Interview with Carlos Menchaca, liaison to Speaker Christine Quinn
Interview with Carlos Menchaca, liaison to Speaker Christine Quinn. On the Record.
Interviewer: Jessica Stinchcomb
Q: Thank you for agreeing to the interview, I have several questions about your experience with the storm, your sense of what happened and what’s still happening. If anything is unclear please let me know or any reason you don’t want to answer a question just let me know and we’ll skip it as well.
Q: So let’s start off with again if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself, your name, your occupation, how long you’ve lived in New York?
A: My name is Carlos [Manchaka] and I was a liaison to Speaker Christine [Quinn] during the storm. I worked at the speaker’s office for two years as her [LGBT] [NHAV] liaison and was dispatched to Brooklyn, Red Hook waterfront for disaster and recovery relief coordination.
Q: Thank you very much.
A: And I’ve lived in New York for about nine years.
Q: So let’s start discussing your experience with Sandy. Can you just give me kind of a brief overview where you were when the storm hit?
A: I was in Park Slope with my partner riding out the storm and watching the news as it came in about the different pieces of the storm which included the surge and the high wind and impact to the city. Woke up the next morning and realized there was a lot of devastation. So many of the communities didn’t have power, heat and we got reports of that. Immediately the city council went into disaster relief mode and I had checked in throughout most of that day with all the other council members and really connected to each of the staffs about what they were doing, what kind of plans. And we fed that back to the speaker’s office and that’s what we did for basically the first day. I did ride my bike around and through all the devastation and in my neighborhood but realized that there was a big distinction between what happened in Park Slope which is not within a flooding zone and what was happening in the flooding zone. So the next day I rode my bike down to Red Hook after I had done my check-in with all the council members and Red Hook was the closest point to me and decided to go to a neighborhood that I had known for awhile from my previous jobs and that was just a place that I absolutely loved and adored. And noticed and witnessed some of the more devastating things that I had probably ever seen in a community where people were just walking around like zombies just trying to figure out what to do and stumbled upon a community meeting that ended up happening with the different organizations that wanted to be helpful. Sat, listened, answered some questions, introduced myself as the speaker’s liaison and basically just stayed there since then for the next three months. And my motivation was just to listen and learn about what was happening. The shock hit me too as it hit everybody else. Of course I didn’t lose anything in the storm but I did understand and empathize with that loss on the ground.
Q: Okay excellent. Okay so after the community meeting — well at the community meeting, what sort of organizations that initial community meeting?
A: So the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce was there and the community meeting was at a gallery, a gallery that was part nonprofit, part for profit but most of the people that came were small business leaders [inaudible 3:55], all of their ground floor retail. So it was the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, there was the local congress woman, it was the local council member, it was a couple people from the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, you had government and non-profits that were helpful in trying to get an understanding about what was needed. The group was all residents so you had a lot of people who came in and were just talking about their experience and saying I don’t have — it was a really interesting dynamic because you had these larger organizations, government saying we want to be helpful, pointing to things like we want to make sure loans get in and already kind of hearing this larger conversation where people were not there yet. They were like “we need our toilets to work, my whole house is flooded, I might have a garden apartment.” Everything is destroyed and that’s the level that they were at and I think the people that didn’t experience it themselves it really took some time to get to there, to get to the point where all we needed to do was figure out this destruction component of the storm. And I saw some separation, some distance and some need to come together to this happy medium or if they can actually be on the same page, I didn’t really see that.
Q: Okay. So you were acting as a liaison for Christine Quinn’s office, how did you merge your role in government with this more community oriented section?
A: So I think the way that I can describe that merger for me was really letting go of anything that I had thought I was in the past and allow myself to be an organizer for the people and allow them to direct me. And so it’s interesting that you ask because I haven’t thought about this but instead of my boss being my boss I allowed the people to be my boss and I really just listened, asked questions. People wanted me to go to their homes and look at what they were talking about. There was a lot of lost in translation situations where people just didn’t understand what was happening.
And that second day people were already taking things out of their basement, wet mattresses, wet couches and lining them up out on the sidewalk. So you had this really interesting piling up of debris on the street and some of it ended up in the middle of the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, all the cars were destroyed in the neighborhood so people weren’t driving, people were walking. And we’ll get to the bike thing later but people were on bikes and there was no electricity anywhere, you couldn’t use your cell phone. So it was really like things that you would experience in a country where infrastructure wasn’t basic and available and I suddenly realized this is serious, this is so serious that I’m no longer going to do what I’m told by someone else that’s not in this neighborhood.
I’m going to allow the neighborhood to tell me what to do and I think that’s where the merger happened and I changed hats immediately. And I said I’m now a responder, I’m a responder and I need to deal with this situation that I see in front of me and if someone is — it was almost like — and just explain the kind of urgency that I got you would see someone say bleeding on the ground you would go to them and aid them. It was the same kind of reaction with people who had lost everything and that’s when I emerged into this new organizer disaster relief person.
Q: What were the biggest issues, the main issues that you wanted to address first off?
A: I think first off was coordination. There was no coordination that I saw immediately and so I really just spend a day riding my bike all around the neighborhood, what was going on, who was doing what. I think there was a lot of immediate reaction so neighbor helping neighbor and that was happening across the community. Went over to a couple places, one that ended up being an interesting hub for the community that was a little bit upland and not in the flood zone. And that was one of the only places that had electricity and that was the Red Hook Initiative. The Red Hook Initiative is a nonprofit in Red Hook that provided a lot of assistance to the NYCHA Housing Development. In Red Hook more than 2/3rd of the people lived in public housing and they just concentrated hours of public housing. And they really did service a lot of that to Red Hook Initiative services, those buildings and really focuses on the youth empowerment and job workforce element et cetera. Walked in there, it was a mad house, supplies were already coming in, people were flocking to that location. Someone tweeted it; Occupy Sandy made that their headquarters and worked hand in hand with Red Hook Initiative to develop some sort of immediate disaster response. So I walked in there it was mayhem and I realized that they were doing distribution of stuff, like things that were coming in food, clothes, whatever and they were trying to do volunteer coordination there.
And then there was some medical, like do you have medical needs poster; I realized this was one hub and this was not going to be enough for everybody. So I immediately made the decision, I called someone that had a nonprofit on the other end and this is where I started the day on [inaudible 10:10] Street on the other end of the neighborhood and I said can I use that office for the next day, I want to have all the volunteers go to that hub so we can push out volunteers so we can remove the volunteer coordination out of this place since this is a small location [inaudible 10:27] location. He said yes, I told — I didn’t know who was in charge but I told as many people as possible tomorrow 40200 Brent is going to be the new hub, put that out in your social media, I’ll do that in mine. And then I made that executive decision and that’s the kind of spirit that was needed in those few days and people understood it, they respected it, they said sounds great what’s the plan, on it, got it. And the next day removed all the volunteer coordination from that location so that they can really focus on the high need issues and the non-volunteers.
So that was really how I thought about my first thing was create some kind of coordinated effort and alleviate the different hubs. What I also realized too was that we needed to move the distribution spot because so much stuff was coming in and out and there’s a small space. So I also contacted a friend of mine who worked with catholic charities who had a connection with the Education Church which was another location and started the conversation about making that as a distribution hub.
Q: So when exactly did the governmental organizations or larger relief efforts actually make it to Red Hook, like the Red Cross?
A: We could’ve not even cared for the Red Cross, they brought up more issues [inaudible 12:02]. I would say in general I think that we saw the presence of government and I know working for government but I’m not working for the agencies that were responsible for the relief and recovery.
A: Stuff, like the things that we all expect to happen. I would say two weeks; it took really two weeks for a full earnest visibility in the government. The trailers started showing up and you saw FEMA in a larger way. They trickled in for sure but their ambitions and their plug into the community was not where I expected them to be. And their nimbleness is clearly not at all possible. So I would say in two weeks we finally saw some support where the first two weeks we were really battling it out as a team of volunteers. And some of the liaisons through the government were really real major government institutional support. What you also saw were people coming out of the woodwork with things that were very important. Like somebody in the community owned a warehouse near the neighborhood, instantly everyone got that information and sent everything that was coming in to that warehouse. So that became a warehouse station, the distribution spots, the churches started coming online as distribution sites happily. And so those things were all in place with volunteers and private [inaudible 13:53] which is a great feeling but it wasn’t a great feeling when two weeks later the ambulances finally show up to the public housing. And we had already created a popup medical clinic in one of our locations that were servicing 200 plus home bound senior citizens and non senior citizens but mostly senior citizens. And we were doing this all within our own means. This was led by a local PhD medical student who had some New Orleans Katrina experience just some and just did like all of the rest of us; assess the situation, figured out he could be helpful, made some executive decisions and did it because no one else was there to do it. And so that was the first two weeks.
Q: Excellent, that’s medical Matt right? So would you classify anything that the city did as effective?
A: I’ll say this, this storm was more than anyone could’ve ever handled period. I don’t think any government would’ve been able to respond in the way that it could have really not knowing how devastating this could’ve been to communities. So I want to say that, this was an impossible storm to respond to. But that’s because there was no electricity, the fact that this hit so many parts of the city at once it was almost like we were being attacked by some foreign country and we are left to rebuild and it was like this one blitz attack. And so I’ll say that this was impossible for any government. But what I saw different than in response than the people who were actually effective on the ground was this one quality that I’m going to rise to the top which is people with a sense and appreciation and a commitment to organizing. And I think our government failed on what needed to happen in the beginning which was how to organize people, how to organize, be an organizer. And if you’re a political organizer you have the skills, if you’re an event organizer you have the skills. If you’re someone that organizes birthday parties and [inaudible 16:38] together you’re an organizer.
[End Part A, Begin Part B]
A: So I also want to say that one of some of the first folks that we saw on the ground that were doing assessments and it was unclear to me what FEMA was and I got that they were this federal emergency group but all of a sudden I started seeing people come over. And in the middle of so much of the coordination we were coordinating over 4,000 people in the first two weeks and pushing them out to do things and clean up and whatever was needed and gather medical information or gather medical needs from people and sending that information over to the medical clinic, the popup medical clinic that we had. So there was a lot of hustle and bustle so the FEMA people were really the second priority for me, they weren’t my first priority and they got that and they saw. They came over and they were respectful and they were like, listen I know you’re doing the right thing here, awesome if you have a couple minutes we want to talk to you, we’re doing an assessment of the neighborhood. And at first I thought what kind of government agency is going to step back and not take over and I didn’t get it at the beginning. It was one of those weird — it was like I’m not going to deal with them right now.
And then when I finally had some time, some down time in between shifts where I was pushing people out I sat down with them and then I realized that they were hugely impactful and the way that they did their work was just to get a sense of community. And they were actually doing what I thought government should’ve been doing in the first place was just hang back, listen, figure out how to get plugged in and they asked the right kind of questions, they helped me formulate a perspective about what the community was, where it was. And so when I was explaining to them what Red Hook was, where the spaces were because they had just rolled into one section of the neighborhood. I really divided it up, they asked me how to divide it up, they asked me about different locations, different demographics of the neighborhood. I got what they were asking for and that helped them create staffing roles for the community and get checks out to people. And that was their only job and they did that efficiently and they came in and that’s all they were supposed to do. I was thinking they were going to come in and help organize everything and that wasn’t their role and I didn’t get that in the beginning. So that wasn’t something that was clear to me and offered a lot of disappointment just because I didn’t have the expectation. But more and more I go through the community and most people got their checks or an answer of some kind and didn’t have too many issues with the process with FEMA. Once the trailer showed up they sat down and did their work. But really those people that came in from wherever, Nebraska, Ohio, wherever they came in and really got to work on their number one mission which is to get an application from everybody and get money out to people’s hands for disaster relief and recovery. And that’s their number one job.
Q: So I was under the impression that they were the ones that would be coordinating recovery efforts so if they’re not the ones that do it who specifically if you hadn’t been there would be the ones coordinating that?
A: That is still unclear to me but I believe that what we did in the recovery response — see I was a government employee, an employee of the city council I do believe that city council is integral and as a local, hyper local elected to be part of this recovery coordination. And that’s what I did and so let’s talk a little bit about government and how they were able to respond. On March I think it was 12th at that time, the Daily News and I can check it later but the Daily News reported that Speaker Quinn had officially sent people out into neighborhoods to do recovery efforts, to do whatever was specific and needed and keep us there. We were not allowed to come back to our — not allowed but we were sanctioned and okay to stay in the neighborhoods to do recovery efforts. I had another job, LGBT liaison and HIV liaison and they were going to take care of it, they were going to take care of that role and [inaudible 4:50]. It’s just part of a joint commission that allowed for me to work in partnership with the Office of Emergency Management which I think answers your question about who might have been the group that organized.
A: And I think they might have wanted to take on some of that control of how things got out into the community, distribution of stuff that came in through the mayor’s office from City Harvest, from Wal-Mart, from wherever things were coming from and coordinating all that stuff. So there wasn’t any real handbook that kind of gave us orders, it was different in every community. And in our community the volunteers really did most of that coordination effort. Fast forward today you have an organization that is now applying for 501C3 status and which are called the Red Hook Volunteers that have kind of emerged from that structure of organizing that included some Occupy people, that included some local residents that were Occupy people, that included some local residents that had no relation to Occupy in their new residence. And the reason their new residence is that two of the guys that are leading the effort right now on the ground are two people that were on a road trip from Michigan and decided to turn around in North Carolina and come back up to New York and come to Red Hook and have stayed ever since and they’re organizing efforts. We had a blizzard recently and they were on the ground coordinating volunteers, getting people to help shovel elderly homes, homes of elderly people’s driveways. And so that infrastructure was born out of Sandy.
Q: And so they’re planning on continuing their efforts in the neighborhood?
A: Yeah because a storm will come again and we need to be ready this time with the same kind of immediate response, separation response and planned relief.
Q: So you mentioned the volunteers and I know that Red Hook is a slightly isolated community out there because there’s no direct subway line. What sort of volunteers were showing up?
A: Yeah the volunteers, they were a godsend really. I think the way that I understood because I was asking people every so often, where’d you come from, who are you, what’s your profile? Because at one point I saw a thousand people outside and like where are you guys coming from, it can’t be just from my Facebook posts, I’m like where are you guys coming from. And I realized that even before I got to the volunteers there were a lot of people sounding the alarms. Our local Council member Brad Lander had a really great Park Slope blog, his Twitter, Facebook messaging system that he sent out day one. And so people were walking from Park Slope, people were walking from Carol Gardens, from [inaudible 7:55], from Brooklyn Heights. And so the broad stroke on the volunteers is they walked from the neighboring communities. And when you think about it’s actually not that far, it’s like a 10-15 minute walk so most people walked.
A: Another group of people biked to Red Hook and they biked to Red Hook because — and it’s not easy to bike to Red Hook because the streets are all weird. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that people who have been to Red Hook before, an affinity for Red Hook and they wanted to come and help Red Hook. And so many people were like oh my favorite restaurant is here, I love Fairway, Ikea is awesome, whatever it was people had an affinity and they came to Red Hook. And they were coming to Red Hook and they were not going to these other places like Coney Island because Coney Island was so far away and the trains weren’t working. And so this immediately became a walking neighborhood and that’s how people got to Red Hook, it was so close. And in so many ways I forget how disconnected it is through the [inaudible 9:02] so there is a major transit bridge elevated thanks to Robin Moses that separates the neighborhood and it really puts it at a whole different level of [inaudible 9:19]. And it creates this small town feel because of what you just described, this disconnection through subway. But for that first month when a thousand people were coming to Red Hook and mostly on the weekend but throughout the week as well it felt like it reconnected the fabric of New York City.
Q: So you mentioned before that when FEMA came you were explaining how you’d broken up the neighborhood into different sections. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?
A: Yeah so the kind of rap that I gave them was that this was a community that had about 10-12,000 people living in the neighborhood, 2/3 of those came from Red Hook houses. I took out a map and circled the different locations. Here was public housing concentration, here’s where you have — and what I would describe is an inability for the government to respond to those high needs in those towers where that was different from — and then I kind of drew a line from the different sections of Red Hook. So you had — the community maybe not in a good way was trying to get out of it. The front is Red Hook houses, public housing; the back is the residents that are moving in. These are young professionals with families, these are more middle class families and what separates them is Van Brunt Commercial Street. So I wanted to let them know about where things were. I also pointed out all the different hubs. So we had the medical clinic and distribution here, we had three churches pointed out the churches. They wanted to know where the different hubs of that community were and where they could possibly find them. Because they were also riding from different hubs just to check in some people. We also created a bike messenger — so the bikes were integral. People came in and we started a bike rally right next door, we took over a corner — it wasn’t a park but it was a corner yard from somebody and they let us take it over for the day to create a bike rally. We took bike riders and had a bike messenger system because we couldn’t use our phones, there was no electricity and there was no gas so people weren’t going to drive around and do this for us. So bike messengers went to all the different hubs and took information and brought it back to me and a couple other people that were doing more of a high level conversation and coordination. So that’s the kind of system that they wanted to know. They wanted to know who’s communicating with who, how that’s being communicated, they wanted to know where the things were being distributed; they wanted to know if there were medical services in the neighborhood. They wanted to know all the big picture stuff and that’s how we — and we also made Red Hook know that there were industrial buildings on the peers that were doing recovery work that might need FEMA’s help as well. They wanted to know that, they wanted to know if it was dead or alive in some ways, was it dead space or were there people that we should go talk to. So I gave them that lay of the land of where they should concentrate on their reporting and assessment.
Q: You mentioned that there was a clear divide from Dan Brunt correct? As far as like the community response, the actual residents, were they mainly helping, was there a large divide between the public housing and the businesses and more affluent residents there? Were they kind of sticking within their own demographics or socioeconomic classes and things like that or was it kind of just a broad helping each other out kind of?
A: This is the storm that equalized everybody overnight; everyone was affected by this storm. This storm did not discriminate in any way and offered across the board reaction so everybody was reacting to the storm. And you had these high-rises that had no — it was actually probably worse and by worst everyone was affected negatively of course. But when you saw where teams of people coming from — and this was volunteers from the residences but you saw everybody working together for the response. And that’s the broad stroke on it. But I think immediately what I could tell you is that there were a lot of barriers that were broken from the storm. There were a lot of silver linings and when we were having community meetings at night just checking in with everybody and saying look especially with all the people that were doing coordination we did reports and people were like yes these needs are being met in the houses at our capacity. If we don’t have the capacity to turn these lights but until these lights get turned on this is what we’re doing, we’re shuttling water up 18 flights of steps, we’re bringing food to Ms. Jones on the 4th floor because she can’t go down, she needs the elevator so we’re bringing her food. And so there was a sense of community that really broke down all barriers and it was this beautiful spirit and people were talking about it and people were really excited about that. And people were talking about the old days when that was rarely happening. And so it was a good feeling.
Q: Did that continue after for weeks or months?
A: And it still does, I think the unfortunate thing is that when the lights got turned back on, the heat is back on temporarily in these temporary boilers that NYCHA has because they need to figure other things out. People are going back to their little spot, their little cliques, their little communities, the sub communities and I think there’s a larger group within the community that’s trying to keep everybody together. They recently had a community — Red Hook community dinner where everyone that was involved in the storm in some way came together about 200 people and there was this beautiful moment where people were realizing this is family, this is what family is all about. And for some people that have moved away from their family or have family there but could now feel part of the larger community they were able to kind of express that and talk about it and reconnect and reminisce in those first days of recovery and response. So it’s still alive for sure but it’s going to take more to keep that together and that’s what we’re going to hope for leadership in the nonprofit and from the local government to keep that going.
Q: Is there a specific group right now that’s kind of taking that over?
A: Well there’s a group that’s still trying to materialize and I would call them the Red Hook coalition. They were the ones that responded to some of the first — they were the ones that responded individually collectively — individually responded collectively to the response in getting volunteers and hosting like I said before some of the hubs. But now they’re also applying for funding that creates a need for more structure from the Red Hook coalition and so there is a group and it’s growing. And they come from different sectors so that there is some tension with that group of how to do things because — bigger nonprofits, don’t necessarily connect with the smaller nonprofits in how they do what they do. And small businesses or entrepreneurs they want a little bit more quick action on things and then you have the churches that have their own situation that they wanted to convert. So they have a whole need about wanting people to come through the church so that they can have more churchgoers. Everyone has their self interests and people were able to drop those off during the immediate crisis but now those things are becoming more and more driven by their mission. So it’s going to take some more work to kind of get that stronger but it’s still alive.
[End Part B, Begin Part C]
A: So we were organizing a lot in the houses because it was clear that a lot of the utilities weren’t coming back for awhile and it was week one, week two, week three, almost a month went by before utilities started coming back on, lights and heat. And then when the heating started coming on through these temporary boilers the rooms were scorching hot. And there was a sense that it was like well we have the heat on what’s the problem and these temporary heaters don’t allow for fluctuation in heat because they were just pumping heat in and they weren’t that sophisticated like the original [inaudible :49]. But I guess my real point is that there was a conversation started happening [inaudible] that people’s immediate emergency response was kind transitioning to an affected sense of help and we saw that with kids. I heard people talking about their kids not sleeping at night, waking up in the middle of the night crying. Some of the first snows were coming, more storms coming and most recently actually when the blizzard came and the news went into hyper mode, kids would ask their parents and I would hear this from parents that is the sun coming back mom and dad, is the storm going to take away our car now, is the water coming back. And all that just breaks my heart thinking about it but it kind of shows that there is an affect that the storm had beyond the material stuff that we were trying to get and the utilities that they lost. Beyond all that there was a sense of spiritual affect that happened and as a connection to 9/11 I also heard from some people that when 9/11 happened everyone went into mode and then it wasn’t until three months later that we got to see the affects [inaudible 2:20]. We’re fearing of increasing crime for example, we’re fearing an increase in student grades going down because they don’t want to go to school or they can’t concentrate. So I think there needs to be a major response just to the non physical stuff and really the mental health stuff.
Q: Right. Did you guys — I mean it sounds like the government wasn’t really taking a lead on that did you guys try to adjust that at all in the community level?
A: We did and as in we there were people that just did popup like daycare stuff where while the parents were in line getting their things whatever it was they needed; flood, clothes whatever there was a small little corner where a volunteer would just start reading a book to the kids and distract them a little bit from what’s going on and then bring in some education because they weren’t going to schools and really bringing some sort of structure that allows — I think that’s another thing is like this free for all. And for kids who — any kid that needs that kind of structure we did address them in those immediate spontaneous ways. But I don’t think there’s much more that we could’ve done. There are some social workers that came in to do that work, it was in a contract. So in a contract you can kind of expect X amount of time or a connection with people. But it didn’t really come into full force at all and I think there was a lot of neglect to put that at a forefront. And I still see that that’s the case today. Funding is going to recreate homes, remediate mold but not to remediate mental health. There is one FEMA program called Project Hope and they do pay for social workers to come in but I believe they’re only there for referral purposes will meet with someone two or three times and if they feel like this guy has a big substance abuse or mental health issue we’re going to refer them to another location for help. So that was big. And a lot of the nonprofits that did art projects — and the sad thing is that really helped heal a community, lost funding because of the Department of Education — they lost it for several reasons and was actually connected to the storm. And so I think communities are trying to figure out how they pick up their own pieces on the nonprofit side to be able to respond to a very specific situation that happened in the community. Because these are organizations that were doing anti-bullying programs, they were doing in schools; they were doing anti-violence stuff, anti-drug, pregnancy through our system and lost funding. So I’d like to see more of that now.
Q: So I mean obviously there’s concern a lot in the media, do you think that the storm would you classify it as a manmade disaster or an act of god?
A: Can I say both, is that possible?
Q: Of course yeah.
A: So I think that in history we hear these concepts of the 100 year storm and that one storm that just comes and wipes everybody out. I think there’s an element of that in nature period. Nature is unpredictable and so that’s where I’ll give part of it to that and that this was an element of unpredicted sense. But I think a majority of this was caused by global warming/global climate change and the human affect to the environment and what we’ve done to create these very extreme weather patterns that we’re seeing now. And in some ways that’s a direct relation to human existence on this planet.
Q: Beyond solving global warming of course do you think there’s anything that the city could’ve done prior to the storm minus evacuations and things like that to prevent the widespread disaster that we did see?
A: Yes and really only my perspective is really only having gone through it. So this isn’t something I had before.
A: But what I will say is that there needs to be more concentration around communities being able to respond to their own needs. What I saw in Red Hook was a really beautiful and by beautiful I mean more just — when I think about humans doing the right thing I saw humans doing the right thing and they had no role, they took it upon themselves to create the structure that was necessary for a community. And I think a kind of citywide policy won’t necessarily work either but if there was a citywide policy that said they can read like Red Hook, create your own plan, we’re going to help you to do that. We’re going to give you the funding to do this, we’re going to give you the expertise, we’re going to be able to dispatch people to your neighborhood and you create a plan that works for you is necessary. And especially this next, whenever this next storm happens we’ve had two hurricanes in the last two years, we should be expecting the third one to come this year. But that we give enough resources for that to assemble again in a way that it did before with more access. So that’s one, is a plan for a community. Secondly I think what ended up happening because some of us just ended up taking the power is consider make our own decisions. So I had a city council badge and I just acted upon on my whatever highest level of decision making power that I had. So when I was engaging with agencies I would declare that I’m from the city council, I work for [inaudible 9:50] and I’m part of this joint commission for the Office of Emergency Management. That was enough sometimes and they were like whatever you guys need we’re going to do it and that’s the human spirit that I was seeing on the ground. And so there were sanitation trucks picking up at commercial parts of the street when the law just says we’re not going to do that.
[End Part C, Begin Part D]
Q: So as far as donations, things that are coming in in the future what did you see that you had enough of and what did you not have enough of? What specifically for the average Joe what they can do in the future, what they can concentrate on what did you guys need on the ground?
A: It was interesting because I think we had a lot of food, a lot the things. That was good, we were never without. At the end of the night there would be cars driving around saying I have an extra pasta, I have an extra rice and beans or whatever. So we had a lot of food. I think what we started realizing is that we were pumping a lot of carbohydrates into the neighborhood and we wanted more fresh fruits and vegetables just to kind of balance out the diet. And our core team had a really good sense of good food. So we started putting requests out for apples and lettuce and spinach and fresh stuff so we could create really good salads. So it was just good food. All the MRIs or MRAs, I forget what they’re called.
A: MREs, and this is like the Red Cross, it was the worst. I’m sorry I know in disasters, the disaster and like the emergency but it would’ve been great to have a little bit more care for people’s diets because this is a community that doesn’t get it already and I think if we had an opportunity to bring good food, enhance their diets, it could enhance their mood, it could enhance their health. So I would’ve liked more fresh fruits and vegetables. So secondly we had a lot of clothes too and I think that was just something we had a whole group of piles of clothes that we never really got through. So I think that’s just another thing we had a lot of. Everything else was just either a little bit — we could’ve used a little bit more or just enough cleaning supplies — we had a lot of great cleaning supplies that always kind of came in. I’m trying to think what we needed more of. Even the medical stuff came in. Whenever we did a shout out for medical supplies or a couple companies that supplied us with things that was needed. There was like insulin that came, there were needles that came, things that were kind of — things I never thought people would be able to donate or clean and that was great. I think on the infrastructure stuff I would say we needed more generators for the power, to power homes, at a temporary basis while the lights came back on. And then on the larger sense more pumps to pump water out. So we were really waiting house to house to pump along corridors because we just didn’t have enough of those flooding equipment.
Q: Do you think that’s something that the city could do is preparation for the next one?
Q: To stock pile those types of things?
A: Yes and I don’t know what the response is, I think they have a response and that’s that we’re not going to buy thousands of pumps and set them away somewhere. I think they called it like a retainer where we have a retainer — if New York City gets attacked again — gets hit again by a storm that nationwide there would be a way we could access it immediately and get things from Texas, get things from Nebraska, wherever. And I think that’s in the process of being worked out. But we should get access to those things. And in the community now we have a registry of people who have pumps, we have a registry of people who have generators. Now we know where our resources are but that’s part of the larger plan we talked about earlier which is to create a community plan that works for the community and figuring out where things are.
A: We did have — you know what always came up on the list and we were just never able to get them, socks and underwear.
Q: Socks and underwear?
A: Yeah, socks and underwear. And I always put them at the top of my list but people just never got them or brought them. I don’t know if they’re really personal items or people just didn’t want to buy them, I don’t know what it is but we couldn’t get enough socks and underwear. People didn’t have any laundry services so one of the things that would be great to donate and Tide tried to come to Red Hook but didn’t come. You know that big Tide truck, where like you drop off the stuff and they clean it and they just give it to you folded, that never came. But that would’ve been a great thing especially if it was like a city wide or neighborhood wide shut down of water and electricity.
A: Getting people clean clothes and so forth.
Q: So as far as the utility companies what was the issue getting the electricity back into public houses?
A: Several pieces — that didn’t come back until later. First it was the flood, the flood came, destroyed all the electrical equipment. So number one, the electrical equipment was in the basement, should’ve never been in the basement in the first place.
A: And wrong — just wrong planning for [inaudible 6:24] and they’re in a flood plain but it should’ve never happened. So now I think they’re going to move them up now straight too. The water was in there so long that it corroded everything so they couldn’t repump it — sorry actually let me back up. The water that was in these basements was tremendous. These housing basements were — could hold enough water for an Olympic size pool, huge [inaudible], structures [inaudible]. When they were pumping everything up they couldn’t pump — we couldn’t pump it using private pumps or even like private companies, it had to be city certified pumping situations. So when we’re sending teams of trucks that were wanting to come and pump things out [inaudible] they were like nope it’s not going to happen. So there was like a barrier to those basements.
A: It was [inaudible 7:19] together.
Q: Is that a policy that they have?
A: I think it was a policy yeah, I think it was — and I think there was also liability to some of the environmental EPA stuff because there were harmful chemicals in those — in some of those basements and they didn’t want anyone handling something that wasn’t a government section process.
A: So when finally the trucks came from the government that were approved people they started pumping things — water out and then the next day the water would come back. I’m like what the hell why are they pumping — and we would notice there was like a pump on one side and then the pump would come back and we’re like why is there water coming back into — it took them about a week and a half to figure out that. And I’m still unclear partly but they were pumping the water out the basement and into the water sewage system but the thing — there was a backup in some way where the water was coming right back up into the basement.
Q: So basically they hadn’t done an assessment of the whole system?
A: They hadn’t done an assessment and the left hand wasn’t talking to the right hand. We finally brought in the Army Corp of Engineers, the Marines and the Navy and all their infrastructure people and they looked at it and they’re like there’s an issue with that, we got it now we’re going to do something different. And then that’s when they started finally pumping out all the water. And I think they trucked the water out of the system because the system was so saturated with water, the water [inaudible 8:59]. But they finally figured it out like a week and a half later. So they really only started pumping effectively a week and a half and at that time the systems were corroded to the point where salt water [inaudible] some of these things so quickly. So that was the number one barrier is them not working together and figuring things out and then doing the right thing as quickly as possible.
A: And again at that point so much of this was destroyed already, they had to recreate it so in came the temporary boilers and the temporary lighting, electric generators and I would’ve wished for them to make that jump first to do the temporary stuff that we went out for a month of services.
Q: Do you think in the future like would it be helpful, I mean obviously talking about maintaining this on a community level but someone that maybe knows the system like having a government official employed to serve like a government super?
A: Yeah right and they do have a super.
Q: They do have?
A: Yeah and so I think what you’re asking for is someone that understands the expertise. So short answer absolutely they need to have someone that understands flooding, they need to understand someone that can react in a way that is disaster trained and not just oh I need — apartment 4C has a plumbing issue and we need to figure that out. And it’s more like a system wide [inaudible 10:44] and understands geography and how geography influences water disbursement or — I don’t even know what you call that. I’m not the expert but they need to get an expert to figure this out, why water comes back into the basement when it shouldn’t.
[End Part D, Begin Part E]
Q: The NYU team that we’ve been working with have heard that allegations from within certain departments of the city government that the mayor’s response to Sandy was inappropriately politicized, that he relied on political advisors rather than experts what do you think about that? Have you even heard that?
A: I haven’t heard that. I guess so political versus experts?
Q: Basically they’re saying that he had some pretty high profiled disagreements with the Office of Emergency Management how to deal with things.
A: In some ways I feel like whoever he was consulting or not consulting even in that realm, that dispute, wasn’t even what he would’ve — and I think where you saw the biggest blind spot that I think we all probably knew as New Yorkers that he had was an okay weak muscle for him to have which is the sense of connecting to a community on a ground level. Like he didn’t have that, he doesn’t connect with somebody on the streets but somehow it was okay. He was good on like let’s get this city into a green environmental city, let’s bring more trees, bring a million trees great big idea, a big solution it works. And that’s why we all love Mayor Bloomberg. But in this situation I don’t even think the experts that are around him or the political people around him had enough understanding of how this somewhat impacted people on a ground level and that’s where I feel like — I go back to something I said in the beginning which is this government needs more organizers to be at the helm not only for this crisis but for all these policies that need to kind of get down to the ground level. And so I haven’t read about this political situation that may or may not have happened but I think it all failed, I think they all missed the boat on that sense of reacting as an organizer, as a community organizer, as a person that needs to go down to the ground and get a real sense about what’s happening so that we can build — you can go back up and build the responses based on that need. Not a kind of helicopter view of what’s happening and more of a direct connection and plug in to a community. Because ultimately the community’s going to know what they need and this high intense need more than I think the government can understand. And the most important connection is like a pipeline of services can never really connect unless you’ve got a sense of what was happening on the ground. They had to stop, they had — I don’t know maybe they had generators maybe they didn’t I don’t know but the community needed more of a direct response that an organizer — he didn’t do that.
Q: So as far as what role do you think that social media played in helping [inaudible 3:38]?
A: I think it helped more than it did anything else and we were getting people that came and volunteered because they felt [inaudible] or they felt they could [inaudible] updates or they saw some kind of e-mail that went out to a list of some sort, so social media was going to places. Where it didn’t work was actually in the community, we couldn’t get information out to our neighbors because they didn’t have electricity, they couldn’t charge their phones. Our phones went dead, they were trying to connect to a tower that never got connected and so our phones — if you came into a zone that had no electricity, no social media and we were communicating through [inaudible 4:28] messaging system. And we were communicating by sending teams of people with a sheet of paper and I would ask them — they would come with their phones and take 20 people, orient them, tell them where they are, what happened, what you’re doing and I’d say take four messages out and spread out and I want this whole community done in an hour and a half and you’re going to take these things. One is, there’s food and hot meals [inaudible] at this location, you can get stuff from this location. If you have medical needs you can give those to us now, we’ll write them down and we’ll get back to you. And I would give that to them on paper or if they had a phone they would write it in their notes and I would send them off. And that’s how we were able to communicate. So it’s just really interesting, social media worked outside to get people there and then once they came in there all social media was off the ground and it was all non-social media world.
A: I can’t describe it — I don’t know how else to describe it. It really did feel like places outside this country where there’s no [inaudible 5:34] or anything.
Q: It seems like an important element they sort of don’t really address, the fact that we have the [inaudible] technology to facilitate so much of this stuff.
Q: Do you think in the future that more planning or attention will be paid towards these non-technological lines of communication?
A: I think — yes I think — yes. And I think the nuance here is that you have to understand — you have to adapt to wherever and whatever you come across. So if I’m in [inaudible] and everything’s working then I can get my information through my social media. But I think what we needed to do as organizers was we need to get better and we did finally get real good at doing this but relay the information that we needed to in the outside world so when they came in they expected that. And then they could easily transition because I don’t think social media has to be a crutch, it was definitely a tool. But understanding that they were going to come into a dead zone and educate people about that and how to interact because there’s a lot of frustration too. We’re trying to get calls from people and that’s the other thing, people are like oh I have things for you, the government was coming and saying we have things for you but I’m like we can’t answer the phone because there’s no phone. And I think that’s where government needs to become more nimble and be able to understand that in a disaster zone like this we need to still be able to communicate. There would’ve been more ground troops would’ve been better, more people that were physically walking up and down. Where you see like a political advisor he goes in and [inaudible] walking up and down the street and we’re like actually that’s exactly what we need, we needed to have people on the ground walking the streets, biking around. And that was the most efficient we got stuff done on the ground, that was the only way we were able to get that information to people that actually needed it. Them [inaudible 7:48] something about how they were doing X to people in the parts [inaudible] they didn’t know or had the need was not necessary. So it’s really understanding nuance and using it to your advantage so you can get information and resources to people.
[End Part E, Begin Part F]
Q: How has the storm caused you to see or think or experience New York City in a different way?
A: Well I think on a personal level I made connections in New York that you rarely kind of make in life and it does kind of feel like you just went to work with somebody. And the people that we were working in a close group that kind of bond I don’t think I could materialize in another way, it was very special, special thing that we did and we did it together and we did it as a team and we got ourselves through it together. So it makes me see New York City as more of a home than ever before and for someone that’s going to move to different locations in the country and consider other places, my home as well, this is a special home. And it’s a place where I saw the human spirit run through the streets and it was a kind of spirit that spoke to resiliency, it spoke to doing the right thing, it spoke to the sense where I knew we were going to be okay even though we saw the destruction I knew that we were going to be okay. And then the entities and the agencies, all those people that just failed to not destroy the spirit that was strong and even if they had still been today to this day and I think they’ve caught up now, the government has caught up and they’re doing things. They need to do better on some of the things but as far as the disaster piece even if they had continued to fail we would’ve still been okay, we would’ve figured it out. And that’s the New Yorker in every one of us here that we’re going to figure it out and we don’t need government, we don’t need anybody else we can do it on our own. And that’s the feeling that I got from New York and that’s something that I got before coming here and while living here but here I saw it in action. I saw people coming out and just — there’s some really brilliant resilient people in New York and it’s just so good to kind of see that.
Q: My last question is is there anyone else that I can talk to about their experience in Red Hook specifically kind of community organizing, the various organizations that were down there?
A: Yeah I’ll start listing them out, later you can ask for contact information but if you could talk to and get a sense from Red Hook Initiative, anybody there, Sandy I think her last name is Balbosa, she was at the helm there, she was an Executive Director but she was the kind of person on the management side, just managing the space and allowing us, Sandy folks to come in and other volunteers and myself to kind of help be a help for the larger community’s efforts. I would talk to some small businesses there because so many of the profiles for small business is that you have small business owners that lived in the same like the third floor and so it was a resident, a small business owner and then a community organizer and that’s the profiles of a lot of those small businesses. And Monica Burns would be good to talk to there, could also talk to Kirby Demoray and she’s now leading the effort with Red Hook Volunteers, she’s a local mother, single mom in Red Hook who did a lot of the organizing in the core group that I talked about. Elsa has connections to Occupy; do you know what I’m talking about, about Occupy? Again they were a major force in bringing volunteers and resources.
There was an interesting division at one point when we started moving away from disaster relief recovery to more like the political conversation that needed to happen and they really wanted to see blood. I mean they wanted to march down to city hall and we’re like well we’re still trying to figure things out here let’s get Pampers to people who need it, let’s get food to people who need it, let’s pump out some more basements. So there was an interesting split that happened and it’s still happening today. So I would talk to her and then Pauly End who came as an Occupy person and is also someone that you might want to talk to because she doesn’t live in the community, she came in with an Occupy banner and she was really left with a new sense of being part of the community and not necessarily sticking to the — just sticking to the political component of the Occupy movement and really figuring out that a community organizer’s value and that relationship you have with the community is better.
Q: May I contact you if I have any questions concerning the interview?
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