What's Really Happening In Blacked-Out Manhattan

The lights are still out for a quarter of a million people in Lower Manhattan, and things are getting dangerous. But cell phones and social media are enabling an entirely self-organized recovery effort that is showing up where FEMA, the Red Cross, and the city are not.

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.

Click to enlarge.

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]

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  • Patrick Wagner

    I'm still shocked we don't have generators, rolling wireless communications antennas, propane to eletricity converters, etc. And be able to move them anywhere within the US in 24 hours or have a set for the East and West coast.  This way of dealing with by storm fallout is not up to par with our abilities in all other aspects of life. Do you agree?

  • Kelley Blevins

    I agree what you are saying. It still does not change the fact that we all depend on mobile phones for communication now.  The article I responded to was about how social media turned the tide.  I am sorry to disappoint the writer of the article, but MOST people affected by the storm had NO means of communication which only made the situation much worse.  When dealing with an emergency and tragedy such as this, the communication network should have worked to help the situation make it even more difficult than it already was. 

  • Sean Fisher

    Take a look at Staten Island NY. It's a borough of NYC. People there don't have homes because they were destroyed. They don't have to worry about having 3G or any wifi because they don't have their cell phones and they were blown away in Sandy.

  • islandhorn

    A heartbreaking story and tremendous admiration for these
    grassroots volunteers. We were victims of Hurricane Ike when it struck
    Galveston in 2008. So we have firsthand experience in dealing with recovery. Despite
    all the political love fest about federal involvement, FEMA is like a giant
    flywheel that takes a while to spin up to speed. We did have one FEMA
    representative check on us a few days after we returned to the house (4 feet of
    floodwater damage and no power). But the rest was by mail and phone, mainly for
    financial aid. My point is, don’t confuse FEMA with day to day humanitarian
    support. The most effective agencies where the charitable organizations who
    went directly into the community, like the Salvation Army serving meals.
    Another popular service was the Tide Detergent mobile laundry mat that allowed
    residents to wash their clothes for free. It would be better for the bureaucrats
    to get out of the way and let the professional relief agencies do what they do

  • Douglas Wolf

    Steven Colbert mocked the people called "preppers" who stockpiled food for possible disasters as if they were loonies. I wonder if the folks starving in New York think Colbert is a moron and should be lynched. 

  • Kelley Blevins

    How can people even use Facebook, Twitter or cell phones?  There are no signals!!!  No one is talking about that. I guess they don't want to offend advertisers like ATT, T-Mobile and Verizon. 

  • Nick Hentoff

    I had a very difficult time finding reliable free wifi within walking distance after 5 pm. I found one bar in a power pocket on 25th St., that had power & wifi. I saw dozens of people huddled around the doors and windows of closed Starbucks in the 30s and 40s

  • Joconde

     by going uptown. it is a pain, there is little transportation, buses are full, but i walk to above 40th street every day, where there is power, to charge phone, check mails etc... because as you say, there is no signal under 40th!!

  • handi45

    Not really much of a surprise that people who choose not to wait on Government to save them are getting much accomplished and doing amazing things.

  • Chuck Shotton

    What a facile set of generalizations,  . Political labels do not equate to an individual's desire to help others, or their ability to help themselves. For you to imply that demonstrates a particularly cynical and naive view of the people you share this country with. Given the slant of your writing, I assume you are a self-righteous "liberal" who is busy helping others. Are you checking their voter ID cards to make sure they'll vote the right way before you help them? If your help comes with a sermon about why half of Americans are "deluded", I'll pass.

  • electrasteph

     99% of US residents don't believe government is supposed to save them. Conservatives are just deluded enough that they think they can do all of it on their own (and they ignore the places where they got help from others along the way) and Liberals think they not only have to do what they can for themselves but that they should help out others, too.

  • Tperry

    Park Slope Parents in Brooklyn has done an incredible job mobilizing people to help the community. People are looking to do something, but just don't know what they can do, so it s pretty amazing to hear these stories of individuals and small groups that are taking the initiative.