Interview with Respond and Rebuild volunteer
Interviewee: Female, 35. Volunteer with Respond and Rebuild
Interviewee: Tom Corcoran
Interviewer: Okay, so thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I have several questions about your experience of the storm to get a sense of what happened and what is happening. You don’t have to answer any of the questions that you’re not comfortable answering if you don’t want to. You can just skip them and move along. So I have questions more focused on your experience of the storm, and then a second set that are more focused on general things like the storm’s causes. So to begin briefly, tell me about your experience of Sandy.
Woman: The actual storm?
Interviewer: Yes. Were you here? Were you close by?
Woman: Yeah, I was in Brooklyn. I was in Fort Greene. Honestly, like, while the storm was starting, I was still kind of preparing. I really didn’t think anything was going to happen after Irene.
It was not memorable. And kind of freaking out about that a little bit. It just didn’t–you know, I didn’t really feel like it was–just actually just the way they presented it seemed so out of line with, like, any kind of predictions we ever had before. I actually thought it was just sort of over the top and a media hype sort of thing. At one point, I went to park our van at Pratt because I have a parking permit there, and everybody who was on campus was wearing a hard hat. And it wasn’t even really raining. I had a rain jacket on but you didn’t need an umbrella. It was totally fine. And I was like, well, maybe I should start taking this a little more seriously. And so, you know, just walked around, bought a little bit of food, was totally laid back. Nothing, you know, was really going on. That night we actually drove around in the hurricane and we were looking at some of the flooding on the East River in north Brooklyn. And it was kind of interesting and, you know, sort of like exciting because it was just weird. But it all–it just didn’t–you know, we figured that there would be some flooding along the coastline, mostly in industrial areas and kind of just went to sleep that night and woke up the next day and sort of realized exactly how serious it was, you know?
Woman: We kind of felt like jerks for having taken it so lightly.
Interviewer: Okay. So how did you end up out in the Rockaways?
Woman: Well, the first day after the storm, I went into the East Village because I’d heard it got hit real bad and I had a friend over there who we knew didn’t have power. And I know a lot about where she hangs out in her neighborhood, checked on her, kind of checked on another friend who lives at [Inaudible 2:57] And they were doing some stuff to help out some people. And then I wound up having to actually go to work because I work so close to where I live and couldn’t really call in sick or have any reason for not going a few blocks away. And I’d seen some websites pop up like the recovers website, like the Recovers websites [Inaudible 3:14] Recovers, Astoria Recovers, Red Hook Recovers. And I volunt–since I knew I had to be stuck at work, I just volunteered to administer one of the websites and basically kind of field any requests for aid that came in and basically coordinate, facilitate people’s donations and things like that or ability–you know, volunteer offers to work and trying to coordinate matching those things up and wound up kind of getting a pretty good sense of, like, which areas were hardest hit and what people needed. And then the day after that, I think the full extent of the storm was known and I started coming down here and first just brought donation stuff to one of the Occupy hubs and brought as much as we could fit in the van down. And when we got down here, we realized there was a ton of volunteers and there was a lot of distribution happening, but people just didn’t know what to do and they needed somebody to talk to. And there were FEMA and there was no Red Cross. There was nobody going door to door even just trying to explain to people, like, here’s the next step. And just people were really in shock and felt really abandoned. And so we started going door to door and kind of collecting as many volunteers as we could, especially who seemed like maybe they maybe had a little know-how with construction or something that would make them feel a little more at home and not completely a fish out of water in a disaster zone, and started talking to homeowners about what they needed to do to clean up and why for health reasons and for the integrity of their building and things like that.
Interviewer: Okay. And you went to what area in the Rockaways first?
Woman: The first place that we went was 113 in Rockaway Beach Boulevard where YANA is, or the first Occupy Sandy hub. And a little bit in the beginning we went to–which was Veggie Island, Ninety-eighth and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, I believe, and just dropped some things off wherever we needed to and just got, you know, just kept–as we were coming back and forth, just kept doing runs of supplies. And at the same time, we started calling around to friends to see if we could get generators and pumps because they were all sold out for, you know, as far as you really want to drive. We were able to get people to bring gas-powered water pumps down from Vermont and we made a plan to start pumping up people’s houses and having a mobile pumping unit out of the van, which no one was doing, in which people thought we were price–they thought we were charging for that. And at first they didn’t realize that we were, you know, trying to do it for free and help out. And then that kind of brought us mostly in Rockaway Park but probably into Arverne a little bit.
Woman: We were in that probably between like the Sixty, Seventies and One Twentyish for the first week or so.
Interviewer: And you said how long…how long was this after the storm?
Woman: We were down here doing distribution and, you know, bringing donations and things like that two days, I guess Wednesday after the storm. And then by Thursday or Friday, we had the pumps and started pumping people out.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright. And like you said, the pumping out started in Rockaway Park, is where you started. And then you slowly moved over to Arverne?
Woman: Well word got out and so we didn’t really know at first how to let people know that we were available. And we just kind of went door to door a little bit right around YANA in Rockaway Park and put up signs in windows saying that we had pumps and our phone numbers. And we put a big sign on the van that had our phone number and let people know we had pumps. And in the beginning, we were just doing it right around YANA because people would just come over and nobody had power and nobody had a phone. They would just come over and say hey, we heard somebody had a pump. But really quickly, within a couple of days, word got out and people started calling us from Long Beach, from Jersey, from Staten Island, from Connecticut, all having seen a picture or–we didn’t really know how they got our numbers but they had found out we had pumps and didn’t know that we were just a couple of people in one van, like, helping out and didn’t know, like, to what extent we could serve the entire area, which I think was revealing in terms of the scope of the disaster and also the scope of people’s kind of sense of abandonment and the scope of, like, kind of complete lack of preparedness, like, on any kind of municipal level or neighborhood level or individual level. I mean people calling from sixty miles away and we’re the only person they can find with a pump. It’s kind of crazy.
Interviewer: Yeah. So we started to talk a little bit about some of the problems then. So what were the main problems that arise because of Hurricane Sandy?
Woman: Obviously it just destroyed a lot of people’s homes, the base–everyone’s basement in Rockaway, it seems like, was destroyed. All of their contents in the basement were destroyed. And a lot of people’s first floors were destroyed, particularly if they were at all close to the coastline. One of the problems is that there was really no information about what that meant for people, what they needed to do next. People didn’t really know that they had to gut their apartment. People didn’t really know that they had to–that they had to expect mold. People didn’t know that they had to gut above the flood line. There was a lot of mixed information. The insurance company said, you know, gut six inches below the water, so you can prove where it flooded to, but if you’re gutting six inches below the water line, you’re letting the water that saturated the wood soak up and actually leading to having a more extensive mold problem down the line. And so there was a lot of kind of misinformation. And we were–like the information thing was really a big deal because obviously with a storm like Sandy, you’re going to have a lot of damage. But if people were more informed, they could have acted quickly. They could have acted better. Like they could have acted more efficiently. And people really didn’t have the opportunity because they didn’t know what to expect. And there really was no information available that wasn’t–that I saw, I really feel like there was no information that wasn’t being made available by volunteers via either word of mouth, door to door, or fliers. And that’s pretty interesting for a place that’s–I mean speaking of the Rockaways–like a place that’s a glorified barrier island. I mean there are some places where it’s like three blocks wide. You would think that people would have some concept of what to do in case–and really that didn’t exist as far as I could tell.
Interviewer: Okay. Recording again. Alright, so we were talking about some of the problems that arise because of Sandy. Tell me about problems that arise during or right after.
Woman: Yeah, so before I was talking about how information was really just hard to come by and also, I mean because we had been so specifically focused on mold, one of the things is when people were able to get, like, the internet, everything was on a different page. Like if you went to the EPA or the DEP or the FEMA or Red Cross website, everybody would tell you to do something different. And so it made it really difficult to be, you know, like show up as a disaster relief worker and try to be authoritatively telling people what they can do about the problem when they would, you know–they would look at the Red Cross website or whatever it was and it would tell them something totally different. And then we–you know, just keeping people on the same page about anything was really difficult. It was really–and then, yeah, that’s just more information stuff, like how that was really difficult to navigate. Also because we dealt with mold so much, everyone who lives by the beach has always dealt with mold and has always dealt with flooding, like, to some extent, not anything obviously like we saw. But with the flooding–I’m sorry. With the mold, people would always tell us, like oh, we’ve got mold for years. We wipe it up with bleach and we paint, so it’s fine. And it was difficult to convince people that this time it was different because the level of saturation and the level of water damage. The mold thing–we think that in the beginning a lot of people were trying to, like, live in their homes as much as possible and living with the mold for awhile, which is really obviously terrible for your repertory home. And it’s not good for your home to let it sit. Another problem is that people really, you know, particularly people who didn’t really have a place to go and people who were undocumented and didn’t think that they would be entitled to help from anyone or a place to stay. They were really anxious to get home. And we saw a lot of people, like, rebuild over top of what was probably mold and what’s probably too much water damage to rebuild over safely. And there were some pushes with that too, like a little bit of a push if anybody had the ability, like, right before Thanksgiving even though that was kind of soon. And a lot of people didn’t have power yet, but particularly for Christmas because people had–some people started getting power back. But everybody wanted to be home for Christmas. So a lot of people, like, threw up sheet rock, you know, threw some insulation in, painted it up, and moved home. And what we think–you know, it’s hard to sort of keep track people like that because they kind of end their relationship with you as a volunteer at that point, but what we think probably happened was like, they’re probably going to start once the weather starts getting nice, like seeing the mold come through their walls and having spent, like, thousands, tens of thousands maybe of dollars rebuilding when–
Woman: And again, a lot less of that would have happened if there was clear, authoritative information and, like, a consistent message across different agencies and trusted organizations from the get-go, which there really wasn’t.
Interviewer: Okay. So it was a lack of communication across a number of organizations, not just one per se, not just, not just the city or state or federal.
Woman: Yeah. And I mean as far as we knew, I do think the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did have pretty accurate information up and did have that information accessible pretty quickly. It’s just not really where people looked, you know.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay.
Woman: People don’t really associate that as a disaster relief organization, and so I don’t think people were like, oh, let’s go to that website first; it’ll be the most knowledgeable.
Interviewer: I see. Okay. Do you think–actually, tell me a little bit about the extent of the–did we go over the extent of the problems?
Woman: Like how widespread they were or–?
Woman: I mean my experience in some ways was limited to the Rockaways. I know that we encountered the same problems with the mold and the water damage information, like, literally across the entire peninsula. I know that we tried to talk to people in Breezy Point about a more trusted method of doing mold and what not to do, and not to just spray, and not to just–you know, that it wasn’t a quick fix, something you could buy at Home Depot. And we brought, like, paperwork and explanations about this stuff. And at one point we handed some stuff to this lady and she was like, to be honest, I’m not going to give this to those guys. They’re firemen; they know what they’re doing. And so in some cases, like that–again, I’m sorry. My information is so specifically oriented around mold a lot, but so you know, anybody with a uniform–if they wound up giving a donation and a bunch of weird detergent or weird mold killer or anything and handed it out to people, people just trusted that they knew what they were doing. And so we had to sort of fight a lot of confusion. And I do know that that was really widespread. I know that there were people doing mold remediation in Red Hook and the mold came back pretty quickly. And people were feeling pretty shitty about that. And I know–yeah, in Staten Island–like the city–they didn’t really get together the funding and the coordination to do, like, mold awareness trainings or classes or anything for at least three months, if not, a little bit more. And you know, by then, we had already started doing them. And obviously we weren’t doing them at the same scale that the city wound up doing them. But really it didn’t take much. It took fliers. It took talking to people. It took just developing a really quick curriculum. And we were just kind of amazed. You know, we would do these sessions in a church or something and people would say, you know, thanks for coming but why the hell isn’t the city here? Like why is it you guys? Like you know? And it’s not even to say that they trust us but they–again, I think it’s a sense of abandonment, that people just couldn’t believe that it was us. Like who are you? Thanks, you know. Yeah, and they know. There are definitely some compounding factors that I don’t know how they could have been fixed or they could have been different. But like with gas, our only way to get gas was through someone who had a vague relationship with Red Cross and who could get to the front of lines, you know, for gas and who could get special treatment. But that really hampered the relief efforts. And I know that DSNY is not–sanitation’s not considered first responders. So they, I’ve heard, were actually, like, sitting in gas lines for six hours, like, when they weren’t even on the clock because, you know, they didn’t have the same kind of privileges to move to the front of the line or, you know, to flash a card, and they’re a first responder. And I think in the future, because they played such a large role from the beginning, it’s something that needs to be considered, like giving them whatever status they need to be able to respond more effectively. Even though they did a great job, but you know, they did a great job despite huge obstacles because of their status.
Interviewer: So it impeded some of the trash pickup then because they didn’t to have–you’re saying they didn’t have gas.
Woman: Yeah, they didn’t have gas. They couldn’t get access to it very quickly. And you know, there are certain benefits and efficiencies that are related to being a first responder that they just didn’t have. And I think that they should.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Okay. Do you think that there’s edges or boundaries to where the problem begins and ends?
Woman: I’m not sure exactly what you mean.
Interviewer: So for instance, you know, we can talk a little bit about who else has been affected in the other areas, the other neighborhoods. You know, could you elaborate maybe a little bit more upon, you know, the space and time of the situation. You know, how long are we looking at?
Woman: Okay. In terms of, like, geographic edges and boundaries, like, it’s interesting because, you know, in Bell Harbor, which obviously is in Rockaway the more affluent area, like people’s houses were a lot more destroyed. People had a lot more ability to deal with that. They had money in the bank. They had better insurance, for the most part. There are retirees. There are people that have been there for years. There are people living in apartments there. But a lot of people just–or even just a social network, you know, friends and family with bigger houses who could take them in while they repaired their home, even if it had to happen slowly, whereas the further east we went down on the peninsula, people were poorer, people had less resources, people didn’t have any savings in the bank, you know. And Arverne where we–where our office is–the median income is twenty-nine thousand dollars a year, whereas in Bell Harbor, it’s sixty-nine thousand dollars a year. So obviously that’s a huge difference in resources available to people. And I think that, you know, obviously the immediate response was really centered–all the relief agencies and stuff were centered around 129th. And I think there’s grassroots–it’s grassroots groups who right away [knew] that Far Rockaway, which you know, obviously being identified as poorer and blacker, was not being reached as much, and did reach out there and started distribution and started seeing what people needed. And then I do think a lot of the middle of the peninsula was really forgotten about, like from the 70’s or 80’s down to, like, the 30’s until you got to like East 38th and there was another volunteer center, volunteer hub. So in terms of those kinds of boundaries, I think that the middle of the peninsula there was left behind for awhile. It just really didn’t have the same kind of help. And I forget the other part of the question you asked.
Interviewer: Oh, I did mention, you know, spatial or geographically, but also in terms of time, you know, what we’re looking at as far as, you know, when the problem I guess will be resolved or come to some type of closure.
Woman: Yeah, I’m not sure. You know, it’s–okay, so a couple of things. Just a couple of things about that. I don’t know when closure will come. I mean six months in, there’s a lot of people who still really can’t put a–can’t really put a time on when they think they’re going to be back. And I think that they’re really shocked that it’s–the woman who’s house you were at today, Maureen–I mean she’s really far from being home. She’s just having her house gutted. And then we’ll–even if people were going to work straight through every single day and she had all the funds right now, she’s not getting home for at least a month just with the number of man hours that need to go into her getting back. I don’t think–and that’s not counting being subjected to only volunteer labor and things like that. So I mean I think the problem started before the storm in a lot of ways because the Rockaways is so on the periphery of New York anyway. I think that you don’t have to know what’s going on in the Rockaways. You don’t drive through the Rockaways. You don’t really hear about the Rockaways and maybe just come here to go to the beach and having a good time. Then you go home. And even, you see like, hearing about from local residents and stuff about corruption and stuff in the government. Like I think that a lot of different things have been able to sort of go on in the Rockaways that might not–that might get a little more notice in other places. But yeah, I mean I would probably–in the best cases, I would be surprised if people were rebuilt in two years.
Woman: And there’s really no–I don’t see anyone paying any attention to community economic development. And I see millions and millions, hundreds of millions of dollars coming in in private, in the form of private donations, whether it’s like Robin Hood, you know, and all these different organizations that have pretty good funding. And none of the people getting those jobs are from the Rockaways, you know? And so the way that…the way that recovery is being addressed is not actually helping a lot of the long-term problems that led this being the kind of crisis that it is.
Interviewer: Okay. What types of levels and hierarchies exist to bring this problem about? What is it?
Woman: I think that there’s been a lot of city planning choices and just kind of historical developments that create a lot of divisions in the Rockaways. People of Bell Harbor often–and obviously this is a generalization. But often people are really, really quick to differentiate themselves from people on other parts of the peninsula. They’re, you know, upper-middle class. They’ve got decent houses. They’ve got a tight community. And they all belong to different social groups and churches and things like that that have been able to support them. And just there’s a lot of social capital there. And then there are places like Arverne, like where we were, or Far Rockaway, where you know, there’s a lot of really great, hard-working people but they’re very aware that they’re a few blocks away from projects where they hear shootings a lot. Like you know? And you know, it’s interesting listening to people. Like a lot of people in Arverne don’t think any of the businesses that were destroyed are really going to want to come back because they were always getting robbed. Or like they had a bad crowd, quote unquote, in there, and they don’t think the owners of the businesses, like, are going to think it’s worth rebuilding because the clientele stuff. And I also think you see different divisions like, first of all, like all these projects–you know, I hope I’m not exaggerating but I’m pretty sure that Rockaway has something like twenty-three percent of Queens public housing, which is a lot for a pretty small space. And then there’s only a hundred and thirty-three thousand people here. So to have–that’s a significant number of people in public housing. And people were kind of pushed out here after, you know, various plans went through to do slum clearance in places like Brooklyn and other parts of Queens so that they could bring those neighborhoods–you know, do urban renewal, different programs, whatever. And so people were, again, pushed down to the periphery, pushed out into projects. And you know, now I think in the last probably, like, six to ten years, there’s been a new attention paid to the Rockaways because of the changes in the demographics of New York and the sort of ever-increasing wealth gap and ever-increasing attention and our current administration. Everyone pays to the higher end–I don’t know–just to wealthy, you know, accommodating the wealthy. And I think that’s when you–like where Arverne by the sea is, you know, I think that you’ll see more of that here as a lot of the houses in that area that were damaged really badly. If people can’t afford to rebuild, I think that they’re going to be cleared and most new developments will come in that are not actually affordable to the people who are living there now to keep staying in the same neighborhood and, you know, new housing.
Interviewer: Okay. So do you think–people talk about this, and we’re talking about it in terms of neighborhoods–do you think this is–well, other people talk about it as a global problem, you know, people being affected. How do you think about this? What do you think it is? Is it a local problem? Is it much larger than a local problem?
Woman: Yeah, I mean it’s a local problem. It’s a global problem. It’s a city problem. And it’s just really a microcosm of, you know–it’s just very–it’s one small area that I think is so sort of, like, small and insular. It’s just an interesting place to see all of these things play out because you can see it all. It’s like looking under a microscope. So you can just see it really well. And it’s really clear. And the racial lines on the peninsula are really stark. And so it just makes–it puts all of this really sharp. And it is, like, a problem of, you know, the kind of like system of global capital and movement of global capital that we live in. But you know, and I think that–and, you know, the racial thing–all of those things are there. But obviously I think if you’re involved in–it’s hard if you’re involved in relief work not to think about it as a localized problem because, you know, in order to really get anything done, you have to think of it even as household to household problem because that’s kind of the scale at which it’s easiest to help people. And I mean we kind of came in knowing that people would get displaced. And if they had many more–you know, people are going to be displaced anyway, but each obstacle that was put in their way was going to increase the chance of that even more. And even if maybe this area shouldn’t be as heavily developed or even if certain kinds of architectures or housing really don’t belong in, like, this precarious a place, we just wanted people to have that choice on their own and not be pushed out, you know. And maybe if people were able to have a safe home–you know, we got to give people space to maybe be part of, like, some kind of planning instead of just being subjected to, like you know, whatever vagueries or capital that’s moving in or being taken out of the area, would happen after the storm.
Woman: Help give people more agency in that process.
Interviewer: Okay. Because we are talking—were talking about Arverne in particular, you mentioned or touched upon briefly some of the changes that have gone on in the area or are going on in the area. Tell me a little bit more about the construction that’s going on, the recent construction that’s going on.
Woman: Well okay, so Arverne-by-the-Sea I think is about eight years old, ten years old. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Arverne when there’s been like a particularly, like, high tide or rain, but the storm drains are really compromised. And at first that that was solely a problem that happened after–that maybe the hurricane caused the storm drains to be compromised. And you’d see flooding in the streets, you know, a lot. And when I was talking to people, they said well that’s something that’s always happened here but it’s been happening a lot worse since Arverne-by-the-Sea was built. And people have explained that to me a little bit. And I don’t know enough about the kind of public infrastructure that goes into, like, clearing storm water or rain water to necessarily understand that. But pretty much everyone will tell you that the flooding, like the day to day flooding has gotten worse since Arverne-by-the-Sea was there.
Woman There’s also about a hundred acres of, quote unquote, undeveloped land. And I think it is primarily undeveloped for the most part, that’s coastal in an area that we would call Edgemere but they’re starting to call Arverne East because, like, for real estate purposes, like a lot of things are named in New York. And that has a big swath of beach where there’s really not a lot of concessions or, you know, recreation. But there is a thirty-five acre, I think, nature reserve, but it’s a reserve for the piping plover, a type of bird that, you know, I guess is endangered and has a habitat there, which a lot of people really, like, really kind of smirk at. And you look and locals have–like residents have these Facebook groups. Whenever somebody brings up a piping plover, everybody is like fuck those things, you know. And you know, because some people believe the space on the beach would be better off, you know, developed to have some kind of like water recreation, sports, something. And instead it’s sort of unused. You’re not really supposed to walk through there, except it does become a space for people who are already on the margins. And other people are afraid to go near there because they think that, like, that’s where all the riffraff goes. And how much of this is what’s really happening and how much of it–I don’t know how much of it is really happening. I don’t know how dangerous that is of a place to go. And I don’t know how much any of that’s dependent on it being a nature reserve. But what we do know is that the rights to develop that land are basically in the hands of a developing company. I believe it’s Bluestone Development, Steve Bluestone. And what’s funny is I went to a sheret. Have you heard of the sherets going on?
Interviewer: No, I have not.
Woman. Like sherets are kind of a meeting where people discuss urban planning. And they’re supposed to be taking feedback from the community and using that as input into how to re-develop, post-Sandy. But you know, obviously a sheret doesn’t have to take place in a disaster. But anyway, I went to a sheret that was hosted by the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. There were a bunch of students from NYU there who had been doing some kind of project on NYU. And they wanted people’s input on how to develop Arverne East. And the entire thing was sort of framed as though, you know, they were really trying to get legitimate input. What do you guys want? Do you want more stores? Do you want housing? Do you want transportation–? Like what do you think Rockaway needs? But then come to find out from locals, like, everyone’s known for years that this particular development company owns the rights to develop that land and what they’re probably going to do is some combination of housing like Arverne-by-the-Sea. I think that they’re planning on doing, like, a thousand units of housing. And you know, whether it gets developed or not has already been decided. And so–and it’s like probably–I mean a hundred acres of New York City waterfront land that is relatively undeveloped–I mean that’s a goldmine, right?
Woman: So I think that we’ll see similar–I think that you’ll see similar developments like Arverne-by-the-Sea kind of creeping down. And I think that, you know, you’ll see community-based organizations in Far Rockaway worried about that and worried about people getting priced out and worried about people kind of being pushed out. And then you’ll see people on the western side of the peninsula kind of celebrating getting the, you know, riffraff out and kind of like, you know, making more and more of the peninsula a place that people from here want to go, people from Bell Harbor, people from the western side of the peninsula. Not that it’s not–I’m sure that it’s going to bring amenities that people in Arverne or Edgemere or wherever will enjoy as well, but they’re also going to bear the brunt of any displacement or, you know, rising housing costs that wind up resulting from that.
Interviewer: Okay. How do you think the redrawing of flood maps is going to impact what you’re speaking of?
Woman: I think it’s going to have a huge effect on just average, everyday people. And I think it’s going to have huge effect on–like I feel like a huge portion of Rockaway population is, like, retired civil servants like cops or firefighters, or current, you know, like in Breezy. And I’m seeing something that–should I wait?
Interviewer: Okay, so we were talking about the re-zoning of some of the flood maps and how this was going to effect the residents in some of these communities.
Woman: Yeah, it’s going to effect the residents of the communities a lot. One thing is that I was talking to some people from FEMA, and don’t know how, like–maybe. I don’t know. I guess I don’t know sometimes whether it’s supposed to be common knowledge or not, but it’s fine for the purpose of this. And they were saying that in a lot of disasters, like, people understand it’s going to take awhile, like, to get things, to get moving at all, let alone back on your feet. But what the local government will do is to see what’s going to come through FEMA, see what’s going to come through federal government, see what’s going to come through government bodies, and then to fill in the gaps, they start using the private money. But they say that what Bloomberg has done–this is their understanding. What Bloomberg has done, A, since he’s going out and he wants to go out with a bang and he wants to have a political career in the future, he actually took all of the private donations and dispersed them really quickly. And so you have a lot of, like, volunteer organizations and different sort of like funds for people to start rebuilding. But they may be rebuilding houses that cannot actually be mitigated to a point where they can actually satisfy requirements of new flood zone mapping. And they’re not really–like the people in the houses won’t be able to, A, either be able to afford the flood insurance anymore after the remapping is done or–you know, they’re supposed to elevate it and it won’t really be a house that you can elevate, and things like that. And so they think a lot of the private donations have just been flushed down the toilet because these people aren’t going to be able to stay.
Woman: One FEMA guy actually said to me–just real quick. He said that he’s been through two hundred and fifty disasters and never before was he just like these people are fucked, before he came here.
Interviewer: And now, is this the case of residents across the Rockaways in general or are there differences, again, in the different areas and neighborhoods? Is it…is it more complicated than just, okay, I can’t afford my insurance or I can’t afford to reconstruct my house in the way that the flood zone wants me to reconstruct it.
Woman: Well, what they were doing as they remapped the flood zone–some more people are in Zone A and then a lot of people are in something called Zone V, which has something to do with, like, the potentially velocity that the water can come at, which can actually be more destructive than just like flooding. And that is where you really wind up kind of screwed, you know, in terms of what your insurance will cost. So just a few things. One is that a lot of people don’t believe that this is really going to happen. They’re like come on, this is New York City. Like we would make such a stink if this happened. People would be up in arms. It would be a revolution. They could never do this. And people would be like what’s happening. You know, and they did actually go really far in one direction, and it looked borderline, like, apocalyptic in terms of what it would mean for the community. And they retracted from that a little bit. And there’s fewer people who are the most screwed by the remapping. But I mean you are talking about, if you have a mortgage, you can–there’s something where, like, you can pay in advance now for a certain amount of period of time and get grandfathered for a couple of years. But eventually these different changes on the flood maps will affect your insurance. And if you have a mortgage, you’re required to have flood insurance. And people are talking about going from paying, like, a few thousand dollars to like tens of thousands of dollars for their flood insurance. And that’s just huge for people, you know? But again, a lot of people don’t really believe this is going to happen. They’re just rebuilding and they have intentions or ability to elevate their home at some point. And if you own your house outright, you don’t have to get that insurance. But if it’s mortgage, you do. And even if you did own your house outright, if you ever want to sell it, no one coming in buying the house unless they were buying it flat-out in cash. If anybody was going to mortgage it, you’re going to have a really hard time selling your house because nobody is going to want to pay, you know, whatever, five hundred thousand dollars and then also have to pay twenty grand in flood insurance every year on top of whatever else they have to do. So I think it’s actually going to have a huge effect on who’s able to stay in the Rockaways. I think if you own your house or your house has been in your family, and you don’t have a mortgage, you’re obviously better off. And I do think it’s a little bit different. Like Far Rockaway, a lot of parts of Far Rockaway just–Far Rockaway’s, like, wider. So you know, over here the peninsula is really, really narrow. So like when the ocean met the bay, as people talk about all the time, just like everything in the middle really was completely fucked. But in Far Rockaway, there were areas that really just didn’t flood that badly. And so I think in Far Rockaway they’re a little bit more protected, and there’s probably fewer homes percentage-wise that are going to wind up having to have the crazy flood insurance. But there’s also less homeowners out there. I mean that’s not entirely true. But a lot of them are high-density housings out there too.
Interviewer: Okay. So in the areas you’ve been working in–and again, you’re working in some parts of Bell Harbor, Rockaway Beach, and Arverne–what are you seeing? You’re seeing mostly homeowners or a mix of homeowners and renters?
Woman: Because of what we do, we kind of see mostly homeowners. But also, we understand that renters were in a really bad situation. I mean–like even when we were like a couple of months, two months, three months in–some people hadn’t really been called by their landlord. And so we have something. We ask are you the owner? You know? And usually if someone says no, like there’s some few instances where we can talk to the landlord if they have a good relationship and we sort of deem the landlord to not be–like we don’t want to be doing free work for people who could totally afford to be paying other people to have this done, you know, because we don’t actually think that would be beneficial to most people. But there are a lot of property owners here who just don’t really have that much money. But maybe, like, they have a house with their family that they bought a long time ago. A lot of like–we saw a lot of, like, single female heads of household, like retirees kind of people who had, like, rented out, like, units in their house. And that was their primary income. And so, you know, that’s another thing. We would see renters and say do you own their house? And we kind of knew they didn’t. but turned a blind eye to it because it was pretty clear that whoever the landlord was, you know, wasn’t doing anything and that the renter was intending to rebuild on their own. And we’re kind of assuming that if that’s what people are doing, they’re doing it–that’s a calculated decision and they’re doing it for a reason. And so we kind of–sign here. You know what I mean? Which sort of protects us and–
Woman: You know? But because of what we’re doing and because we’re liable and because if you’re–like some landlords do just make too much money for us to work for them for free. We work primarily with homeowners, like people like the pastor who, you know, construction guy. He owns a house. Not rich. Sandy fucking wiped him out. And so it’s mostly homeowners. And I would say mostly people with mortgages.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How do you think your experience was similar to or different from others?
Woman: For one thing, I think I was out here sooner than some other volunteer group types because–and that might be different because I think, A, people were really vulnerable. I think that we developed a pretty close relationship with a lot of our–the people we’ve worked with. We–really in Rockaway Park, there was a few families we worked with, like, really closely. I think we got to know people more. I mean people–I guess it depends on who the others are but like Team Rubicon or–I mean any of the groups that kind of just went door to door and banged out all this demo work, like we came in. We talked to the homeowner. We told them what was going to happen. We asked them to leave while we did the work because it’s really painful for people to see everything brought out. Like and so just by virtue of, like, taking that kind of care in the kind of work that we’re doing I think has differentiated us from other people doing similar work. Also because we kept checking back, you know. We were like, okay well, I know we put on this list for a long time. Where are you at now? Or I know we did your mold in February; where are you at now? Like do you have materials? Do you have this? And so we really check back with people a lot. We’ve checked back when we’ve had access to, like, free air testing to make sure that, you know, A, it looks good for us, for us to be able to prove that the houses that we’ve done are in good shape, but also to make sure the houses that we did are in good shape, because obviously we’re happy to go back. You know, like we have enough. We’re New Yorkers, and we can, you know, do that differently. So in terms of disaster relief people, I think having that connection to the community and also just feeling like this is our home town is a little different because we have a different sense of accountability to people. And the disaster relief industry people can be in and out depending on what it is that they do. And I think that’s different for us. And I think it’s different in particular for me because I have a background in doing, like, some community organizing and just being involved in my various communities as an activist in certain ways. And particularly for disaster relief people also, I think I have more of a desire to be an advocate and part of a struggle if that needs to happen, like, alongside people who are trying to have some kind of agency in what’s going on in their future. You know? And disaster relief people are supposed to be completely apolitical because disaster relief is apolitical.
Woman: Just like development is apolitical.
Interviewer: So how about…how about your–you mentioned, you know, other New Yorkers, the people of the community, residents, in terms of other responders, how about policy actors? How’s it similar to or different?
Woman: I mean I have nothing to gain. I’m not trying to get reelected. I don’t even–I mean I trust the work we do. So I don’t even have to really play too much politics to, like, make our–stand up for our work or anything like that. But I mean policy people–the super-local policy people at least talk a very good talk about how behind all these people they are. Obviously we have yet to see what happens with that. And the only thing they really have seen is, like, Malcolm Smith and fucking Dan Halloran–is that his name–who got arrested?
Interviewer: That rings a bell, yeah.
Woman: Malcolm Smith was the local state senator who was having monthly meetings with residents where it was basically like, we’re going to get all this money; how do you want it to be spent? And like inviting, you know, the Knights of Columbus and various churches and all these places and you go. And all these people get two minutes at the microphone. And I really think it’s a place just for people to vent, like, so they feel that they’ve vented in a place where somebody of power, like, listened to them. But I really don’t think it actually even was intended to have an important impact on policy. You know, a couple of people take notes. The city council people just waltz in and out, like, to make an appearance. And I think that obviously most politician are going to wind up siding with business and with developers and with real estate. That’s how New York is. I mean New York never even had, like, a comprehensive city plan, in part because real estate has dictated how New York has developed, unlike Chicago, which did have a comprehensive city plan. The people who did that were obviously, like, moneyed elite. But at least they did a plan. You know what I mean? New York has not really had the same thing because it’s just sort of taken for granted that, like, finance insurance and real estate guide New York and how it develops. And that’s not going to change. And I mean if I had to predict what’s going to happen without a struggle, it’s going to be a lot like–a little like a train where a lot of people have to leave, except for I think that those vacant spaces will be filled in very quickly whether it’s with hotels–I mean you can build here if you have enough money to build–to last here, you know. It’s just not going to be able to be done by the people who live here now.
Interviewer: Alright, so I want to shift gears a little bit and ask some more general questions.
Interviewer: How has the storm caused you to see, think, or experience New York City in a different way?
Woman: I mean in some ways I’m not sure if it really has. I think that it’s been an interesting thing in terms of, like, what it means to do sort of like–just people are such a vulnerable position and people have been so emotionally distraught throughout this. Like the level of, like, accountability you feel–for me, like I feel having gotten involved in this is really extreme. You know, like I just–I would feel– I feel like it’s a little bit impossible to walk away from it. And again, like I studied disaster-relief. I’ve studied humanitarian relief, things like that. And I know how it works. And on some levels, nothing I see happening is all that surprising, except for there’s a different…different, like, emotional impact when that’s happening to the place where you live and to people that you’ve gotten to know, you know, even if it’s people who six months ago I wouldn’t really think I’d be friends with, you know? And so once you know about their lives and, like, how they’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten and what they lost, it’s a little harder to, like, step into their life and step out really quickly. And so I think it’s made me more patient in terms of doing activism or that kind of stuff because this is going to be a long process. And it’s kind of interesting.
Interviewer: How is this going to change your relationship to other New Yorkers?
Woman: Again, I don’t know so much that it has but it’s weird to live in Fort Greene and we’re on a hill and we’re totally safe and it’s kind of a fancy neighborhood and nothing really happens, and then, like, the day after the storm people were just standing in line for brunch again or people were, like, going shopping for fancy dresses again or walking their dogs. Like it was just nothing was different except for we were coming down here every day and doing really long days and, you know, there was no street lights. There were no rules. You could just, you know, driving over remains. There was no power. There was no cell phones. There was no nothing. And then we would go home and everything is completely the same, you know, normal. And then just kind of seeing the disconnect between people in those neighborhoods and people that are here and kind of the lack of desire to really know what’s happening, you know. It’s not necessarily like they don’t care but they just don’t care to find out. And you know, coming down here obviously it’s not like Haiti but, like, seeing like all the–like when we were Haiti, there was just, like, rubble lining all the roads because there was no place to go with all the refuse for over a year. And then here, it was like you come down and there’s, like, fucking insulation and asbestos pile just like broken up and discarded couches on the side of the road.
Woman: And you know, at the same time you don’t need to bombard areas that are already, like, pretty horrible. Like it’s just crazy. Like people just haven’t seen that and have no idea what it actually means or don’t know that some people still don’t really have power, you know?
Interviewer: Yeah. We did talk a little bit earlier about some of the differences in neighborhoods and the communities. But to be more explicit, some people are making connections between the aftermath of the storm and inequality. What do you think about that?
Woman: If that’s making more people make that connection, I think that’s great. Hopefully there’s a positive outcome from it. But I mean, again, like in some ways I just don’t think that’s surprising. There are people who are really vulnerable and who don’t have a safety net and who have very little buffer between, like, living an okay life and, you know, living paycheck to paycheck or whatever it is. And there are people who have it a lot better than that, you know. And you know, when you add an acute crisis to that, yeah, it will make it more visible. But I’m not necessarily surprised by that. I don’t know. I do think there’s a lot of people who are sort of–you know, there are New York Times articles about these women coming down from their apartments in Manhattan and getting here and kind of realizing how people were living and feeling embarrassed that they drove down in the Lexis. And like, there was one New York Times article–a lady’s like, at least my Lexis was really dirty, you know. And so, I don’t know. Does it help maybe for people to see how other people live? And that could produce some kind of compassion that produces sometimes them to act on that in some way? And that’s great. But I don’t know. I mean we’re pretty densely crammed together in New York. If you don’t have any clue how people who are not rich live, I mean if you didn’t have a clue about that last year, I don’t know. There may not be much hope.
Interviewer: Okay. Do you think this is about class, race?
Woman: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean on a number of levels. Look at all the, like, disaster relief organizations that are flying people in, you know, flying, like, young people in to do this work and getting them housing and giving them a living stipend and giving them all their food and, like–because that’s what they do. There are kids who, like, travel, who do disaster relief. And there are young people who are intrepid and adventurous, and get them out here. And there’s tons of money that could be–like I think there’s, like, a thirty-five percent unemployment rate, particularly in, like, Far Rockaway for people ages, like, eighteen to twenty-four or eighteen to thirty. I forget. It’s the youngest census–you know what I mean? Adult census track or whatever, or grouping, you know. And no one’s making an effort to get those people jobs. Those people who need it most and those people who if they had jobs, would have had a buffer and, like, maybe would have had money to repair their homes and not live in a hotel for six months, eat at McDonalds, and drive an hour and a half to get their kid to school. You know what I mean? And so–but it’s just–it’s predictable but still infuriating that there’s just really no attention paid to having those people included in sort of the influx of–benefiting from the influx of money sort of coming in at this point, you know. And the way disaster relief works, it’s not meant to do that. And it’s not going to do it unless–I mean again, there would have to be a pretty strong push to make that happen.
Interviewer: To get them involved in–?
Woman: To make funders and the people who are in charge of that money include those people in, like, who gets hired. You know what I mean? It would have to mean a huge change in just how those things just work.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah.
Woman: And there’s nobody trying to make that change, you know? There’s so many things going on. Even if you are a community organization, there’s things to fight for like fighting to change, like disaster relief on the mega scale is probably not what you’re looking at if you think you might lose your house, you know?
Interviewer: Yeah. What about gender?
Woman: I mean there was a couple of months where we noticed that we were working for a lot of single female heads of household who rented out a basement unit or something. And at that time, FEMA was not giving people any money for rental units because that was considered a small business. But the small business loan–people weren’t eligible for it because they didn’t have enough income because they didn’t have the tenants. So they were stuck in this huge spiral. And they really were falling through the gaps because they didn’t–you know, they didn’t…they didn’t qualify for this save because of this and they didn’t qualify for this save because of this. And I think a lot of people were in that kind of situation. Like we saw teachers, single mothers, who–you know what I mean like? And so, that was one of the things about being around [Inaudible 58:46] was that we could make those people a priority.
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Woman: And in the big scheme of things we probably hadn’t done that many but we probably worked in twenty houses in that situation. Or you know–or fifteen houses or something in that situation. I don’t know how many. And you know, again, just like the way those things play out everywhere they play out here except for people are in crisis mode, so it plays out a lot faster. If you’re going to lose out on that, I mean you’re going to have a quicker trip to the bottom.
Interviewer: Have you experienced any sexism or different treatment?
Woman: Yeah, sure. I mean people, when I go to their homes to do a mold assessment, for instance, I definitely had some, you know, who’s this girl? Why is she here? And why should I trust her, kind of thing. And you know, like in the activist world, you experience that. Within the disaster relief world, you experience that. And that–I mean again, I don’t think it’s that much different than the rest of life.
Interviewer: Yeah. In your opinion, why did the storm happen?
Woman: I mean because we haven’t done anything in the last–I don’t know how many years–hundred years to curb the process of climate change or sea level rise or– And you know, and these things will probably happen more. Or some people say that they’ll happen less frequently but when they do, they’ll be really, really severe. But even just in terms of sea level rise–and you know, I don’t remember the statistics. But the kind of sea level rise we’re supposed to see in the next thirty years is going to be a really big deal for places like New York, you know. And it’s an interesting thing because, like okay, so do we rebuild those? I don’t know. We are. But it’s, you know, definitely seems to be like to that.
Interviewer: What do you think caused the hurricane?
Woman: I mean obviously hurricanes have always happened. But I think that, again, like if we had–you know, if sea level rise wasn’t where it is, would it have hap–would have been so severe? Also, you know, sixty, a hundred years ago, when all of these houses were built, nobody was thinking about the danger that the coast was going to be in a hundred years. And also, people didn’t really live here full time then. it was all summer bungalows. We’ve been in houses that, like, literally still didn’t even have, like, [Inaudible 1:01:47] Like they were still, like, pretty much built, like, maybe a little bit here and there like piecemeal. But I get–first of all, I don’t think that most places here were built to live in year around originally. And I don’t think that–nobody thought this could ever happen, you know, especially people whose families have been here for sixty years and it hasn’t happened.
Woman: Clearly storms happened but I don’t know. So I don’t know how to explain that but, like, the disaster that happened was really a matter of, like, kind of human negligence on a number of levels.
Interviewer: Yeah. Okay. So that–you said human negligence. Is that why it was so bad?
Woman: Yeah, I mean in some ways. It was like–it probably was not really smart to really have, like, a bunch of hundreds of people–
Man: Bye guys!
Man: Hey, have a good one!
Interviewer: Okay. You too.
Man: You coming out again, Tom?
Interviewer: Yeah, you’ll see me again.
Man: Yeah? Cool.
Woman: Bye. Take care.
Woman: I don’t know. I mean it’s probably not smart to have people living in some of the bungalows we’ve seen like the [Inaudible 1:03:03] sand. And they’re a hundred feet from–you know what I mean? Like they’re so close to the beach. It’s kind of–it’s just amazing to me. Even in Jersey, you know, on the shore houses as close to the beach. Some of the ones out here don’t have basements, you know. They’re on stilts. But here, I don’t know what’s different about this sort of, you know, the ground that it’s being built into, different things like that. But it seems–like it seemed crazy for me to find out that people one block from the beach have a built out basement and people living in it and that they stayed during the hurricane.
Woman: And that people went to their basements because it was a hurricane, and they’re afraid of wind and that it filled with water, and that’s a lot. Like if you look at people who died, a lot of people went to the basement for, like, safety.
Interviewer: So was it again–was it lack of information?
Woman: It seems like it. I mean, well also, I don’t think that the storm surge was really that comprehendible to a lot of people. I mean when you think of the hurricane, you think of the wind. You think of those kinds of things. But you don’t really think of just the ocean coming up, like there being a twelve to fourteen-foot storm surge. You know, like because a lot of places in New York, it doesn’t even rain that hard, you know? It wasn’t like we got eighteen inches of rain in a couple of hours or something. It’s that the ocean came up, you know. And you know, even when they talk about having certain kind of surge protectors, like if they put surge protectors in places that would protect lower Manhattan, they would actually jeopardize and make vulnerable other places like Coney Island. You know what I mean, because that water’s going to go somewhere.
Interviewer: I see. I see. Okay. Before I ask you that, do you think we’re likely to see more storms happen again?
Woman: Yeah. I mean I do. Who knows? We may not. But I think it’d be–knowing what we know just about climate change and things like that, I think it would be unlikely for it not to happen. And you know, a lot of people kind of talk about this being, like, a hundred year storm that–I mean we’ve never lived through a period of time where these kind of changes had already happened. So I think it’s kind of ridiculous to be able to say it’s a hundred year storm. And just really quick on the human negligence thing, I mean like Robert Moses being part of, like, moving so many poor people down to one of the–like just in terms of, like, weather-related shit, like this area is really vulnerable.
Woman: I don’t know. Do you want to do human warehousing on a tiny fucking barrier peninsula? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good idea, you know? Or like the nights–I don’t know. It seems kind of–it seems like it’s risky.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So some people say the storm was caused by climate change. And why aren’t more storms like this because of climate change? Think about this.
Woman: I mean I think whether this has always happened–but again, I think it’s more severe because of climate change and I think its impact is exacerbated because of the increased density of housing in places like this. There’s just more people to be affected. And it’s not summer bungalows. Do you know what I mean? As real estate everywhere has become more dear–and you’ve then you’ve got, you know, Arverne-by-the– Actually, Arverne-by-the-Sea made it really well, but yeah, just in general. Like keeping and increasing the density of population here despite risks.
Interviewer: Right. Right. If the storm is connected to climate change, what can we do, going forward, to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t continue to happen or get worse?
Woman: Someone told me the other day that Bloomberg, in the course of his tenure, was part of a hundred and ten rezoning efforts. The majority of those were in waterfront areas. But most of those were–and a lot of those were also converting different kinds of buildings to housing. And I mean I think that’s one thing to think about. Do we want to create, you know, by huge numbers, the amount of people living right on the waterfront? I mean Williamsburg didn’t really get hit that hard but fifteen years ago, all of the development along the waterfront in Williamsburg was industrial. And so yeah, people were going to lose a lot of money. But they weren’t really going to lose, like, lives. You know? But now, all of the Williamsburg waterfront is all housing. It’s…it’s expensive housing. It’s probably–I don’t know anything about the way it’s built, but it’s possible it’s built in a way that’s more resilient, everyone’s favorite word. But I don’t know. I just remember thinking, like, when–do you remember under when El Niño happened for the–like and everyone was freaking out?
Interviewer: I do remember El Niño, yes. Yes I do.
Woman: And then they were talking about all these houses, like, on the cliffs on the coast and California and stuff.
Interviewer: California, yeah. Received a lot of attention.
Woman: Yeah, and I remember just kind of thinking, well, like why would anybody ever build a house on a cliff on the ocean and expect that–like we know what erosion is. Like you know what I mean? And how did we not expect the ocean to erode that and to have there never be a storm that would knock that out?
Woman: And I think–and then we’ve been kind of protected from that here for a long time. But now, you know, that this has happened, maybe not build right–like have city blocks within, like, a stone’s throw from the ocean.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. So you go back again to Arverne-by-the-Sea. There’s–I want to say there’s been a lot of press but there’s been definitely some press directed at the success of what they did, you know, of well look. This area was not affected. And interestingly enough, Arverne itself lay behind this development. You know? I mean how did that play into–I guess it’s structural mitigation, right? That’s the term that’s used. You know, how did that play into this whole–?
Woman: Yeah, and I don’t really know the difference between–I mean I don’t know what it takes to structurally mitigate Arverne versus Arverne-by-the-Sea. And Arverne-by-the-Sea was a pretty new development. And it was kind of a clean– You know, they were given sort of a clean plate to receive from. And so, you know, is it maybe a lot easier to create a great storm draining system if you are starting from scratch rather than doing it patchwork throughout the neighborhood with houses of varying ages and design and, you know, whatever? And I don’t know to what degree this is true in Arverne-by-the-Sea but some–it may be smart to design houses in this area where the bottom floor is sort of like your garage. And then, like the actual living area is the next story up and, you know, just in terms of safety and not losing as much of your possessions as people did here when their houses were on the ground floor.
Woman: A lot of people lost everything that way. So I think there are smarter ways to build, but it kind of involves getting rid of what’s there now. And it makes it a little hard, you know, to say well maybe we need to get these poor people out of that Cooper Union and listen to architects talk about, like, what to do about Zone A. And somebody said something about people across the country getting tired of having to pay taxes that bailout people who live on the coasts in high-risk areas. And so maybe we just need to say, like, if you’re going to choose to live on the coast, you have to have this much X amount of money to bail yourself out. And so I don’t know. I mean people who live in Arverne-by-the-Sea aren’t necessarily wealthy, but at the same time, it’s a little bit along those lines, right, because that housing is definitely worth a little more than a lot of the houses you see on the other side in Arverne-by-the-Bay.
Interviewer: Right. Right. So are we talking about relocation of people? Are we–of full neighborhoods? Is that one of the solutions?
Woman: I mean sure. It’s a possible solution. Like whether or not it’s a very–obviously it’s a pretty tragic solution because there’s neighborhood ties and social fabrics that would be completely destroyed. I think that’s aligned with the question people have asked us about, like, do we think it’s maybe it’s a sign that people shouldn’t be living in those areas? Is it maybe silly to rebuild when this might happen again? But again, really wanting people to have their own choices, you know, be able to make their own choice and not end up, like, destitution I think is important. And you know, it turns out that probably FEMA’s going to offer a number of families a pretty significant amount of money if they want to elevate their homes.
Woman: I don’t know. You know what I mean? And so I think it would be, in a pragmatic way, it would be a pretty–I think it would be premature to try to do mass relocation now before finding out, like, what’s possible in terms of mitigating risks.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Woman: Other ways. But eventually, yeah, I don’t know. I know that they’re conflicting ways to feel about things, but at the same time, I just feel like if people are relocated, what’s going to take the place? It’s basically going to be, like, a–I think it would just wind up–like everybody keeps talking about resorts and casinos or kind of like a playground for the rich, like, on the outskirts of the city–
Woman: –that they could get to by subway, you know?
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So let’s see. The question I was going to ask you has escaped me. Before you started volunteering, what did you expect?
Woman: Well I had seen pictures and I knew that things were pretty bad. But I maybe thought it was going to be a little quicker. I mean seeing people like Maureen Smith, whose houses are being gutted now, you know, six months after, particularly with the thousands of people who flooded through here. That kind of stuff’s weird.
Interviewer: So tell me more about that, because you said, you know, the delay. What is the delay from?
Woman: Well I think some people just had to leave their houses. And then they’re just not here, you know? If you don’t have a car, and it’s going to take you an hour and a half to get here from the hotel at LaGuardia Airport and you have a job, you know, or even with rapid repairs, that was a very hard thing for working people because a lot of times they said they were coming on Monday but then at three o’clock they’re like, we’re running late. We’ll come tomorrow. And if that happens a couple of times and you don’t have, like, a union job or you don’t have a vacation coming or you don’t have five to ten paid sick days, you know what I mean? That actually puts a huge dent in your ability to do the kinds of things you need to do for your family. And so I think those kind of issues got in the way of people rebuilding in part or just the way that disaster relief works in terms of the way money is distributed. And FEMA might give you your first check not all that long after the storm but it might be, like, a few thousand dollars. And then you apply your SBA loan, and maybe you get a little more money. And then you get another check from FEMA because you appealed. But it’s not like you know very early on how much money you’re going to get and what you’re going to be able to do with that. And so, like, do you decide when you only have twenty thousand dollars in payback that you’re going to rebuild? Like what do you do with that? Or do you just replace your car that also got destroyed? Do you know what I mean? So because people don’t get whatever assistance and money they’re going to get in one chunk, they just have no idea what they’re going to be able to do. And I think people’s lives are fucked up and they wound up having to take care of that with little pieces of that money along the way.
Woman: I have to go to the bathroom. I’m sorry. One thing about the delay I didn’t expect was I thought…I thought it was interesting how quickly Cuomo started talking about a buyout plan and there should be four hundred million dollars to–I think verbatim, you know like, that basically–well this isn’t verbatim but basically they’re like, you know, buy out the houses and let that land return to, like, park land or marsh land because there’s some area, you know, there’s some areas that belong to mother nature–was what he said, you know? But at the same time, while that’s happening, Bloomberg’s pouring–I think it was like a hundred and ninety-one million dollars into rapid repairs where they just replaced everything everybody’s boiler and replaced everybody’s electrical panel and didn’t even raise it up to the next floor. So you’ve got the Governor saying this is going to keep happening; we need to start thinking about climate change; we need to start thinking about if it’s wise to develop the coastline like this while you’ve got the Mayor putting everything back where it used to be. And so I think there was sort of a chance to at least articulate a clear message of risk, potential risk. But instead, you know, you’ve got two–and of course way more than two–completely different messages. And so, while maybe people still need to have the choice, there could be a consistent message about the potential risk of this happening in the future, you know?
Interviewer: I see. I see. So with the difference between the two plans, I mean do you think that there’s–I’d say collusion. But do you think that between the two government agency’s–because essentially it’s the city versus the state–that there is some type of planning between the two or is it just a miscommunication?
Woman: I don’t think they’re on the same page. I don’t think–I mean I don’t think New York City politicians really like to take advice or be told what to do or have to subordinate themselves to the state particularly. You know, like New York’s the capital of everything, so what is New York State?
Woman: Who cares? But also I don’t know. I mean you had Cuomo saying that there was going to be a buyout plan and they would pay people pretty stern prices for their house in order for them to leave. And then you had Bloomberg kind of starting to talk about a buyout plan. But instead of returning to marsh land or creating some kind of, like, public recreation area, the area would be available for redevelopment because well let’s see what we can do. Like maybe it should be redeveloped and it can be redeveloped in a resilient and smart way that’s going to be profitable for the city. Do you know what I mean? And so we had those two messages. And frankly, I mean I have a hard time imagining that Cuomo, like Cuomo’s plan was going to play out that way and that it would just all return to park land. I mean it’s affecting New York City.
Woman: It’s really expensive.
Interviewer: Right. So in other words, buy the people out. Propose a certain plan. Maybe some of the plan goes through from how you propose it. But then some of the other land can be appropriated for some other uses.
Woman: I mean I don’t think that anybody would ever–like let’s say–I guess Midland Beach in Staten Island. The whole neighborhood was hit so hard that as the neighborhood–my understanding is that they had mostly chosen to accept the buyout and kind of waiting if they were eligible and what it would mean. And I think that there’s been some backtracking on whether or not people would be getting pre or post-storm or something in between values for their house. You know, and so maybe Midland Beach might be returned to marsh land or, like you know, depending on where it is geographically on the island and what makes sense, but I certainly don’t think that–I don’t know. I just don’t think across the board anybody is doing that with that much land in New York City. That’s ridiculous. It would be completely contrary to any historical precedent that we have, you know?
Interviewer: How did your group’s mission relate to its relief work?
Woman: I mean we came together as a bunch of people who all sort of knew each other from working with a different relief organization, which I’m happy to name. And it’s All Hands Volunteers, which is working in Long Beach and Staten Island. And we contacted them before the storm and, you know, let them know that we were here and if they had something going on and they wanted help. But you know, whatever, you know. They are–the organization has funding. And they, we figured, would be able to sort of like get into action really quickly. They actually had a really hard time getting into action really quickly because one of their whole shticks is that, you know–like if you tried to volunteer for–like I signed up right before the storm to be, like, a Red Cross volunteer. They got back to me in, like, January. I started a fucking organization and worked in, like, over a hundred and fifty homes by the time they called me back, you know, with no money. You know? And I think that what All Hands used to sort of have or has in maybe other situations is like a–it’s a place where you can volunteer for free and you don’t have to necessarily have a certificate or an orientation or significant training. But Occupy Sandy provided that opportunity for people. And All Hands wasn’t really needed. So they actually had a really hard time finding a space here. And they really wanted a space in Rockaways, and they wanted us to help them find a space. But I think that all of us had seen sort of ethical issues with how they operated and didn’t really want to work with them. And so I think part of our mission was to be different than that and not replicate those same kind of problems and maybe, like, reach for a better sort of standard within the whole disaster relief world. And at least for myself, like, is there a way that you can actually be an advocate and not pretend that disaster relief is apolitical and, like, at the same time you are helping people recover from the storm also be an advocate and also, you know, try to make things happen in a different way and a way that’s more beneficial for the entire community. I think another thing is that we never wanted to show up and say, like–do what the Red Cross did and hand out embarrassing blankets that everybody didn’t want because they had giant–you know, everything from the Red Cross, whether it was like–everything has their name on it, you know? And for a lot of people, that just screams charity, you know? And like we never wanted to help people in a way that made them feel like that. And I think we have achieved that.
Woman: And I think that we’ve been really responsive to what people have told us they need at various points in the process.
Interviewer: Okay. How about in relation to the geography of the Rockaways, the socioeconomic, you know, differences between the neighborhoods? How does that relate to the group and what the group is doing?
Woman: Well we started coming down at one thirteen, and it meant that we were really working in–we wound up kind of going into Bell Harbor a little bit and then kind of seeing that there was so much help there, like so much. There was just a lot of people doing a lot of stuff. And there was a lot of churches and there was a lot more money. And so we quickly said, like, well we don’t really need to work above one sixteen anymore except in like–you know, we’ve had a couple of situations with retirees or disabled. You know what I mean? People with lower incomes. But so we moved. We moved where we were, I mean–and we got–centralized our efforts into a place where we felt like people had less resources to begin with. And we specifically really tried to fill gaps. Like we–a lot of people that we’ve worked with we felt, like, would not qualify for aid for a variety of reasons and tried to sort of like step in and provide something that they weren’t going to get anywhere else. And if you like–when I was doing the spreadsheets today, we have a question on our assessment forms that’s just trying to gage, like you know, if people have other help and how dire what we were doing was needed, you know, because we have such limited resources. We’re trying to, like, do some kind of–you know like making a queue and making it, whatever, a priority list. And so many people–their answer to like, has FEMA been–we weren’t asking people for specifics but some people would give them to us. But we also weren’t forcing people to, you know. But has FEMA been helpful for you? Has insurance been helpful for you? And like a lot of the answers were, like, FEMA is a joke. I mean the first house that we did, the entire two first floors were destroyed, the basement and the first–the ground floor. They got two hundred and sixteen dollars initially from FEMA.
Interviewer: Explain to me a little bit–I guess I’m sure it’s a very elaborated process and there are a lot of details that go into it. But tell me a little bit about how FEMA distributes the money, how they determine who gets the money.
Woman: Yeah, I don’t know how FEMA determines its formulas and determines who gets what. I know that there’s been a bit of a–there’s a bit of a stink because, like, Howard Beach was not hit as hard as the Rockaways by the storm but in general, their FEMA payouts have been higher. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s easy to find that out through newspaper articles or, like, the handful of FEMA I might ever interact with. But I do know that there seems to be sort of a system where FEMA comes for the first time and really–I mean for a lot of people, it seemed like they really low-balled what they were going to get. Like they told our people over there that they’re going to get $216.86 when they had literally their entire basement–both their cars and their first floor were destroyed. And so how does someone wind up with that total. And it was basically because they had insurance. But there was no guarantee at that point that they were going to get any money from insurance. You know what I mean? And then, like, with the national flood insurance, I don’t know. And what’s happening with the national flood insurance program. I think everybody felt pretty sure that Congress was going to back the Sandy aid package. But I don’t know. Do we really know– And it seems like FEMA has a system where you apply and then you can appeal and then you apply again. And some people apply to FEMA, like, four times.
Interviewer: Yeah. What are the cases that you’ve seen in the neighborhoods that you worked in and their dealings with FEMA?
Woman: Well apparently the maximum you can get is thirty-seven thousand dollars. And apparently they’re going to come out again with, like, some kind of assistance for some people who want to elevate their homes. But there is–there’s just like a really wide disparity between what people get and I’m not really sure why. I know that–I do actually know a lot of renters who got quite a bit of rental assistance. I know that there’s lots of people in hotels where FEMA was paying like two hundred and fifty bucks a night to keep them in a hotel room, which is crazy because that’s like seventy-five hundred dollars a month or something instead of paying, like, fifteen hundred bucks a month for an apartment. And then what happens is if, for whatever reason, if your home is destroyed and you kind of qualify for that reason to stay in a hotel but you prefer not to, like most people would prefer not to, and maybe if you have a sister-in-law or whatever, that you can actually stay with instead? You can’t get that money that you would normally get if they had paid for a hotel for you to spend on something else like repairing your home.
Woman: So there’s these weird sort of cycles. People will end up kind of saying no to, like, the hotel thing and then just losing out on that seven thousand dollars a month that some people were essentially being given because of the hotel program, you know? I don’t really understand how those–like there seems to be so little rhyme and reason behind those decisions. Like I don’t understand why it’s not a flat rate for what you qualify for through FEMA and you can choose to put that into a hotel or you can choose to, like, rebuild faster so you don’t need a hotel. I’m not really sure why those choices don’t exist. I know that the SBA loans just seem like a really bad deal to me. Again, there’s tons of retirees and stuff here who never even had expected to have to work again. Just the idea that you get sixty or eighty thousand dollars of assistance in the form of a loan when you’re retired, like, seems a little like a blessing and a curse. You know what I mean? I don’t know. I would like to actually know more about how that works but it’s very difficult to understand. I mean there’s–and that’s something else. I feel really sorry for a lot of people. I mean I have seven years of college under my belt, right? And I have a hard time reading a lot of the documents or, you know, FEMA website, or really understanding what’s going on. So how do you do that when, like, you’re living in a hotel, all of your paperwork has been destroyed, you don’t have a birth certificate anymore. You know, like you may or may not have, like, a high school education. So how do you navigate that system if I find it really difficult and I don’t really have time to do it, you know?
Interviewer: Was your organization adequately able to handle the sort–were they able to handle the event– Were they able to handle the sort like–prepared before the storm?
Woman: No, we didn’t exist before the storm. We had some skills and experience and, like, willing to do what we were doing. We were largely funded by Occupy Sandy with a little bit of money coming in here and there and other places, but like a very huge proportion of the resources we’ve gotten have been in-kind donations that came via Occupy Sandy and a couple of other sources and a few fundraising, you know, things that we’ve done. And even after the storm, because we were the only people doing mold for so long, demand for what we were doing outstripped our capacity immediately. And it was really, you know, intimidating. And in some ways we were kind of like should we keep doing this, because like if we were to just keep assessing homes every time someone called us and asked us to come over, we would have had a backlog six months long. You know, it takes actually a long time to do mold remediation because of how wet houses were. I don’t know if you’ve seen our huge dehumidifiers. They’re giant, like, twenty-five hundred dollar industrial dehumidifiers. But like, it can take one or two of those, like, eight or ten days in some of the worst houses, like, to dry it out in a form that remediation’s effective. So you’re talking about mold remediation can take–it can take three days but it can also take two weeks, you know? And so even with tons of resources and tons of people, you can’t do it that quickly. And so, you know, it’s been a constant battle of balancing sort of like the trifecta of capacity, demand, and your ideals about how you need to do things, you know? So we had, like, millions of volunteers flooding into the Rockaways. Like we had to sort of slow down our work because we needed to make sure there was a certain amount of quality control. We have a hundred and fifty people there. But that means even if you can put ten people in each site, you need, A, all of the equipment for all of those places, and you need an experienced person who can determine whether the job has been done well, which they can only really do if they’ve seen the people doing that work and if they have the proper tools to measure certain things about it. And so there were times when it sort of like slowed down what we were doing because in terms of we didn’t have access to that many people willing to work for free who were skilled at knowing whether mold remediation was being done well, you know?
Woman: But I think we did a good job of, like, doing what we could do well and doing what we could do and honestly feel good about it.
Interviewer: Okay. What affected you most during your time volunteering during the storm?
Woman: I don’t know. What do you mean? Like what–?
Interviewer: I guess were there any–we did speak earlier about, you know, you working with the homeowners and becoming attached to them. But were there any, you know, maybe specific experiences or the experience as a whole that, you know affected you or the process as the project moved along?
Woman: Yeah, I mean it’s a really problematic field to work in, you know, the way grant cycles work and the way funding works and the way you have to apply for something, and thing you have to use it for X, Y, and Z. But then, again, the role of recovery is changing so fast all the time. Like we applied for a grant that we just got a check for, like, last week. But we applied for it November 30th. So like, what our capacity was, what needed to be done–like all those things were really different than they are today. I mean it’s five months. You know what I mean we got that money four or five months later. That funder happens to be really flexible. We can change what we were going to do. But I mean it’s kind of just an example of, like, how those things are hard. I think it’s been really difficult to kind of–I don’t know. I think that I personally was pretty idealistic about the ability–like our ability and what it would be, like, to get funding to employ, like, youth from Far Rockaway and what we’re doing now. Like I would love to have, like, twenty-five-year-old kids from Far Rockaway being like the team leaders for all the volunteers to come in and, like, give them seventy-five bucks a day. I mean it’s not a lot of money but it’s like ten bucks an hour. And they’d be learning, A, the physical skills, whatever they were learning in terms of construction or mold remediation or managing and, you know, doing whatever. And like there’d be–you know, there would just be like a mutually beneficial relationship. And that was really what I personally, and I think several of us, really intended to do. And that’s been, like, almost impossible to do.
Interviewer: Why impossible?
Woman: Because it’s hard to ask for funding for that. Even when we have a couple of times put in sort of requests for funding that would include paying people, we were always asked to scale it down, where it was hard to even pay ourselves really fairly. I mean there were really like–none of that’s even really panned out that much, you know? Like we’ve gotten like, a small grant at times specifically for giving us each a couple of hundred bucks. But you know, it’s not set up to work that way. And that has been–and I think it might be different if we had, you know, another storm this August and we had good reputation and we dealt with a few grants well and–
Woman: You know, and then I could apply for a half million dollar grant instead of a ten thousand dollar grant, and things like that. Do you know what I mean? But at the same time, it really isn’t set up that well to get that kind of money that fast. And then, like, the grassroots grants were all five, ten, whatever thousand dollars. And that sounds like a lot of money until you’re trying to do a lot of shit with it, you know?
Woman: I don’t think it’s impossible; it’s just really hard because, like, we’re constantly–you know, you have to keep your capacity up enough to warrant, like, having these people. And you’re never sure when donations are going to stop and–
Woman: –if you don’t have consistent funders. Our first funding was really just me putting up Facebook statuses and a few people sending us, like, checks for a couple hundred bucks. But really, like, it was pretty much as grassroots as you can get, you know? And so–and you know, there are probably other organizations with different experiences.
Interviewer: Okay. What about as far as getting the community involved in what you’re doing? You’re working in a couple of neighborhoods and a couple of communities. Have there been any differences between the communities? What’s your take on that?
Woman: Yeah, I mean when we were working in Rockaway Park, we definitely came across people who were kind of like thanks for trying to help us; we’re going to be fine. You should go someplace where people really need you. You know? And kind of even before people knew what their toll on their own personal finances or X, Y, and Z was going to be. And so, you know, there’s some degree to which that was true and there’s some degree to which it was really a tribute to, like, pride and like–
Woman: –the new experience of having to be helped, you know? And like, there’s a lady down the street who–did you know Gabby only had dreadlocks–until, like, two months he had dreadlocks down to, like, here that he had for ten years, which he wound up shaving off because he just needed too many people to take him seriously without a hazing period, whatever. And there are people who are like, you know, a month ago, I wouldn’t have even given you directions to the train; now I’m giving you keys to my house, you know? And that was really interesting because people were, you know–like that’s just an interesting human experience. And that’s a response that we didn’t get in Arverne. Do you know what I mean? There you go. Yeah. You know, and especially in the beginning, I think we went, like, a week without a shower. Like do you know what I mean? Like we were–we probably–we were a pretty ragtag group of people. And people didn’t really question our help. Like the more people needed it, the more–I don’t know. Or the more people–I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. Like–
Woman: But that–or cultural differences, you know? But that was really interesting. I forget where I was going with that question. Like with Gabby’s dreadlocks. Like differences in how we’re treated in different neighborhoods? Or how we interact with the community?
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Let’s go that route.
Woman: Yeah. That’s–I mean it’s been hard because I’ve been–like they tried to have different kind of events that–like we had some guy coming in to talk about, like, how the Sandy aid package was going to work and, like, actually people came to that. Like thirty people came to that, maybe more. And we had, you know, food and whatever. But there’s been a few times where we tried to have, like, community events but–there’s meetings, like, every day of the week. There’s Knights of Columbus and there’s community board and then [Inaudible 1:41:11] Engineers in Rockaway.
Interviewer: In Rockaway all over or not in one specific area?
Woman: No, I mean I think that there’s some of those things in this area sometimes. But they’re basically concentrated in, like, Far Rockaway or here. But specifically because we’re in Arverne, we thought we might be able to get some people to come out who were just close to there. Do you know what I mean? Like they don’t have to go to the twenties and they don’t have to go to the hundreds.
Woman: They can stay in their area. And I don’t know if it’s because so many people aren’t home or sort of that people are just worn out, but it’s been really difficult to get people to come to events. We have a really good relationship with the community but we haven’t really been able to do much in the way of like–we’re just all, like, spent in terms of just keeping our operations going. And it takes a surprising number of people to coordinate volunteers. And it doesn’t really matter if you have eight volunteers or thirty. Like it actually sort of takes–it takes almost the same amount of work. No, probably not quite but almost the same, you know? And so I think that’s why, for me, I’ve really appreciated having the relationship with Occupy Sandy that we have because there’s a bunch of people who are actually doing more direct community organizing and trying to get people involved and like going to community planning events to, like, learn about the urban planning process and learning about how they can try to be involved in that or learning how they can’t be involved and what to do instead. I like being attached to that because I can, like, plug into that when I have the ability to, like you know–if I can contribute to that, I do. And I do think ultimately, like, that’s the longer term stuff that hopefully is going to have some kind of an effect swaying whether, like, it’s where the money goes or what happens to land–you know, in terms of land’s use or whatever.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. How well if at all does your organization work with other organizations, volunteer groups, government agencies, in response efforts?
Woman: I mean in some ways pretty well. Like people like us. People think we do really good work. No one’s been critical of the work we do except for the unions. And they haven’t really been critical of the work we do so much as they just don’t think it’s appropriate having volunteers doing the kind of work we have volunteers doing at all. And you don’t necessarily have to comment on this, but I do think that we go–we go pretty far in the direction of trying to keep our volunteers safe. I mean, especially in comparison to what we’ve seen from a lot of other volunteer groups. I mean like, I think World Care has just got fired from their job. They got sort of hired on as one of the non-profits that could do the mold remediation but the quality control was so not there that I’m pretty sure they got asked to stop. But like I don’t think that would happen with us. I think we have a whole other way of doing things and whole other feeling of accountability.
Woman: We want to do the work we’re doing more than we want to perpetuate ourselves as a group and just like continue the funding stream and stay on top. And you know what I mean? Like, we’re happy. When we’ve gotten over our heads, we’ve slowed down. It’s cool. Like maybe we can’t do a hundred and fifty people a day every day. Fine. You know, we never…we never guaranteed we could, you know? And in that way, I think we’ve worked well. In other ways, I think it’s been difficult, like in terms of other grassroots groups that sprung up like Friends of Rockaway, even at times Occupy Sandy. I think that because some of us had experience with doing disaster relief or working in logistics or working construction, like, we had experience doing that in a pretty structured environment. And so sometimes when, like, working with groups that were, like, a little less structured or, like, also ad hoc but maybe didn’t have as much experience behind them, like it was a little frustrating to working with people who were, like, super disorganized. And some of that meant, like, the more community-based groups because they sprung up because they were from the community. And I kind of regret, like, not being a little bit more patient, except for I also, you know, can be pretty forgiving in that way because among everything, it’s completely chaotic and also people are being chaotic. Like it’s a little bit hard to deal with but I think it would have been nice if we slowed down a minute and tried to accommodate, like, more community-based groups a little bit.
Interviewer: So there were a number or a few community-based groups?
Woman: A few.
Interviewer: A few?
Woman: Uh huh.
Interviewer: Okay. Like what sized groups were they?
Woman: I mean like Small Water. They’re like the little–do you know what I’m talking about?
Interviewer: No, I’m not familiar with them.
Woman: It’s like a lot of younger people in the Rockaways, you know. And they’re grassrootsy and they’re–I don’t know. Like we really want to try and focus and do this thing that we were doing well. And it was a little bit to, like, also help out with, like, getting donations places and helping people move a bunch of stuff. You know what I mean? It’s like so much to, like, do the job that we were doing, I feel like we wound up kind of saying, like, no to people a lot or people who have the kind of access to, like, make X, Y, and Z a priority. And we were–like we felt like we needed to stick to some sort of system, you know?
Woman: And I think that that–sometimes I wanted to be more flexible but we were also so strapped in terms of our capacity, like–
Woman: And then we needed structure and organization to keep doing what we were doing well also. And I think it helped us get known for–I mean people are always calling us even though they can pay for mold remediation to check to see if they did it well because they had heard that we did everything the right way, you know? The Attorney General’s deputy–some environmental deputy something of the Attorney General office called us to talk about our program. It’s on my cell phone of all places. I was like, oh shit. Are you guys calling–like what’s going on? You know, like I don’t know. So in some ways we are able to do a lot of things well because of that. But then, I don’t know. Just there’s something to be said about just helping people out, being part of the more grassroots process.
Interviewer: Okay. Do you think these efforts are going to continue in the future?
Woman: Yeah, I mean the sort of standard disaster relief organizations that are funded well are going to be here for a couple of–for awhile, I would say, a couple of years: Habitat– I don’t know what will happen to us because we’ve been largely volunteer with almost no income. And we’ve pieced together some other things and gotten hired to, like, teach mold classes by the city and stuff like that. But you know, eventually we’re going to need to have secure incomes. I’d like to see–if everything ended tomorrow, I would stay involved with Occupy Sandy and do probably a different type of volunteer work. And I would be helping to make a mold remediation organization, like keep going. I’d probably stay part of, like, the long-term recovery group, the FEMA-based one. But at the same time, I don’t want to be an organization that just–I don’t want to be more concerned with, like, perpetuating the organization that I am with, like our connection to it, what’s really going on. You know? If that makes sense.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. So to ask this question, I mean we spoke–I think we went over this a little bit and maybe a couple of times but at different points. What are the main challenges for Gabby to, I guess, deal with now? We’ll leave it at that. What are the main challenges you’re having to deal with now?
Woman: Funding. For me personally, like having–it being really hard to try to get funding that’s flexible enough that we can use it to pay people. When you’re a non-profit, if you spend more than, like, thirteen to fifteen percent of your funds on over, like, paying people, it doesn’t look very good in terms of being a non-profit. And you’re, like, charity-raiding or you know, your star rating or charity navigator rating. You know what I mean?
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Woman: But there’s like five or six of us at all times who are working. So even if you imagine us making, like, twenty thousand dollars a year each, which would be like minimal in terms of surviving–and we all work crazy amounts of hours–that would be a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. And so, like, we’d have to have like 1.5 million dollars to be able to pay all six of us twenty thousand dollars a year and maintain a good rating as a non-profit. That’s hard. And that’s not counting trying to stipend or pay local people to do work. Do you know what I mean?
Woman: And at the same time, we’re well aware that it’s not really that sustainable. It’s just perpetually how–like we don’t have any intentions of having a volunteer group for years in the Rockaways or, like–do you know what I mean?
Woman: It’s a means to an end. But you don’t want to be shipping people–you know, like at a certain point, I don’t know. Like what do you do if you’re not really part of a long-term sustainable, holistic, you know, veteran of the community from here?
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. There’s been a lot of talk about the storm prompting more serious action on climate change. In New York, they had what they called the PlaNYC 2007. Are you familiar with that? They talked a lot about climate change, but it focused mainly on curbing emissions. Do you think the priority after Sandy will shift from mitigation to adaptation?
Woman: I hope so but I don’t really know. I mean people are so far from really even considering making changes that allow for, I mean, real adapt–do you know what I mean? I feel like I’m not explaining it very well. But like, people aren’t that–people are willing to, like, recycle more, but they’re not really willing to, like, use less, right? Like it’s a really simple example. Or people aren’t really willing to, like, drive less or not have a car or, like, do any of the things that on an individual level actually would contribute, you know, on that collective scale to it, actual change. And so while I think in some ways it might make people sort of like support policy, that’s different–I don’t– I mean I hope so. I do think it’s made people think a lot more. I mean even–even people here who I doubt really thought about this much before are starting to think about it. But it’s a little bit hard to talk about because it’s not like you can say to people, like, now that you have to rebuild your house from scratch, why don’t you get solar panels, because it’s not–everybody in the Rockaways can get solar panels; it’s not going to prevent the next storm. Like Sandy was–if Sandy, like, was a product of climate change, it’s been coming for, you know, fifty years. Like do you know what I mean? Like there’s a lot of human activity that’s led to where we are today. And you can’t tell people, like, all switch to solar and there’s not going to be hurricanes anymore, you know? And so it’s hard to say, I think like, how it will affect people’s behavior, although I do think people are just going to be more attuned to the fact that this is going on and rampant disregard for the fact that, like, all of our actions are contributing to that, you know? Just being cognizant of it, I think, could change people’s attitude towards policy.
Interviewer: Okay. So you think mitigation is even still on the table?
Woman: Like in what form?
Interviewer: Well, I guess you know, in the form that, you know, you’re talking about where–
Woman: Elevating a house.
Interviewer: Yeah. You know, we could speak about, you know, the alteration structures. I mean that’s obviously a very loaded topic. It’s a very big theme and it’s a life-changing theme for many people. You know, is it…is it still something that’s still available to call upon, you know? What do you think?
Woman: I think that will be the first thing that people do for sure. I mean I don’t think people are really going to start living all that differently if that’s what you mean by adaptation. Or I don’t know if you mean more of kind of like adaptation in terms of–like how do you translate that into a specific thing? Like moving life on the coast?
Interviewer: Right. Well I was actually referring to mitigation rather than adaptation.
Woman: Oh. Okay. Yeah, I mean I think people are going to–it’s going to be split because there are still people who are really in denial that this might happen again in their lifetime. They really kind of feel like it’s a once in a lifetime thing. But I do think that there’s people who are going to say, you know, try to mitigate the risks that they face individually, particularly in the form of, like, alternative structures and stuff like that. It’s hard to say. You know? Individual and collective sacrifice are a little different, you know, because it’s almost like mitigation comes from producing something or like paying for something or something like that. You know what I mean? They’re, like, supporting something that way. Adaptation involves, like, a completely different holistic move. Does that make sense? Or is that in line with what you meant by, like, adaptation versus mitigation?
Interviewer: Well, you know, I guess it depends again on who you’re talking to. Some people interpret adaptation as, well, the individual must adapt or the collective must adapt.
Interviewer: That’s up to the interpretation of who’s speaking about it, so.
Woman: Yeah. It will be interesting to see if people in New York or people on the coast in general or how far anyone’s willing to go in terms of adapting to anything new. You know what I mean? Even like Mantoloking in Jersey–it’s a place where they’re, like, using eminent domain to build big dunes. Were we talking about this earlier?
Interviewer: I don’t think so.
Woman: Oh, okay. Maybe it was the woman, Julie.
Interviewer: Right, right.
Woman: But, you know, they’re trying to build dunes, protective dunes along the coast. And they’re having–they may have to use eminent domain because there’s four or five people who just don’t think the state should have the right to build anything on their property even though it’s meant to protect the entire town–
Woman: –which is an interesting thing. And so, like, that’s interesting. And I feel like it’s probably all added up this whole interview. I’m probably saying things that are contradictory. But it’s interesting to me that there’s people on Mantoloking who are refusing to let the government build fucking dunes to protect their entire little town. It’s a very wealthy town, but still–just on the basis that the government should not be involved in those sort of things. But they sure as hell want the government to be involved in bailing them out for, like, having their giant, crazy home on a barrier island. So I don’t know.
Interviewer: So what about mitigation in terms of mitigation involves structural redevelopment that displaces–?
Interviewer: People, homes?
Woman: Yeah, I think–you know, I think we are looking at that happening. It’s just hard to think of a way that that’s going to happen where any of it is equitable. Do you know what I mean? Like nobody’s ever going to create, like, resilient, affordable housing on the waterfront. Although you do have people whose families have been living here in the Rockaways for a hundred years or like, you know, whatever. So like I just don’t know if it’s–do you just accept that? It’s kind of hard, you know?
Interviewer: Right. So again, going back to inequality–this is a theme that social scientists talk a lot about in terms of race, class, gender. Are you and other volunteers–are you talking about these issues explicitly with respect to your work?
Woman: Actually not usually. And I wish that we were. But it’s a little bit difficult on–like I guess I kind of thought there’d be more room for that than there is. And there are some people who are attuned to those kinds of things already. And I might have conversations with them. But a lot of people really aren’t. And it’s hard–it’s really hard to talk to people about why, like, not all help is created equal. It’s a little hard to talk to people about, like, the privilege that’s inherent in being able to be a volunteer and coming down, you know? It’s a little hard, like, first of all because the work day is short and whatever. And you really want to get stuff done. But also, like, Occupy Sandy tried to have these orientations about–you know, when different people did them, they were different. But sometimes, like, it was like okay, well there’s–sometimes it was just like, you know, there’s not room here for any kind of sexism or racism or this–you know what I mean? And like, even that was over some people’s heads. Do you know what I mean? They just came to help. They just want to fucking, like, dig out somebody’s car if that’s what’s happening that day or like whatever. And it takes time to do that. And you know, I wish I would have been able to put more of those kind of structures in place when we were doing–setting up our system. But it’s really difficult because there’s an urgency to what you’re doing that, you know. Even just doing things better than other people, like paying more attention to volunteer safety, paying more attention to homeowner safety or resident safety–those things are hard to achieve and, like, do better. It’s like–you know, it’s hard because not everybody wants an educational component, you know, or a social justice component. And so there’s people that I talked about those things with particularly who I’ve worked with in Occupy Sandy and who I–like we spend time together because we’re involved in certain things moving forward and, like, community organizing kinds of stuff or just neighborhood stuff. And that’s great. But it’s–there’s such an urgency to disaster relief, it doesn’t lend itself well to including and incorporating those kind of things unless you already have a system down, you know. And so maybe if we were to do it again, we’d be able to create something that allows for that, but I also don’t know.
Interviewer: Do you think it’s maybe something that just occurred because of circumstance or your response to the need of who needed, you know, that relief and it wasn’t offered, it just…it just worked out that way. It just cycled itself or followed itself to those areas because it wasn’t there to start off with?
Woman: Yeah, for sure. And like, for political reasons or for pragmatic reasons, whatever you think about it, it didn’t make sense for us to be in certain places, you know? But I do sometimes wish that there was–I think it’s easy for people to come in and out of working. There’s a book that I’m reading right now. It’s called “Floodlines.” Have you read it?
Interviewer: I’m not familiar with the book, no.
Woman: But it’s by Jordan Flaherty. He’s from–he lived in New Orleans for a long time and did a lot of work after Katrina was still there and wrote this book. And it’s about, like–it’s about a lot of things. But one of the things he talks about is, like, after Katrina happened, like this huge sense of entitlement among, like, white sort of do-gooder, blah, blah, blah, you know, kind of people. And the idea that they might not be useful at that moment or like maybe–or didn’t–was crazy to them, and like the sense of entitlement, which we also experienced because we sometimes would tell people, like, you really shouldn’t be doing this because you’re dressed this way, something like that. And people kind of saying, like well fuck you. I can help if I want to. And it’s like, right.
Interviewer: Amongst the volunteers?
Woman: So I think that in terms of that having, like, an understanding of, like, what the actual reality of the social landscape is down here, volunteers have, like, really wildly different levels of understanding of those things. Do you know the CEOs that work at our place from Center of Employment Opportunities?
Interviewer: I believe I may have met one at one time, however, I’m not certain.
Woman: Yeah, so they’re guys who have had some kind of run in with the law and some kind–maybe have been to jail. But you know, non-violent, usually a misdemeanor, whatever. And it’s kind of like an anti-prison or citivism program where they get pay not a very good wage but work in these different jobs for maybe, like, a month or two months or something at a time to kind of get a job exploration and get experience so that if they then look for a job, can say that they have some experience doing this. And it’s also a program–I think it’s intended sort of keep people busy so they stay out of trouble. So we had some volunteers a couple of days ago who saw those guys and just basically saw a bunch of black guys out on the sidewalk and were like, I don’t know if I feel safe around here. And it was actually a bunch of guys working for us. But they were just like, oh my god. We were out on the sidewalk and there were a bunch of black guys out there. Do you know what I mean? Like that’s kind of a weird situation to be in and like having to deal with that. Like what’s the best way to deal with that? You don’t really have time to deal–like do you know what I mean? Like do you deal with it the best way–or do you just keep the day rolling because you’re trying to get work done and you told Mrs. Smith you’re going to be done with her mold by five? Like and so you start constantly making these choices and, I don’t know. I think people who tend toward–for me, I think sometimes people who tend toward, like academia or community organizing or activism work, it’s a little bit hard to make those compromises and feel good about them later. You know what I mean? Like either one is kind of the wrong decision.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Huh. How about the group–being the group from the outside that’s not from the Rockaways–comes into a neighborhood that had some type of social cohesion at one time? How has it been accepted? How was it accepted at first? And how is it accepted now?
Woman: I mean at first–well there’s kind of been, like, ups and downs. At first, people were kind of like, where are these people from? But then in some ways, once they realized what was going on here, they didn’t care because, like you know, we told people exactly what they needed to do. When their insurance people came, they were like, they’re right. You did the right thing, whatever. And then, you know, there’s some–and people are different. And the thing about–I don’t know how much social cohesion there was here. Like yes, they’re really strong, like, church communities and yes, all these women belong to, like, the Knights of Columbus Columbiettes group. And yes, there’s all these different community-based organizations in the Rockaways. But there’s still–I mean it depends on what you’re talking about in terms of social cohesion. Like are you talking about the Irish community who [Inaudible 2:07:23] in the same fucking whatever, you know, or are you talking about the Rockaways, which is wildly striated, you know? But being outside was weird. It’s weird to be in New York, but also the Rockaways is a really weird provincial place. And if you’re not from here, you’re really not from here. You know, it’s kind of like why are you here? Or there’s a little more us versus them, insider outsider thing than I even expected, which is interesting. But we’ve kind of been around long enough now that I think people are starting to think of us in a different way. And combined with the fact that we’re not around for a long time in the Red Cross or even, like, New York Care–like I don’t know. Like I think we’re a little bit less business-y, organization-y, and a little bit more like–
Interviewer: Than New York Cares or–
Woman: Yeah, like they have a whole thing, right? And I feel like we’re just kind of people.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah.
Woman: And I think the people who keep coming down are also just kind of people who have some kind of interest in doing this work for whatever reason, you know? And it’s less this kind of bus tour thing or like–
Interviewer: Yeah. So you have gotten reoccurrence of volunteers that have come in, like a–
Woman: Uh huh. Like Revene and Sarah have been coming, like, every week. And they can–or Kevin you might know. But those guys are great because they can just take Gabby’s place, you know, those guys’ place and actually just run the whole thing. And that’s important because a lot of times we need to be in ten places at once and there’s not that many of us.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. How about volunteers that cycle in or, you know, volunteers that come one time?
Woman: Yeah, some people aren’t really that into working. Some people are. Some people tell us it changed their whole life and like, you know. And some people, whatever, that don’t think about it that much or think it’s gross or think it’s dangerous. So it really varies. I don’t know. It’s weird.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright, well, I think that pretty much sums everything up. Is there anything you wanted to add or–?
Woman: I don’t think so.
Interviewer: Okay. Well thank you very much.
[End of recording]
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