By Gale Brewer
Midland Beach, New Dorp, Tottenville—these are neighborhoods few West Siders had ever visited, or perhaps even heard of, until last week. Few of us will ever forget them now—and not only for the suffering and devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. We will remember because we made their names, along with Far Rockaway and Coney Island, our own.
The first few days reminded me of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Life as we knew it had stopped, and everyone seemed to be in shock. The subway, the city’s lifeline, was crippled. We couldn’t get to work, or if we did, it was closed. School was out, and so the kids were home. Refugees from lower Manhattan began moving in with friends. Soon there was no bread, and before long, no gas. What we did have was a glut of television images of survivors pleading for help and of damage that seemed to dwarf the capacity of government to respond.
I believe it was in part those images of hungry, dispossessed people and shattered lives that inspired West Siders to do what comes naturally to us: lead, organize, network and donate what’s needed, but especially to give of ourselves. The problems weren’t all far away. Hundreds of people came to our neighborhood shelters seeking care. After a tour of the evacuation centers at IS 118/Joan of Arc School, Brandeis High School and John Jay College, I called Shelly Fine, head of the Upper West Side CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and he went into action, finding volunteers, locating dry clothing, delivering food and even getting sponsorship for a hotel room for two disabled seniors.
And then there were the donations of food, clothing and bedding that poured in from every part of the community. Members of the JCC of Manhattan were generous with contributions, and their lobby quickly filled. They found cars with gas and drove to where the need was. But then all West Siders wanted to donate, and they brought more supplies to JCC, so my office working with City Council colleagues in devastated communities organized truckloads to go to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and downtown Manhattan. At the same time, a shout-out on Facebook for contributions to be dropped off at the Firehouse Restaurant brought supplies and a line of people to load them into trucks bound for the Rockaways. The Fourth Universalist Society collected donations and working with Congregation Rodeph Sholom brought them to Staten Island and the Rockaways. Congregation Ohab Zedek, Lincoln Square Synagogue, Advent Lutheran Church, Community Free Democrats and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun did the same, and there are more.
Fairway and Fresh Direct donated food, as did Carmine’s and the New York Hospitality Alliance, and trucks from the City of NY as well as Mel Wymore made deliveries. Bike and Roll is now doing the same.
We used social media to tell West Siders how they could volunteer. They went on Council-sponsored buses and on their own to clean up homes, visit seniors on high floors and give out supplies. When they were told that blankets, not clothes, were needed, they took it in stride and donated to the Salvation Army. Members of our local NYPD volunteered in their off hours. Staff at LaGuardia High School, where students come from all over, identified those families who no longer had a home, and found apartments and funded clothing and new books.
Riverside Park suffered serious flooding and tree loss, and the docks at the boat basin were damaged—luckily, everyone had evacuated. Riverside Park belongs to the West Side, and once word went out that it needed help, volunteers poured in: Community School District 3 families, Manhattan New York Temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, teens from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Hippo Playground families, gardeners, bicyclists, runners and neighbors—more than 1,000 people swept the park clean of debris and leaves from Riverside South to the “Great Gray Bridge.”
West Siders want to continue their support of the post Hurricane Sandy efforts, but they also want to know what are the lessons learned and what changes should be made to our infrastructure in the near future.
Gale Brewer is the City Council Member representing District 6, which includes the Upper West Side and Clinton.
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