November 11. Day 13 post-storm.
s(a)-ndy: defending men; of Greek origin
The massive church is one of the more beautiful I have been in recently. Old gothic architecture in red sandstone is set off by stained glass windows running the length of the building, crowned with a sparkling rose window. The tiny courtyard out front is packed with people and the UPS trucks are double parked three deep in the now one-way street. The inside front fall is littered with signs directing donations to the left, volunteers to the right, bathrooms up the stairs, and announcements for the day. Inside, the pews had been pushed together to form makeshift shelves, although someone explained that the day before , Sunday, the church looked as it normally did, with none of the huge piles of boxes lining the aisles and all the pews properly spaced so that parishioners would bump their knees against the hymnal cases as usual.
Today, this church has turned back into operation central for our community. Occupy Sandy, regardless of all of our political sensibilities, has become a lynchpin in the fight to help our neighbors, still powerless, heatless, out of necessary medications, starving, freezing, breathing contaminated, mold filled air, scrounging for water. Dying.
Today, we’re told that a woman one of our teams had talked to yesterday had died overnight. She was one of the last women the team had spoken with and by the time they called her needs in, night had fallen and the streets were impassable until the next dawn. The darkened boulevards, with their new sinkholes, the debris across them, the downed power lines – all of this means that we work during daylight, which is short as we get closer and close to winter equinox. Early the following day, when the sun was new in the sky and watery light barely made it safe to drive, the team returned to give the woman blankets and a heater, food and safe water, and the necessary comfort of more human interaction. She was dead. Just like that. The previous day, she had talked and laughed with our team, grateful for friendship and hopeful that we could help. Today she was dead because she had run out of food, didn’t have enough blankets, and she couldn’t survive another night calorie-less and shivering to try to stay warm.
Less than a week ago, I said we’d get back to normal. It’s still true, but it’s going to be a new normal. It’s a normal where roller coasters now sit in the ocean, towns are being bulldozed because there is nothing salvageable. It’s a normal where people spend three days navigating FEMA, the NYC bureaucracy, the line wending through Red Cross, and still end up with only a few hundred dollars in cards to the Salvation Army and no place to sleep for the night.
It’s into this mess that Occupy Sandy has stepped. Thousands of volunteers work together every day. The church hubs collect donations, make hot meals, train volunteers, and then match volunteers with others who have cars and send them out to canvass neighborhoods. They stop at each house or apartment, talk to the inhabitants and determine what their needs are. They report back to the hub, and the group there puts together the necessary supplies and sends them out to the people who need them.
At the same time, the kitchen is churning out 10,000 meals a day. One day while I was visiting, I was grabbed to go work in the kitchen because I’d worked in a kitchen before and had food handling experience. In the largest pot I’ve ever seen (I’m fairly certain I could have fit inside without ever scrunching), I made a pot of chili for 200 and in another, a split pea soup for 150. Somewhere along the line I burned my arm and the scar will remind me of this amazing community of people pulling together to support their neighbors.
Sandy destroyed a lot and her after-effects are still wreaking havoc. But in the middle of that, I’ve seen the best in the people who are coming together to form community in this giant, disparate city of millions.
The name Sandy means defending men, and most would say she did the opposite of that – that she attacked us.
But having seen what this disaster has done to the people around me, I think she’s aptly named. Her effects have reminded us what’s important. She has stripped away the self-imposed isolation and independence in my corner of the world. She has defended humanity against their own selfishness and apathy. Sandy defended men.
s(a)-ndy: defending men; of Greek origin