interviewer: Yeah. So where did you volunteer previously? Or where have you done disaster relief previously?
Man: In Leogane in Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago and in Minot, North Dakota after heavy flooding about a year and a half ago.
Interviewer: Okay. How were those two experiences different than what you experienced here? Or similar?
Man: Well Haiti was much different. Didn’t speak the language at first. I learned it. And you know, it was an earthquake, so the nature of the work was rubble removal and demolition at first. And then the organization with which I was working transitioned more into development of a school building, which is pretty good. So you know, the climate was different. In terms of the climate, you know, it’s a tropical country. So it’s just hot all the time. Whereas here, it was dead winter and super cold and miserable. You know, the volunteer experience–in then in North Dakota, it was autumn, so it was sort of in between there. North Dakota is really sparsely populated. Leogane, Haiti fairly densely populated. And then New York also, you know, densely populated, but it was not quite as much as you have in other places. But still, a lot of people here. And in terms of the volunteer response, you know, North Dakota was kind of a blend of volunteers who showed up for the day and people who were there every day, whereas–well, in Leogane, most of the volunteers I was working were–pretty much everybody was staying there for a set period of time, you know, from a week to several months. And here, we have people–we do have a handful of folks who come back fairly regularly. But I would say eighty percent of the time it’s–you know, any given day I would say we were training of new people half the time. So there’s a lot of one and dones and young groups will come for a couple of days and then not come back.
Interviewer: Okay. Sorry. So any other areas? You said that there were fixed groups that stayed for periods of time?
Interviewer: How did your group’s mission relate to the relief work that you were performing?
Man: I mean we’re pretty much fulfilling our mission. We–you know, what we want to do is work with the same homeowners through the whole stage of the process as far as we can go. And right now, it takes us as far as, you know, pumping a basement, mucking it out, which is removal of furniture and soggy personal items, gutting demolition, which is removal of building components, and then mold removal, which is scrubbing out mold. And you know, we are rebuilding in some cases. But we really don’t have the funds or the capacity to do that right now. And we have–you know, going over our numbers, we have worked with the same homeowners through, I mean, through a lot of these jobs. So that’s one of our…that’s one our biggest goals, is just to keep working with the same people. We formed pretty good relationships with these homeowners. One thing I’ve noticed. People get kind of sick of all these different people coming through and, you know, taking data. Like okay, we’ll–and then they never hear anything back from them. So I don’t know. We all just wanted to avoid that because it’s annoying. It’s like having religious zealots come and knock on your door and bother you and–
Interviewer: So when you say take data, you mean they come in to assess damages or–
Man: Yeah, I don’t even know what they do. People just go door to door with clipboards canvassing for god knows what. You know, sometimes–I think sometimes they’ll come back and be helpful and sometimes they’ll just never do anything. So we kind of just wanted to avoid that.
Man: And it’s easier too. You know what’s going on in somebody’s house. Okay, you know so and so. This is what their house looks like. This is what you do. This is what you don’t do, etc. It’s just way easier than going out and finding new jobs all the time.
Interviewer: Okay. Approximately how many–do you have an idea of how many homes or how many homeowners you’re working with?
Man: Yeah. You know, we’ve–I’ve been tracking our numbers over the last few months very carefully. And still we’re going back over our numbers from the first few months, like the immediate first response where it was like way too busy to keep good track of anything. Yeah, we have done–so we’ve done mold removal in over, I’d say, around sixty homes. We have gutted out over a hundred. We mucked out probably about the same amount. We pumped out–I don’t know–dozens of basements. So I mean I’m going to say we’ve worked easily in a hundred and fifty, maybe close to two hundred homes.
Interviewer: Wow. And most of them in Arverne and–?
Man: I’d say…I’d say the majority in Arverne, but really all over the Rockaways.
Interviewer: Okay. Were the houses that you worked in–were they in any particular part of Arverne? Is there any–I mean is there…is there a specific area of Arverne that you were working in?
Man: Not really. Arverne’s pretty small. I know we definitely did–you know, street by street. Some streets are at a slightly lower elevation, which does make actually a huge difference. So we have done lots of work on sixty-seventh, sixty-eighth, sixty-ninth streets, for example. And I think a lot of the times homeowners got a–they’d see us working, ask a neighbor, or ask the volunteer crews, like hey where were you guys? And you know, word about us spreads.
Man: So no, no specific area in particular. But I would say that we have worked on more streets more than others, some streets more than others.
Man: But Arverne’s pretty small anyway, so we go all over it.
Interviewer: All over the whole, okay. Was your organization adequately equipped to perform the work that you’re doing?
Man: Yeah. You know, Occupy Sandy was really, really helpful in hooking us up with their donor network. So we do pretty much have every tool imaginable. And we did an online fundraiser specifically for mold removal tools. So you know, we went and bought a bunch of dehumidifiers for drying out homes, which is completely essential. So I mean in terms of tools, we had everything we need. And that was really just funding. General funding is sorely lacking.
Interviewer: General funding?
Man: Yeah, you know, the six of us have been doing this since–well, me since December, Ian, Terri, Gabby, Shana since November. And you know, there have been several others too.
Interviewer: What effected you most during your volunteering after the storm?
Man: In terms of–?
Interviewer: The work you performed.
Man: I mean I–you know, it’s a pretty great feeling to know you’re actually helping somebody who has no other recourse. So yeah, that’s why I do this, because it’s–you know, we got to look out for each other out there. So you know, it’s effected me, just the relief that you can see in somebody’s expression and demeanor once, you know, once they know they’re one step along on the path to recovery. On the other side of the coin, what’s effected me is just, you know, I get completely burnt out from stress sometimes just training new people up day to day and dealing with chaos. You know, these days it’s a little quieter, which is good.
Interviewer: How if at all has your organization worked with other organizations, other volunteer groups or government agencies in response?
Man: Government agencies–we–so yeah, four of us have been doing these city-sanctioned mold remediation trainings. So I guess that’s how we’ve collaborated with the government. In terms of funding or visibility, we haven’t really gotten any help from the city or the government. Other agencies, we did work with Occupy Sandy pretty extensively. You know, they’re helpful with getting the word out about volunteers and tool donations and some funding donations as well. Other organizations, YANA and Restore The Rock, we’ve been kind of working with since the other days–I’m sorry. Since the early days. They kind of do homeowner advocacy or tenant advocacy. Where we do labor, they look out for people getting screwed by various agencies.
Interviewer: This is YANA that does this?
Man: YANA slash Restore The Rock.
Interviewer: Restore The Rock.
Man: Who else? Yeah, I mean we definitely worked with probably–Habitat for Humanity hooked us up with some sheet rock. You know, All Hands Volunteers have given us, you know, a bunch of their excess tools and some of their materials. So yeah, it’s just a matter of people. We’re all in this for the same reason, more or less. And you know, non-profit groups are just looking to help each other out in any way they see fit. You know, it’s not a competition.
Interviewer: Right. Right. Do you think the efforts are going to continue in the future?
Man: Yeah, I do. Some organizations are in it for longer than others. But there’s no way we can pull out without any–you know, I think we’re…we’re in it until we feel like we’re in a place where we can either turn it over to someone local for rebuilding or–but I mean yeah, the recovery efforts are going to be going on for years and years and years.
Interviewer: Okay. One question I wanted to ask you. We’d spoken a little bit about–you mentioned some things about insurance money, the difficulties of getting insurance money. You know, this is related to FEMA or just homeowners insurance in general?
Man: Well the insurance money–have been having difficulty getting it because general liability insurance for doing volunteer-based mold remediation–
Man: And that’s kind of tied into some grant money.
Interviewer: What’s the difficulty in getting the grant money? Is it a specific problem for, just in general, disaster relief or–?
Man: I think it’s kind of a response to the post-9/11 first responder–it’s the lawsuits that have been coming down from being affected by inhalation of particular matter at Ground Zero after 9/11. So now the city’s just being super cautious about, well, getting sued basically–
Man: –by the people working through them.
Interviewer: Okay. So you have to, to be able to work in somebody’s home, you have that homeowner–what do they have to have in order for you to enter and do the work?
Man: See, we have our own legal waiver. So when we’re doing in-house jobs, before we respond, we have them sign our own waiver, which you know, lawyers have looked over it. Lawyers have drafted it up, so it’s good. And then the problem with the insurance is to get the specific grant that we’ve been going for, they do want a whole different grade of insurance, so.
Interviewer: Is that something is–I guess how would you obtain that, that type of insurance? What do you need specifically?
Man: I don’t know. That’s not really–I’m not working on that myself.
Interviewer: Oh, okay.
Man: Yeah. Shana–I think Shana would be the one to–
Interviewer: She’s the one that knows.
Man: –talk to about that, yeah.
Man: I mean I’m not sure to what extent I should talk about this program because we’re not quite in it yet.
Interviewer: No problem. Not a problem at all. Okay. So what are…what are some of the main challenges that you’re having to deal with right now?
Man: You know, right now it’s still the challenges that we were facing at the beginning. It’s really just personnel capacity. Like people who are skilled and safety conscious enough to take unskilled volunteer teams out in the field and get jobs done safely and efficiently. Yeah, that and, you know, funding still. Yeah, good personnel, funding. Tools–we’re good on tools. We’re definitely good on equipment. Yeah. Volunteer numbers have kind of dwindling but, you know, if we had the personnel to take people out into the field and put them to work, we could get some more volunteers.
Man: Skilled personnel, I’d say.
Interviewer: Skilled personnel.
Man: Yeah. You know, if we had some more money, we could hire people but we don’t, so we can’t.
Interviewer: So maybe to take on some other types of work? Is that–?
Man: Yeah, I mean we’d love to get a building program going. I mean by this point we’ve been doing we’ve been doing mold for the entirety of 2013 so far. And it kind of sucks to do, man. You know? I don’t know if you–did you go out on any mold jobs?
Interviewer: I didn’t since I’ve been–the two times I went, I didn’t. So I don’t even know what the experience is like.
Man: Yeah, I mean it’s not–I don’t think it’s very–it’s not fun. You know, you’re scrubbing mold, like you couldn’t imagine–
Man: It’s brutal. Yeah.
Interviewer: For eight hours a day or–?
Man: No, like five hours, four hours.
Interviewer: Still. It’s a lot of time.
Man: Yeah, I mean in terms of volunteering interest, I think it’s a hell of a lot easier to get people interested in tearing apart a house or building it back up rather than doing the mold removal, which is completely important but it’s hard work, not glamorous work.
Interviewer: Okay. There’s been some talk about the storm prompting some more serious action regarding climate change. There’s something that they have in New York City called the PlaNYC 2007. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. It talked a lot about climate change but mainly in terms of curbing emissions. Do you think the priority after Sandy will shift from mitigation to adaptation?
Man: I have no idea. I don’t know anything about that.
Interviewer: Okay. Would you say mitigation is even on the table anymore or–?
Man: Yeah, I don’t know.
Man: I don’t know anything about that.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright. No problem.
Man: I never even thought about it. I don’t think about climate change too often, day to day.
Interviewer: Alright. So we spoke a little bit earlier about race, class, and gender categories, how social scientists kind of talk a lot about this in work. Are you or other volunteer responders talking about these issues explicitly with respect to your work in the aftermath of Sandy?
Man: Yeah, I mean we try to work for, you know, the more middle/lower class folks in Arverne and Far Rockaway more than Bell Harbor, you know. That is something we have just been avoiding just because–I mean it goes back to what I was saying. Just see volunteer groups or people helping out in Arverne rather than up in Rockaway Park, Bell Harbor.
Man: But I mean, you know, we never really set out with like a specific social justice agenda in mind like we’re only going to work for poor black people. You know?
Man: It’s just about helping people. Everyone’s situation is different.
Man: But yeah, we did kind of focus on Arverne just because it’s–well for one, because it’s our neighborhood where–it’s where our office was. And in terms of sheer logistics, it’s a hell of a lot easier to push a wheelbarrow full of tools to work rather than get in a van and drive a whole bunch of people a few miles up the peninsula, up the island, yeah.
Interviewer: Yeah, okay. What types of changes have you seen in the neighborhood since you’ve been there?
Man: People are just kind of getting back to–getting their place back to normal more. The places have been cleaned out and rebuilt. And the roads are a little better. Traffic’s not as crazy.
Interviewer: Yeah. From the time you started–you said you started in December? So you’ve been working roughly how long in the area?
Man: December, January, February, March, April–about five months, four and a half to five months.
Interviewer: Have you seen any changes in the involvement in the residents in the community participating in volunteer work?
Man: No, I mean actually community involvement and volunteering has been kind of low from the get-go. I mean I think people are less inclined to work for free when, you know, they have–they have to worry about their own…their own place. Like once–pretty regularly we’ll have a homeowner working alongside but that does sort of seem to be the extent of it. Right there. Yeah, I mean I can’t blame them. If my home got ruined by some crazy flood, I’d be way less concerned in working for free in my neighbor’s house when I have my own place to worry about.
Interviewer: Have you guys tried anything to try to get more people involved and the community involved in participating in the volunteer work?
Man: Yeah, we definitely had some–a handful of different community events about what sort of services are available post-Sandy. And we do volunteer outreach at those but, you know, it just doesn’t–people just don’t seem that interested in it.
Interviewer: Okay. So do you foresee this as another problem in the recovery efforts or–?
Man: I just don’t think that you can really rely on volunteer labor for kind of long-term recovery.
Interviewer: Oh, I see.
Man: Yeah, it’s–I think volunteer work is really great for first response but in terms of getting a place rebuilt or back to normal or better than before, I think that’s got to be kind of–well, I don’t know. I’m not a–I don’t do any volunteer outreach myself. So I might be better–I think Terri would be–Terri would have some good…some good input on that.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or–?
Man: I don’t think so.
Man: It’s a pretty thorough interviewer.
Interviewer: Great. Well I appreciate your participation.
Man: No, I’m happy to do it. It actually helped me kind of work through–get a little perspective to what we’ve been doing.
Interviewer: Okay. Excellent.
End of recording.
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