Lessons From the Rockaways

Just two days after Superstorm Sandy hit, I joined a group of Pratt Graduate Planning students who were heading to the Rockaways to lend assistance. Residents were still in shock and just beginning to grapple with immense scale of damage. As we helped residents fill a hole in the side of their house that had exposed a water and gas main, it became clear that this would be a long and complex effort.

Now that more than a month has passed since the storm, it is worth recounting some of the successes and failures in the Rockaways during those first few days as guideposts to future storm response.

What we saw was the value of personal connections, and both the strengths and limitations of electronic social media as tools for organizing and initiating responses. What prompted me to get involved was that RPA had been working with a local environmental organization, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, to improve and advocate for the Jamaica Bay Greenway. The greenway is a 19-mile loop route that encompasses the bay and serves as the primary bicycle and pedestrian connection between many communities and more than 10,000 acres of city, state and federal parkland.

When the storm hit, all thoughts of greenways were swept aside. What remained were the partnerships and friendships we had cultivated, and the need for immediate support and long-term planning.

After my initial post-Sandy visit to the Rockaways, I heard from Jeanne DuPont, executive director of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. She let us know that help was needed. After soliciting donations via Facebook and email, we amassed piles of clothes, food, water and hygiene supplies. On Saturday morning, four days after the storm, several Pratt students and I filled four cars and a pickup truck and headed out to the firehouse on Beach 59th Street in the Rockaways. Our plan was to help Jeanne distribute supplies to the local community.

When we arrived, we realized the daunting task at hand. Email and social media fueled an awe-inspiring response in terms of supplies and volunteers from the greater New York region. But there was no preparation time and few distribution systems in place. On the spot, we worked with a few community members, organizers from Occupy Sandy, and Jeanne to quickly build an organizational infrastructure to manage the immense flow of donations and volunteers to the Rockaways.

From afar the situation appeared chaotic. A line of frustrated residents waiting to receive supplies encircled the block. MTA buses, semi-trucks, cars and SUVs came to drop off donations. Some volunteers frantically worked to unload and sort donations. Others compiled care packages to be canvassed to the surrounding neighborhood. Both volunteers and drivers became frustrated with the lack of coordination between distribution centers.

Despite the difficulties, the value of community fabric was readily apparent. The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance is one of many physical and psychological anchor groups in the Far Rockaway community, and because they were already part of the neighborhood fabric, they become the first line of relief until the larger government-supported effort took hold.

Another lesson that emerged: Since community groups are among the natural first responders to disasters, they should receive training in coping with immediate relief needs.

As for our efforts, by the end of that Saturday we had served the immediate needs of several hundreds of residents. I have returned several times since then to help with clean-up efforts. It is clear that these anchor groups are eager to return to their regular missions and begin thinking about next steps. RPA, meanwhile, is focusing on how Jamaica Bay can be protected and improved. As we do, we will proceed with strengthened ties to our Rockaway community partners.