The darkened stairwell of the tower on Broome Street on the Lower East Side is like a dripping, foul-smelling cave lit only by a few headlamps and flashlights. A group of eight 20- and 30-somethings are climbing to the top floor of the 23-story building to check on public housing residents who have been stuck without power or water since Monday night.
"Hello? Hello? We’re volunteers! Do you need help? Water? Agua? Ayuda?" The women do the talking in hopes that people won’t be intimidated. Theo, a resident on the 18th floor who escorts us up, says that this is a dangerous building in the best of times. He also says to his knowledge, no one has been door to door to help yet: not FEMA, not the Red Cross. Just the NYC Housing Authority Police on Monday to tell people to get out. This is Thursday.
On each floor above the fourth we find elderly and sick people who have been unable or afraid to venture out since the start of the storm. "I’ve fallen down twice—that was enough for me," says Estelle Kleinhaus, a white-haired woman on the 12th floor who lives alone. They need food, drinking water, and medication. More able-bodied residents have been filling buckets at a hydrant outside in order to flush toilets.
Nadia Televiak, 68, in 22C is out of candles. Antonia Rivera, 72, her next-door neighbor in 22B, is sick with a fever and is in need of food. In 20G there is an elderly man with a broken foot who only speaks Cantonese—luckily one of our group can translate. In 18H, one of the Wongs has a heart problem and they haven’t been able to climb downstairs. In 8A there are two young girls by themselves. They say their mom is at work.
Somewhere there is a cat who is alone and very unhappy about it.
Our group doesn’t have much to offer beyond a couple of bottles of drinking water and some flyers directing people to a donation center nearby. We’re not from the Red Cross, FEMA, New York Cares, the public housing police or any other city agency. We’ve never met before and we aren’t affiliated with any one organization, school, or group.
We come from all corners of the city: Elmhurst, Crown Heights, Cobble Hill, and even downtown neighborhoods like Chelsea and the West Village, where the power’s still out.
Each of us showed up this morning for the first time, after we saw a notice on a website, got an email, or saw a Tweet that volunteers were needed at 46 Hester Street on the Lower East Side, where a local Asian community organization called CAAAV has become the hub for an almost completely self-organized aid effort.
I realize just how self-organized it is when I ask several people who’s in charge of all this and am pointed to Brian Palmer. He is standing behind a table, processing, organizing, and coordinating volunteers and giving out orders, but, he says, "I’m just someone who showed up early this morning and got a cool vest," indicating his safety-orange vest. (He points out a woman named Helena Wong who is actually affiliated with CAAAV.)
Despite the ad-hoc nature of the distribution, things are fairly peaceful at 46 Hester. Lines of men, women, and children stretch down the block in both directions. One side is for picking up a ticket that allows you to charge a cell phone on the center’s generator. The other side is for picking up donations of peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, water, leftover Halloween candy, batteries, and flashlights, all of which keep arriving by trucks and vans and people on foot every few minutes. The volunteers themselves, who range from local Chinese, Spanish-speaking, and African-American residents to college students from CUNY, are spending hundreds of dollars of their own money for new supplies. They’re keeping the line orderly and fair, sweeping up trash at the curb, and welcoming and thanking everyone who shows up.
On Hester Street, a policewoman named Lim asks what’s going on. I explain it’s a donation center and ask if she knows where else in the area people can go to get help—a Red Cross center, a police precinct, a church, something. She shakes her head.
The lack of an official, coordinated door-to-door response here in downtown, close to some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country, is a bit chilling. Currently across the five boroughs almost half a million people are still without power. If you were going to target people most likely to need help when the power and water is out, it would be the elderly residents of high-rise towers like the ones that surround us. According to a 2011 NYU report, the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown have a population of 169,000. Over 34% of the housing is low-income, 60% more than in the rest of Manhattan, comprising tens of thousands of people. And the lights are out for all of them.
The New York City Housing Authority’s website says that they are only concentrating on critical repairs at this time. It mentions there are distribution centers set up for the first time for a few hours on Thursday and that the National Guard is helping distribute food and water to homebound residents. On site, however, there are no staff members and no one giving out information.
Many people are finding out about Hester Street from the website Recovers.org, and some outreach and behind-the-scenes coordination of all types is coming from the remnants of the Occupy movement, which is also helping with disaster centers in Red Hook, Astoria, and Staten Island. But none of the volunteers I speak to identify with Occupy. They just want to do something and they can see that something desperately needs to be done.
[Panorama Image: Joey Castillo]