Downtown Organizations Help with Hurricane Relief

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After Hurricane Sandy blazed its path of flooding and power outages through downtown Manhattan, many residents and groups plunged right in to help their neighbors, showing that even a mega-storm and unprecedented damage won’t keep New Yorkers from helping each other in times of crisis.

The headquarters of Nazareth Housing, at 206 E. Fourth St., narrowly avoided major damage. Michael Callaghan, executive director of the nonprofit group that works on housing rights and homelessness prevention, said that now they’re frenetically coordinating donated supplies and volunteers.

“I think the biggest problem is heat,” said Callaghan. “There is still public housing that doesn’t have electricity and heat. They’re not letting people go in and see how the residents are because they don’t want to be sued.”

He said that volunteers have been routing incoming supplies to some of the hardest-hit areas of the outer boroughs, like the Rockaways in Queens and Coney Island in Brooklyn, but they’re also still concerned about local downtown residents.

At the Hester Street offices of CAAAV, a pan-Asian community-based organization, executive director Helena Wong said that their role in helping has evolved day to day since Sandy struck.

“Every day has been a little bit different, we started off just providing a way for people to charge their phones and handing out what donations were coming in,” Wong said. “When FEMA came, the next day we started to go into buildings and prioritize the seniors and folks who have trouble getting around.”

Wong said that they’re now using their offices primarily as a donation drop-off center while trying to work with local residents who haven’t been able to get in touch with their landlords in order to get their boilers switched on.

Some organizations have had to overcome their own major hurdles in order to help. At GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), a neighborhood housing and preservation organization, their office at 171 Ave. B was in evacuation Zone A and is still without functioning phone lines or heat.

Damaris Reyes, the executive director, said that she and most of her staff also live in the flood zone, but that they still “managed to coordinate a massive relief effort with approximately 3,000 volunteers and thousands of donations.”

This week, staffers corralled volunteers to bring food, water, flashlights, batteries and information to seniors and disabled people who were trapped on high floors of buildings without power.

“About 50 percent of the residents don’t have heat and hot water, about 20 buildings still don’t have electricity, and most folks don’t have working phone lines,” Reyes said.

At the Bowery Mission, their shelter has been operating at over three times its normal capacity, housing over 150 people, and they kept hot meals coming all through the power outage with a donated generator and a mass of extension cords.

“We were the only lights on the Bowery for a few nights there,” said James Winans, the director of development.

They’ve received an outpouring of support and have been also operating a mobile kitchen on Avenue D between Fourth and Fifth streets, giving out hot meals. Winans said that while they’re focusing on how to help Sandy victims in the immediate future, he’s also concerned about facing the holiday season with depleted resources.

“This is a critical time of year for us any year, because we always do a significant weeklong outreach during the week of Thanksgiving and typically serve about 5,000 people,” Winans said.

He’s confident, though, that downtown residents will step up to fill in the gaps in resources. Helena Wong said that she saw firsthand how important it is to have local, tapped-in neighbors helping after a disaster, because they can often get straight to work, where larger organizations are more cumbersome.

“The Red Cross, the agency that is most known for disaster relief, was coming to us to know what to do,” Wong said. “Local organizations really know the community and should be supported to do the work that we do best.”

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