Thanks to the generosity of the NYC-area film production industry, a number of catering trucks have recently been providing free hot meals to those who have been hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Together with a number of volunteers they have been able to make a small difference in the lives of those who have been left shockingly with almost no city, state or federal aid for more than two weeks. Below is a brief account of the situation in the Gowanus Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn two blocks from where I live. Enquires about donations to Nina Shiffman at 917.747.3898
At 6:30 am on Thursday November 8th the Y-Katz catering truck pulled up in the slush deposited by the previous night’s Nor’easter outside the community center at the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn. For nearly 1900 residents in five of the project’s fourteen buildings this was their tenth day without power. The center, a low-rise brick building, was stocked with diapers, bottled water, canned food and other donations from local residents, but save for some blankets and a small pile of ready-to-eat meals from FEMA there was no sign of any organized city or federal aid. Even the FEMA meals, though stamped “Low Sodium,” were considered still so high in sodium as to be dangerous for many of the elderly residents. Managers from NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, had yet to make any attempts to reach out to residents, according to several residents we’d spoken to the day before, and we had the eerie sense of being almost first responders, despite the fact that Sandy had come and gone a week and a half ago.
The plan was for our truck to hand out 300 hot breakfasts over a two-hour period and then 300 hot lunches a few hours later. As we were setting up one man asked if it was a film shoot, an unintentional but nevertheless heartbreaking insight into how many residents doubtless regard the indifference of the outside world to their plight. We told him we were handing out meals and still he seemed confused: Were they free? Did they have to pay?
As news spread of what we doing, a line began to form of people huddled in dark coats and jackets. People asked if it was all right to take an extra meal for their wife or husband upstairs, and again their politeness and deference was both touching and disconcerting, as though such an unexpected benefit surely came with strings attached and might be snatched away at a moment’s notice.
While Y-Katz was setting up, a group of volunteers working with a local community group, FUREE (Families United Against Racial and Economic Exploitation), taught us how to carry meals in teams to the elderly or infirm residents, some trapped as high as fourteen floors up in buildings with no light or elevators. We set off in groups of eight, half working down from the top floors, the other half working up from the first floor. We were nervous at first, not sure what to expect, but the residents’ reactions soon put paid to that. We were greeted with humbling gratitude and kindness: people hugged us and told us we were doing God’s work, suspicious faces peeking around doors turned to smiles. But it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the level of need we encountered. One old woman, so small we thought she was a child at first, opened the door and then seeing us immediately shut it again. Her neighbor informed us she was partially deaf and blind and lived on her own. Numerous elderly people took several minutes to open the door, and finally did so only after some effort using a cane for support; they had not seen the outside world in over ten days in many cases. Young mothers were desperate for diapers and wipes, others for batteries and drinking water, all—especially those with toddlers—grateful for hot food.
One woman had turned on her oven full-blast with the door open to heat her apartment, something we later heard was quite common, and we managed to persuade her to switch it off because of the danger. Another woman, dressed only in a thin bath robe and flip-flops, was standing in the corridor staring out at the snow covered rooftops of Boerum Hill below, seemingly dazed by all that had happened. In some apartments, using notes given us by FUREE, we checked to see if medications were needed, particularly for the very high number of residents with asthma and diabetes. We took notes of which medications needed refilling and also of which apartments needed dry ice to keep their medications from spoiling. Many residents were concerned that their insurance companies would not issue replacement scrips for medication that had been ruined. “We’re living like mole people here,” said Edna Herrera, who lived with her daughter, Leigh, in one building without power or light. “We’re over the candle light thing.” Ms. Herrera was most upset for her daughter, a student at John Jay College in Manhattan, who had been unable to attend school for a week due to lack of public transport. Ms. Herrera didn’t need any supplies from us, but like many residents she seemed relieved to talk to someone after all that had happened. “But you know what?” she said. “We’re tough. We’re New Yorkers. We survive.”
By the time we had finished the last building, Y-Katz was setting up for lunch already and there was a long line as news had got out about the meals on offer. The next morning they were back again for the day and we repeated the same thing all over again. As I was leaving on Friday evening a middle-aged man called Ed Tyre, a resident of the houses for thirty years he told me, came up to me and shook my hand. He wanted to express his gratitude on behalf of all the residents for what we had done. “That people from outside our community—if you’ll pardon the expression—should care enough to come here and help us out means everything,” he said. “And that you all treated us like people, like humans, that means the most.”
I hope that Ed’s words mean as much to everyone in the in the film community that organized this as they did to the individual volunteers who gave their time. Thanks to your extraordinary generosity we were able to offer not just hot food but something just as valuable, a sense of recognition and acknowledgment, and you are continuing to do so in other areas of the city such as Red Hook and the Rockaways that still desperately need help.