Monday, November 5, 2012

Liveblogging Hurricane Sandy, Part 5

The following piece was written by my friend and mentor Bill Koehnlein, who lives with his partner, Claire, in Manhattan's East Village. In his article, he shares his experience of Hurricane Sandy as a catalyst for authentic community-building as well as a reminder of the inadequacies of our current social order:

The juice returned late yesterday afternoon; for four days we were compelled to live as our primitive ancestors did, illuminating the apartment with candles and flashlights, keeping the cell phones powered down most of the time in order to conserve battery life, enduring a totally dysfunctional landline, relying on a battery-powered radio for news (if anyone can call the blathering of WCBS and WINS "news") and good jazz (WKCR broadcast its Clifford Brown birthday tribute, which was a nice diversion), taking quick showers that became quicker and quicker as the water became colder and colder, and cooking by candlelight (one good advantage to being vegans is that there was very little perishable food to go bad--I estimate that we lost about $30 worth of stuff--and we were able to feast nicely on grains, root vegetables, winter squash and whatever was on hand and in good supply, including a couple of nice bottles of wine). Neither the New York Times nor the Financial Times--I subscribe to both--made it to our door. Such is the primal way of living, how our ancient forebears went about their daily lives, and this modern man, reliant on technology--and, yes, dependent on it--endured life without the Internet quite well.

So, we managed and we are no worse for wear, and I'm really appreciative to everyone from all over the place who called, texted or sent emails to check in to see if we were OK.

Our immediate neighborhood was not that hard hit. Only one tree on our block was damaged (a medium-sized branch fell off); no flooding in our building or other damage; no neighbors injured; and no one displaced. Damage seems to have been minimal. One tree in the little park near Cooper Union was completely uprooted, and one store on Fourth Avenue had its gate blown off, but other than that nothing horrible. The three nearby parks--Tompkins Square, Union Square and Washington
Square--seem to have been hard hit, with a lot of tree damage. Amazingly, Madison Square Park, at 23 Street, seems to have sustained no damage at all--a scaled-down version of the Union Square Greenmarket is being temporarily moved to Madison Square, for those who want to do some shopping (though I wonder how some of the farmers made out; fortunately, the bulk of the Fall crops have probably been harvested, though late season vegetables and cover crops might be damaged or even destroyed).

I was worried about the bird tree, on the next block over, where hundreds of little sparrows roost at night. Fortunately, one of its main branches was beneath a construction scaffold and the birds took refuge there for the night, and the next day their cacophony of chirps and lively conversation was back, full steam. And in the parks on the day after, the wildlife emerged, and seemed to be unscathed.

Our neighborhood took on a festive spirit, with people actually talking to one another, being friendly, checking on elderly, handicapped or homebound neighbors, and helping out where help was needed, It was all very anarchistic, the way people naturally respond when an emergency happens, a spontaneous movement toward self-organization without the licensing, sanctioning and official approving by meddlesome politicians and bureaucrats. In other neighborhoods as well (and I was outside, walking around, quite a bit over the last several days) people rallied and showed solidarity with one another: larger apartment buildings opened up their community rooms or other facilities for anyone to use, and were largely staffed by residents who organized tasks and themselves; impromptu block committees formed to clean up debris and make some kind of order along the sidewalks; and, in general, a spirit and feeling of neighborliness and goodwill prevailed.

Still, despite the festive atmosphere in my neighborhood, and other neighborhoods as well, we can't forget that ninety-two people were killed in this storm, and forty-one of those deaths were right here in New York City. "Natural" disasters are never one-hundred percent natural, and there are political and economic factors that are at once causative and also contribute to how the "natural" component plays out, and in what directions the aftermath goes. We saw this nowhere as clearly and conspicuously as we did during and following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where the mangroves and barrier reefs were systemically destroyed--at the behest of business interests--to make commerce easier, which then exacerbated the effects of the storm; the failure of the government to build good levees and maintain them properly; the failure to provide timely and decent emergency care, shelter, food and water to the people most affected, and then the subsequent forced removal from their homes into trailer parks and substandard housing hundreds of miles from New Orleans (many have, to this day, been unable to return to their homes); later, the beginnings of gentrification of neighborhoods from which poor and mostly black people (did I mention the interplay of racism and natural disasters?) had been removed; the criminal and seemingly deliberate ineptitude and mismanagement of the situation by FEMA. Certainly the long-term consequences of Hurricane Sandy in New York will not compare to the lasting effects of Katrina in New Orleans, especially the social effects, but there will be effects here nonetheless. And where has the worst destruction been? In Breezy Point, Queens--a working-class area, where a hundred homes burned down on the night the hurricane hit. In Coney Island and Red Hook, both in Brooklyn, and both working-class communities, which have been devastated and where aid and assistance have been slow to arrive. On coastal Staten Island, Zone A areas, populated mostly by working-class people; the more affluent have the means and the luxury of living in hilly, more scenic areas in the island's center.

In these places, poor people and people of moderate income are bearing the brunt of the "natural" calamity. Yes, there were mandatory evacuation orders issued; some people refused to evacuate (often for very good reasons), some tried to evacuate but were unable to do so, others evacuated and will come home, now, to debris and wreckage, and while there will be some relief and government money available to them their lives will be changed forever. As my friend and comrade Kazembe Balagun put it clearly and succinctly, "thousands in the tri-state area have lost their homes or are without food, power and electricity. Hurricane Sandy was both a natural disaster but also a convergence of class inequality, climate change and the consequences of austerity measures against public infrastructure."

In a cataclysm the rich always have the option of moving to higher ground.


One of the more appalling choices was the decision by NYC Inc. CEO Michael Bloomberg to go ahead with the New York City Marathon. Interesting that the Halloween Parade Wednesday night had been cancelled. The city could not afford to take any resources away from the emergency relief efforts, it was said. Yet, the race was to be a go--complete with massive power generators set up in Central Park, police to direct traffic, city workers to tend to logistical details of the event. But let's keep a bit of perspective. The New York City Marathon is actually the ING New York City Marathon, a major corporate event--and a major corporate entity. In contrast, the Halloween Parade is a minor corporate event; the Marathon's "partners" and sponsors look like some choice listings taken from Forbes magazine. The Marathon was to begin in Staten Island, right down the block from where people were living without power and heat, with little food, with potentially dirty water, in some cases, without homes. Half the deaths that happened in New York City happened on Staten Island. But the race was to be run, for nothing more than corporate aggrandizement and because Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg, President and CEO of New York Road Runners and corporate shill par excellence, wanted it to be run. In the end, public outcry and indignation--and many of the runners themselves demanded cancellation--was so loud and vehement that the Marathon was cancelled.

For once, the billionaire did not get his way.

Hurricane Sandy, its effects and its response, was a study in contrasts. Earlier today, officialdom, cheer-led by Andrew Cuomo, held a press conference that was utterly and totally disgusting. A lot [of] politicians, bureaucrats, pimps and whores slapping each other on the back and staging a pompous self-congratulatory celebration for a job well-done. The assembled media people--the faux journalists, hacks and political parrots who report what's proper to report, who write what they're told to write, the PR team for capitalism and its corporations--all rousingly cheered each and every creep who got up to speak. There was barely a word for or about the people who *really* did a job well-done: the Con Edison workers who put in sleepless days and nights in generating stations or tunnels under the street; the traffic agents standing in the middle of intersections all day and all night, enabling pedestrians to cross safely and easily; the bus drivers who chauffeured passengers around the city; building maintenance workers, cleaning out the mess; ambulance drivers and EMT personnel; the guys from Puebla delivering pizzas; the transit workers keeping an eye on the subways and restoring service when service was able to be restored; the workers in bodegas and small stores, staying all night, keeping people supplied with some basic necessities; the social workers tending to people forced into shelters; the nurses, orderlies and cleaning people who staffed the hospitals (and were instrumental in evacuating patients from NYU and Bellevue Hospitals after the failure of their backup generators). These were the people who mattered, the ones to be congratulated, not the politicians with ambitious personal goals underlying everything they do. During the pomp-and-ceremony of their news conference one of them (I can't remember who it was) proudly noted that he had spent an hour at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, shaking hands with commuters who had waited and waited waited for the Manhattan shuttle bus to bring them across the bridge, and to their jobs downtown and in midtown. Gee. A whole hour doing relief work, shaking hands! What a great statesman he is! What a mensch! I wonder if all the shaking made his hands as dirty as the sanitation worker's, the person who will haul away the garbage, or the laborer's, who will be the one to shovel the muck created by Hurricane Sandy into a dumpster parked at the curb.

There will be lasting effects of Hurricane Sandy; that's undeniable. The coastal ecology will probably be altered, and with climate change the effect there will be heightened and accentuated.


Economically, it's going to be quite expensive to repair the damage and compensate those who lost so much; we'll see what social priorities wind up on top (will the police or military budgets be reduced? I doubt it). Some affected people are resilient and will bounce back quickly; others will be hurt, traumatized or economically devastated for a long time. And as time goes by and this event recedes into history, I suspect that many people will remember the spirit of neighborliness and solidarity--the natural state of people when unfettered by corrupted social values--displayed toward each other by each other. As Kazembe said, the hurricane's aftermath "was also an example of working-class solidarity. From places like Penn South Housing Cooperative that opened its community rooms up to strangers, to groups like the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy that set up relief stations on the Lower East Side, Red Hook and Far Rockaway, this storm has proven that while we may have lost electricity, the people have the power!"

Right on Kazembe!

And I hope all of you who endured this storm fared as well as Claire and I did.

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