Through pitch-black apartment corridors in Chinatown to the hundreds of restaurants and shops lining the Lower East Side, a small army of volunteers fanned out in those neighborhoods to provide emergency assistance to residents who have been without power and other basic services for the last four days.
Since Tuesday, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, a grassroots organization that works with Asian immigrant and refugee populations, has been conducting volunteer storm relief efforts, distributing basic necessities, visiting homes and keeping community members updated on recovery services.
After Hurricane Sandy crashed into Lower Manhattan on Monday night, knocking out much of its infrastructure, the question of how to help has required many answers.
“Each day has been different,” said Helena Wong, executive director of CAAAV. “We’ve been trying to look at the conditions every day to figure out what is the necessary thing that happens that day.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, that response focused on feeding local residents. But once FEMA’s food distribution efforts reached the area on Wednesday, CAAAV started sending out teams to blacked-out apartments to check on residents, especially the elderly, who were lacking food, water and heating.
CAAAV’s efforts have relied primarily on volunteer assistance. Using phones, social media and word-of-mouth, CAAAV called for volunteers immediately in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Who stepped up to help? Said Wong, “Everybody and their mama!”
On the first day they saw about 50 volunteers, she said, with the ranks peaking at 500 by Friday. Hundreds more having been turning up over the weekend, including neighborhood residents, people from other boroughs, students, passersby and professionals.
On Saturday, streams of volunteers continued to turn up. By then organizers were confident enough about the area’s recovery that they encouraged would-be volunteers to turn their attention to places like Coney Island, Red Hook and the Rockaways, coastal areas that remain ravaged by the hurricane.
“Since electricity came on last night we made the decision today that we would support efforts in the outer boroughs,” Wong said. “We want to make sure that as much of the supplies here get down to the boroughs that need it.”
Despite the overwhelming need for their services, CAAAV’s efforts almost didn’t happen at all.
Police, citing a “public safety threat”, initially tried to shut down CAAAV’s improvised relief efforts. Wong said police officers worried CAAAV was going to start a riot by distributing materials high in demand in an inefficient manner. She said she and a colleague had to travel to the police precinct office to reassure officers that they would be able to maintain an orderly process to their aid distribution.
The spontaneous support at CAAAV also highlighted, from Wong’s perspective, the near total absence of federal or city relief workers in the area in the first few days of the recovery. Residents, she said, felt like they had to fend for themselves for basics like lighting, water and food.
“We haven’t seen any elected officials, we haven’t seen anybody – except all the great volunteers that have come through,” said Wong. “They got Wall Street up in two days. We totally expected more. Nobody’s been in contact with us – I think we got a few email responses but that’s about it. But nobody’s come down to check out the situation, to talk to the tenants. We’ve been doing everything in English Chinese and Spanish.”
Garrett Wright, 34, an attorney at the Urban Justice Center, which frequently works with CAAAV, has spent six to seven hours for the past four days volunteering on the Lower East Side, doing everything from buying flashlights to distributing supplies to collecting trash in the absence of official relief workers. “On Wednesday, we saw nobody out here doing anything. We didn’t see FEMA, we didn’t see city agencies, we didn’t see the Red Cross, anyone out here really, doing what CAAAV was doing,” he said.
Wright lives in Greenpoint but because of the evolving transportation situation, he has used a different mode of transportation each day to reach the area. On one day, he walked all the way from his apartment to the Lower East Side. He was especially concerned about delivering information, and passed out pamphlets that provided the content of Bloomberg’s press releases and updates on transportation. “With the power blackout it’s also in large part an information blackout,” he said.
Jared Lander, 30, a data science consultant and professor at Columbia, found out about CAAAV through his Chinese girlfriend, Yin Cheung. Cheung, 28, works at Pepsi and was able to obtain relief materials from the company. “No soda – water and Gatorade, that type of stuff,” Lander said. The couple planned to drive the supplies out to neighboring areas.
Lander, in an olive down vest and sporting a short beard, knew what it’s like to be on the other side, awaiting assistance. “My apartment is in the no-power zone so I actually fled to Midtown for the past few days so today was the first day I could get back downtown and start helping out,” he said. “It’s good to be helping down here. Now that I’m safe, I want to be able to help other people.”