Perspectives from the Field: Community Resilience in Post-Sandy Red Hook, Brooklyn

By Sonia K. González-Gladstein

Before Hurricane Sandy landed in NY, most people associated Red Hook (RH), Brooklyn with the IKEA, Fairway, or restaurants and other businesses on Van Brunt Street. Since 2005, I have come to know the young people and their families in RH through various paid and volunteer efforts. For several years I was a little league coach and taught tae kwon do in the neighborhood. I’ve been to dance-offs, cook-offs, and cook-outs, and when I walk through the neighborhood, I occasionally get a “Yo, Sonia!” shout-out from a window above. In short, I have a lot of love for RH. I also have about 15 years of on-the-ground public health experience, with a professional network that came in handy in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit.

Post-Sandy clean up was some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done, but I have never been more proud to be part of this community. From the map (right), you can see that RH is surrounded by water on three sides and is separated from Brooklyn by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). In addition to the business community, RH is also home to about 12,000 people, including the Red Hook New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Houses, which are New York State’s second largest public housing complex. In fact, 75% of RH residents live in public (NYCHA) housing. While official records show over 6,200 residents of the RH Houses, the majority of households have one or more people living there who are not listed on the lease. The projected population of the houses is closer to 10,000 people.  NYCHA’s January 2011 reports indicate that over 50% of residents are living below the poverty level (32% of households make less than $10,000 per year and 60% make less than $20,000 per year), and the racial ethnic make-up of the houses is primarily of people of color. RH is young: over one-third of RH NYCHA’s 10,000 residents are under 19 years old. There is low academic achievement in RH: roughly 45% of RH adults have earned a high school diploma.

Limited transportation has ramifications for education, employment, and accessing healthcare and other social services. In 2009, the New York City Department of Education closed RH’s only K–12 school because so many students were failing. This leaves high school students to face poor transportation systems to get to school on a daily basis. There is only one bus to take residents in and out of the neighborhood, and, depending on where you live, the closest train is 20 minutes to an hour away on foot. Overall, 60% of RH NYCHA residents over 18 years old are unemployed. Among 18-24 year olds, the unemployment figure is 75%. For many who do have work, they are under-employed and wanting to work more hours. RH has a single clinic. Because RH is a closed community, people who want to maintain a sense of privacy for their healthcare typically travel outside the neighborhood.

Following Hurricane Sandy, a board member from a local non-profit, Red Hook Initiative (RHI), helped me construct the following timeline which was intended to present an overview of the events that quickly unfolded in RH in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy. It was mainly constructed from texts, emails, and twitter feeds sent during that period. This is important to understand that, because there were many players on the ground, the fast paced situation was quickly changing; I want to highlight that this timeline is from our perspective. It is important to note the first two bullets. For several days before the storm actually hit, NYCHA residents throughout the city were already without access to modern day conveniences. This was a safety precaution, but what it meant was that for those living on the 14th floor, elderly or not, they had to walk up and down the stairs to access the most basic of needs, from bottled water to food.

Sandy Timeline for Red Hook, Brooklyn

10/27/ 2012–NYCHA begins shutting down elevators, boilers & electrical systems (NYTimes).

10/29–Hurricane Sandy Hits NYC.

10/30–RHI opens as a warming & charging center, serves breakfast, and by end of day, was a food pantry. Volunteers began to reach out.

10/31–Restaurants do a cook-out on Van Brunt Street where majority of businesses are located. Occupy groups begins to coordinate clean up.

11/1–National Guard on the ground in Red Hook to address sanitation and other issues.

11/4–RHI conducts a space heater distribution in NYCHA parking lot with NYCHA police support.

11/6–President Obama Re-elected.

11/7–Snow Day–still no heat, lights or running water in RH.

11/8–Portable lights in streets, portable toilets arrive, and running water returns allowing toilets to be flushed.

11/12–Power back on for most RH Houses (Councilman Brad Lander’s Twitter @bradlander).

11/5, 11/11, 11/14–Community meetings held in a school and restaurant not affected by Sandy.

11/15–Heat begins to be restored for RH Houses (Day 17) (Councilman Brad Lander’s Twitter @bradlander).                       

Kamau Ware created a photo essay documenting hurricane relief efforts at RHI and throughout the neighborhood.  Images can be seen at: http://rhicenter.org/tag/hurricane-relief/.

Also during this time, basements were being emptied, a food delivery system was being established to get food to the elderly and the homebound, and an ambulatory clinic was being established at RHI to provide maintenance care to residents who stayed behind. Later, the clinic moved to other sites within RH. Tweets and Facebook posts were being sent throughout the days and weeks after the storm and volunteers were fulfilling requests in a way that still warms my heart. Community assessments were being conducted and that information was quickly being translated into action by establishing different heating or charging centers, soup kitchens, clothes and supply pick-up stations at existing community spaces throughout the neighborhood (e.g., churches, a NYCHA building, other community based organizations and spaces).

On November 6, 2012, President Obama was re-elected and on Nov 7th Councilman Brad Lander(@bradlander) tweeted: “I am so deeply happy & grateful for the re-election of Barack Obama. Now, can we get the power and heat back on in RH?” This certainly reflects how I was feeling and where the focus was for much of RH. People went without heat, light, and electricity for too long. We were able to reconstruct when some of the utilities came back on (from the tweets, texts, emails and Facebook pictures and timelines that were reviewed), but it is unclear when all utilities were fully restored. In many cases, the electricity would come back on in a building but would be out for the “B-Line” apartments (1B, 2B, 3B, etc.) and the electricity would have to be shut off again to make some repairs. There are too many events to capture in this timeline, but I hope it gives some sense of the events that unraveled in the weeks after Sandy landed. The long-term road to recovery continues today.

I’ve already presented some of the individual level factors that make RH a vulnerable community. It is young and poor. Low-educational attainment is pervasive and transportation is a challenge. Sandy revealed another vulnerability. The geographical location of RH left it vulnerable to this storm and the way things were handled in RH revealed both strengths and challenges that we can build on to improve preparedness systems for the next time a storm hits. Climate change is very real, and if Sandy wasn’t a call for improved preparedness systems, what is?

The case study of RH reveals there is much room for improvement in our preparedness systems and responses. Sanitation was a major public health concern. Bags of garbage piled up higher and higher. When the water stopped running in the city blocks where the NYCHA buildings stand, it gave way to a vector for disease that I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime in modern day NYC: human waste. I have never been so grateful as the day it was confirmed that running water was functioning and toilets could be flushed in all of the NYCHA houses. Public safety was another important consideration. Although crime basically halted (there were no deaths and a single rape documented was committed by someone from outside the community), when the lights went out, it was frightening. I’m not sure at what point I became such a city girl that no lights became scary, but I was acutely aware of it during the time I spent in the neighborhood before the transformers arrived.

So how was RH able to get through this difficult time? RH is a tight-knit community with high social capital which increases resilience in times of disasters. The residents and the broader community were responsive to the needs of RH. The normal barriers that public transportation presents for day-to-day activities were actually adaptive in the time of crisis. RH was accessible to volunteers by cycling, walking and the B61 in ways that other neighborhoods and areas hit by Sandy were not, such as Far Rockaway and Staten Island.

Social media also played an important role. For example, RHI  coordinated volunteers and resources via their Facebook page through the storm aftermath. Facebook also functioned as a forum for community support and connections. A call for volunteers poster with an image of RH under water was posted only a few days after the storm on RHI’s Facebook page and quickly gained 185 likes and was shared 574 times. Twitter was another important tool that allowed us as a community in need to communicate with the outside world as to what was needed. As of April 25th, there were 3,758 followers of RHI; pre-Sandy there were 300.  I believe this to be an opportunity to encourage thought about how to use technology for future preparedness efforts.

As the timeline above suggests, the following groups all contributed to the high social capital that helped RH cope during this time of crisis.

1)    Neighbors: When food was delivered to an elderly or other homebound person, the list of people in need expanded because people would ask, “Would you mind checking on my friend in 1D?” I also heard of elderly neighbors being taken into homes of friends who were younger at least until the electricity was restored.

2)    Community Based Organizations, Schools & Churches: This is a neighborhood where the community players had a long history of working together.

3)    NYPD: Despite tensions just prior to the storm around stop and frisk practices in the neighborhood, NYPD was an important community partner during the storm. They, along with the large volunteer presence, provided a sense of public safety.

4)    Occupy and Other Volunteers: Occupy CUNY, Sandy, and RH had a presence from early on and played a role in helping to manage the distribution of emergency supplies, including bottled water, flashlights, candles, blankets and other sources of heat that didn’t require electricity.

5)    City elected officials: I worked side-by-side with staffers from the offices of Christine Quinn, Brad Lander, Sara Gonzales, the Mayor’s office, and gave Bill DiBlasio a walking tour of the neighborhood. These city elected officials are a few among the many officials who were in RH during this time of need.

My time in Red Hook reveals more questions than answers: How do we improve our systems to work from a bottom-up approach that listens and responds to what the community is capable and willing to do when it comes to extreme weather incidents? How can we draw from other natural disasters at home and abroad to develop systems that generate preparation and change to draw from strength from within our communities? How can we strengthen our communities to be better prepared to face the next extreme weather event? Finally, how can we support our communities between weather-related crises?

The ongoing challenges that were facing Red Hook before Hurricane Sandy landed continue to persist in this neighborhood. Much of the long-term Hurricane Sandy recovery work will resemble the kind of anti-poverty work that many of the non-profit organizations were combatting prior to Sandy. One of the things that Sandy revealed is that these organizations may offer a source of resilience and social cohesion that is critical during times of crisis. Aside from the basic needs and mental health services that existing and trusted non-profits offered in the weeks following Sandy they also offered a sense of normalcy through programming, which was a source of healing for many residents–something that is critical after a jarring experience such as Sandy. It is my sense that a strong non-profit presence by organizations that are invested in the long-term development of communities offer a protective factor for vulnerable populations during many crises. I hope that the generosity that Brooklynites and non-New Yorkers alike lent during Sandy can find a way to continue to support these community-based organizations as they continue to combat poverty.

Acknowledgements: This piece is written with deep gratitude and appreciation to the Red Hook Initiative and broader Red Hook community. I am in your debt for lessons about the human spirit in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Special thanks to Kamau Ware for the photo essay documenting the hurricane relief efforts at RHI: http://rhicenter.org/tag/hurricane-relief/.